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While conversations about consent might seem awkward, in this article Director of Student Wellbeing, Brett Borbely, offers parents a useful guide to ensuring that children of all ages understand boundaries and respect for others.

"Empowerment" is defined as ‘the process of becoming stronger, more confident, especially in controlling one’s life and claiming one’s right”

Earlier this year, our educational institutions were called upon to provide comprehensive consent education for all young people across Australia after a social media petition by Chanel Contos went viral for receiving so many personal accounts from young people having been sexually assaulted. Since then, much of the conversation has been around "what is consent?" and "what does it sound like?" While these questions must be answered and answered well, the part of Chanel’s request of schools that is often forgotten is the "comprehensive" nature.

While comprehensive consent education includes teaching young people about sexual consent, it goes well beyond that. For young people to actually adopt and feel comfortable advocating for themselves in the most intimate and vulnerable moments, they must first believe that they are worth advocating for and that their voice has value. In other words, young people must be empowered and have practised self-advocacy everyday before the moment where they really need it, in order for them to be confident and strong enough to give or withdraw sexual consent.

We must support young people and children to develop and advocate for their confidence, value, belonging, safety and wellbeing. When we have truly empowered young people to speak up, to set boundaries, to know their value and to seek joy, then we will have comprehensively provided consent education. To get to this goal post, it requires educators, parents and society to continually promote and role model healthy conversations around the physical, cognitive, emotional and social elements of relationships, consent, diversity and equality.

Upon reading these words, some people might have a few concerns about advocating for the comprehensiveness of this type of education. Some might fear that young people are at risk of losing their innocence; others might think that comprehensive sex education leads to sexually active and risk-taking young people; or there may even be fears that consent education can become victim blaming.

Myth #1: Young people are at risk of losing their innocence.

If comprehensive consent education is understood as the empowerment of young people, there will be no fear of children losing their innocence. Toddlers and primary school aged children can be taught to understand safe versus unsafe, to respect boundaries and ask for permission, to know the names of their body parts, and to identify how their bodies look and feel with each expression of a different emotion. They can also be spoken to about trusted adults and be taught that we say “Yes!” to keeping surprises until everyone finds out and “NO!” to secrets that make them uncomfortable. All of these conversations can take place without involving age-inappropriate language or sex-related topics. Empowerment never requires the loss of innocence, but it does fuel independence.

Myth #2: Comprehensive sex education leads to sexually active and risk-taking young people.

There have been many studies that have proven this to be untrue. The truth is that when young people receive comprehensive sex education, there are reduced rates of sexual activity, delayed timing of first sexual experiences, reduced rates of sexual risk-taking behaviours, reduced rates of STIs, reduced rates of adolescent pregnancy and abortions, and reduced rates of sexual partners. Instead of becoming more promiscuous and unsafe, young people who receive comprehensive sex education actually have greater empathy, self-efficacy, safety and confidence. And isn’t that what society should want to give all young people?

Myth #3: Consent education is victim blaming.

There is justifiably a concern that much of the societal conversation sits around how to teach young people ‘how not to get raped’, instead of teaching other young people ‘not to rape.’ There is absolute truth and wisdom in supporting a change to this narrative. With that said, consent education is not the teaching of ‘how not to get raped’. Rather, comprehensive consent education asks everyone to increase in empathy, to learn how to set and respect boundaries, to enjoy consensual intimacy and to develop emotional intelligence. The development of these skills and dispositions are not victim-blaming, rather they are inspirational and empowering. If everyone on the planet understood the level of fulfilment, connection, enjoyment and delight that comes from healthy relationships and consensual interactions, sexual assault rates would likely plummet, and young people would actively seek these types of interactions and relationships.

So, what are the day-to-day conversations and interactions that lead to the empowerment and comprehensive consent training of young people?

First and foremost, these conversations should start by being child-led. Children develop at different rates, and some overhear conversations at different times. Therefore, it is important to let children take the lead and show their parents what topics they are ready for. So, if a child asks a question, it is wonderful if the adult answers it, and answers it comprehensively and accurately. If a young person is considering a question, they are likely to seek out answers until they are satisfied with the response. Therefore, it is much better for the answer to come from a trusted adult than from Google.

Secondly, adults must role model the behaviours they want to see in their children. This requires grown ups to be body positive, practice positive self-talk, celebrate diversity and to use inclusive language. If the adults in a young person’s life do not regularly demonstrate self-care and inclusivity, that young person will not grow up knowing what empowerment sounds like, looks like or feels like.

If adults are still developing their own voice and efficacy and are concerned that they do not always role model healthy empowerment, they can have conversations with their children or teenagers about examples of consent or healthy versus unhealthy relationships in television shows. There are plenty of examples of unhealthy relationships in movies and examples of someone working diligently to disempower another person in the news. By contemplating these and other positive examples with young people, they will start to see and analyse their own real-life interactions and conversations. Then, once they can label an interaction as constructive or destructive, young people can begin to practice setting healthy boundaries and withdrawing consent.

It is imperative to allow children and young people the opportunity to practice withdrawing consent. If children are to grow up to adults who can say ‘no’ when they are not comfortable having sex, then they need occasions to exercise using their voice and saying ‘no’. A supportive reaction from the parent or adult to the ‘no’ is also just as important as the opportunity to say ‘no’. Children implicitly learn over time what will happen if they behave in various ways, so it is essential that they are asked whether or not they want to be hugged or to give a hug and not be forced into give one or shamed for saying ‘no’. As they build their independence, children may practice saying ‘no’ often; even if this is frustrating for a parent, adults must find ways to respect the body-autonomy of a child.

Lastly, one of the most empowering interactions an adult can have with a young person is one in which the adult is giving the child’s voice value. Ask lots of questions, listen to their answers and let them have a say in how rules and expectations are set. Seek consent from them before posting their photo online and discuss with them what their likes and dislikes are. Find out from them what makes them smile and tell them how important and valuable their voice is.

Honestly, some of these conversations can be awkward. As people start and begin to role model these conversations, it is likely that they will bumble their way through them. However, the more one practices difficult conversations, the better they get at handling them and the more they can support another person on the path to self-empowerment.

The empowerment of young people is the best gift society can give to itself and the world. Comprehensive consent education boils down to every day reminding children and young people that their voice matters and is valuable.

Brett Borbely
Director of Student Wellbeing