Content warning: sexual assault
What comes to mind when you hear the words Sex Ed? Awkwardly listening to your teacher talk about menstruation? Trying to remember the names of all the STI’s (but not really taught the importance of regular sexual health check-ups)? Listening to your teacher tell a room full of teenagers that the best form of contraception is abstinence? These are all commonly covered topics. But there’s one word that amazingly doesn’t come up very often in Sex Ed class, despite its incredible significance and relevance – consent.
The Young Women’s Advisory Group (YWAG) recently conducted a national survey of women aged 16-21 who had attended school in Australia asking about their sexuality and respectful relationships education. This survey is one of the first in Australia to ask young women what their experiences of sexuality education were like, and to find out whether it met their needs to develop healthy and respectful relationships. With less than 2% of respondents rating their experience of sex education in school as excellent and nearly 50% rating their experience as poor, it is clear that sex education in Australia is in dire need of reform.
Here are some of the key findings from the survey:
Only educating kids about the biological aspects of sex does not prepare them with how to deal with real life situations. YWAG suggests that we teach young people to think about sex and pleasure going hand in hand. By doing this, girls can learn to speak up when things aren’t feeling good or comfortable. Girls should know that sex is meant to be fun and pleasurable for everyone involved! This is an incredibly important message that can empower girls to make sure their sexual experiences are about respect and staying safe.
Educating everyone about respectful sex and relationships early is the best defence against any unwanted sexual experiences later on. Workplaces, university, college campuses, and training institutions can be tough places to navigate if girls don’t have the right idea about consent and clearly understand sexual assault. Last year the National Union of Students (NUS) revealed some worrying figures about the level of sexual assault occurring at Australian Universities after conducting a student survey. They reported that 73% of respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment or unwelcome sexual behaviour, and 27% had experienced some form of sexual assault while enrolled at their current institution.
These figures are alarming but what is almost more worrying is how often they go unreported. The survey showed that 94% of students did not report the incident to the university and 95% did not report it to the police. When asked why, the most common reasons were they “did not think it was serious enough to report”, “thought they could deal with it themselves”, “didn’t think that what happened was a crime”, and “feelings of embarrassment or shame”.
No person who is assaulted, harassed, stalked or bullied should blame themselves for what happened. Nor should others. It is so incredibly important that all school students are informed of their rights and that universities, friends, parents and society in general obtains a better understanding of respectful relationships, in order to both increase the rate of reporting sexual assault and decrease its level of occurrence.
This is not to say that it is solely the role of the woman to recognise what constitutes sexual assault or harassment. Better Sex Education is required for both males and females. How are young people supposed to know how to deal with and recognise assault if they are never taught how?
This is not just an issue of young people experiencing assault – it is a continuous problem that so many women are forced to deal with, throughout their lives. One in five women have experienced sexual violence at some stage in their lives and one in three have experienced physical violence. This is a massive cultural crisis that is an issue for everyone.
Better education about consent would lead to an overall change in the cultural attitude towards sexual assault. Society’s overall lack of understanding of consent is the reason why women are so often blamed for being victims of sexual assault, why they often don’t report an incident of sexual assault, and why sexual assault has among the highest rates of acquittal and lowest rates of proven guilt compared with other offences.
Young people deserve a better education, in order to achieve a safer future. One where every sexual experience comes with a positive “yes!” and where everyone has the right to say no at any time. And everyone knows it.
Maddy regularly writes for Rosie, and is passionate about music, history, art and gender equality.