Teaching primary school children about sexual boundaries should be introduced as soon as possible in Australian schools, a panel of health and education experts has said.

They called for an updated Australian curriculum, saying it was fundamental to prevent sexual violence later in life and the discussion had to continue beyond the classroom.

In a virtual panel organised by the Australian National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) an audience heard a more comprehensive level of sex education that began much earlier would improve understanding of consent, relationships, pornography and online intimacy.

“We want this conversation to be more than just about giving consent around sexual interactions, we want it to be about learning the skills of taking control of their bodies from a very young age,” said Janice Atkin from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA).

“The specific changes we’ve made around consent and respectful relationships include students leaning about the nature of consent, the strategies that they need around being able to give permission, gain permission, but also refuse permission.”

Hosted by ANROW’s Michele Robinson, the panel also included Professor Kath Albury, Anne-Marie Henley and Oliver Keane from SHINE SA, Professor Alan McKee, Professor Helen Cahill, and Our Watch’s Kim Henderson.

Speakers at the event on Monday said a renewed effort was needed to prevent sexual violence, an issue disproportionately effecting women.

While each panel member weighed into unique areas of sex education, all agreed a change to the curriculum is essential for wider cultural shifts and are collaborating with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) to bring about these changes under the current curriculum review.

In 2015, education ministers agreed the Australian curriculum should undergo a review every six years. The first of these reviews is currently open for public consultation until 8 July.

Ms Atkin added the curriculum should frame consent as a skill to be learned and practiced so students can feel comfortable setting boundaries yet she acknowledged the review lacks a focus on challenging gender stereotypes and social norms that contribute to gendered violence and inequalities.

Calls for change

Calls for curriculum amendments have been reignited in recent months with women like Chanel Contos and Brittany Higgins inspiring a nationwide women’s rights movement, prompting questions as to why these issues aren’t spoken about in the classroom.

Ms Contos’ viral petition to include consent in Australian schools’ sex education has amassed 42,319 signatures and 6,522 testimonies.

Teachers are getting massive pushback and finger pointing and blaming and shaming by the community when we should be actually thanking them and heralding them for being prepared to do this work

Professor at the University of Melbourne Helen Cahill said for sex education to be implemented effectively, teacher training and support will be fundamental in dealing with this kind of sensitive content.

“We absolutely need to respect the workforce and find out what teachers need to get into these sensitive topic areas where they are being asked to break some social taboos that most parents are too scared to break themselves [to] talk in careful, informed, supportive, and useful ways,” she said.

“There’s emotional labour and political labour involved in opening these conversations in schools… Teachers are getting massive pushback and finger pointing and blaming and shaming by the community when we should be actually thanking them and heralding them for being prepared to do this work on our behalf to advance our broader ethical and social justice and social safety goals.”

Ms Cahill said she hopes to see a curriculum with a foundation in social and emotional skills, which students can utilise to develop an understand of more complex relationships, wider violence prevention and gender equality.

Oliver Keane and Anne-Marie Henley from Sexual Health Information Networking & Education (SHINE) deliver sexual education training and support programs to teachers across South Australia, with courses for Aboriginal students, students with disabilities, secondary school students and primary school students.

“Consent is one very important part of a wider understanding of healthy and respectful relationships, communication, boundaries, power, gender norms,” Mr Keane said.

Ms Henley believes sex and relationship education must be succinct and relevant to meet students’ needs. She said collaboration and inclusion is crucial within Aboriginal communities.

“You also need to understand that one size doesn’t fit all when we talk about Aboriginal communities. What happens here, even in South Australia, from the suburbs to rural areas to remote areas is vastly different. So, this comes back to the educators knowing their students and families,” said Ms Henley.

Still, Ms Henley hopes students will feel comfortable initiating these conversations beyond the limitations of the curriculum.

“This is about having those conversations with the students; kids often feel more comfortable with their Aboriginal workers… I’m not saying [teachers] have to, they’re not responsible for teaching it but it’s just about having the knowledge,” Ms Henley said.

Social stigma

The social stigmatisation of sex, sexuality, and pornography has meant it is difficult for young people to access safe information from trusted adults.

Professor at Swinburne University of Technology Kath Albury said this current generational divide stems from inadequate digital literacy skills possessed by adults, since these conversations around sex often circulate in the online space.

“Adults are often very uncomfortable with their knowledge of the spaces that young people are learning in online… For that reason, they feel like talking about sexuality in digital media is a no go zone. Teachers don’t have any pre-service training in relation to mediated aspects of sexuality,” Ms Albury said.

The curriculum is a central part of this, and we see this review as an opportunity to embed some key elements that can advance the prevention of violence against women

Kim Henderson from Our Watch agreed parents, teachers, and carers play a vital role in challenging the dominant narrative around sexual safety.

“It’s important for adults to role-model positive behaviours. To see adults challenging gender stereotypes and rejecting victim blaming messages about sexual relationships for example, and also responding sensitively and appropriately to disclosures of sexual violence,” Ms Henderson said.

“The curriculum is a central part of this, and we see this review as an opportunity to embed some key elements that can advance the prevention of violence against women.”

ACARA hopes that the reviewed curriculum can be approved and implemented for the 2022 school year though state and federal jurisdictions will have the final say.

In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. Another helpful resource maybe Sexual Assault Counselling Australia: 1800 211 028. In an emergency, call 000.

Main image by hollydornack/Pixabay