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Educating children about consent

  • 02 March 2021
As I write this, the sad story of Brittany Higgins, and her alleged rape by a co-worker in our Parliament House in 2019, dominates the news, pushing even COVID and our national stoush with Facebook from the front page. Her story raises serious issues, both around sexual violence against women and workplace culture. Despite our awareness of the issues, the frequency with which the treatment of women in our workplaces comes to light is worrying.

The confrontational culture of Parliament, where so often it is about ‘playing the person’ rather than debating policies, and where so many are separated from family for prolonged times, and under considerable pressure, is a particular concern in Canberra. It is fair to say that there are other issues which need to be addressed if lasting improvements are to be made not simply in Canberra but across society.

The link between excessive alcohol consumption and celebration is an important one, especially where consent is involved. The importance of adequate reporting processes in workplaces is also highlighted as evidenced in the failing of the system in Brittany’s case.

Another strand in the story emerged in Sydney after a petition started by former Kambala College student Chanel Contos disclosed hundreds of former Sydney schoolgirls’ allegations of rape or sexual assault at the hands of their male peers. Though much of the initial coverage centred on Sydney private schools, the fact that so many young women signed the petition is distressing. It would be irrational to think that there would not be similar cases in schools throughout Australia.

The whole area of consent, especially as a time in life when both boys and girls are first exploring their relationships and sexuality, with so many mixed signals from society as to what is appropriate, and where too often alcohol is involved, can have devastating impacts on girls, and on boys also. We need to encourage parents to have these conversations with their children, and earlier, around Years 8 and 9, rather than later. And I suspect we need to encourage boys to talk more with sisters, girlfriends, friends who are girls and good mates about consent.

In schools, we need to reflect on how we inform and educate around consent. The question needs to be put clearly to our young people as to whether sex can ever be consensual where heavy drinking or drug taking is involved, or for that matter, at a young