Sexual consent, what it is and how to teach it will be focus of new expert panel

By Edwina Seselja and Rebecca Levingston
Researchers will work to understand what consent is and how young people should be taught about sexual violence. (Supplied: The University of Queensland/Shelley Lloyd)

Determining how best to educate young people about sexual consent, and identifying which groups in society might be excluded from exercising it, are at the centre of Australia's first major interdisciplinary study into affirmative consent. 

University of Queensland (UQ) researcher and historian Professor Lisa Featherstone is part of the panel of 16 experts who will work to understand what consent is.

"It seems like one of those things that should actually be really easy to understand — what consent is — but actually, when you start to unpack it, it's actually far more complicated," Professor Featherstone said.

"The idea behind affirmative consent is for people who are engaging in sexual relationships, to clearly articulate 'yes' or 'no' and mostly that is around an affirmative yes."

Professor Featherstone says not everyone is in a position to be able to give an affirmative yes. (Supplied: The University of Queensland)

The team of UQ experts, which includes educators, historians, criminologists, social scientists, lawyers and social workers, is expected to commence research at the beginning of 2022.

The team hopes to use its findings to help inform government policy and initiatives including the federal government's planned advertising campaign on consent, which will be rolled out next year, as well as how consent is taught in schools.

'A problematic kind of consent'

Part of the study will look at whether affirmative consent is an option for everyone.

"We, in fact, argue that [affirmative consent] is quite a problematic kind of consent because there are many groups in the community who actually can't make an informed yes, an enthusiastic yes," Professor Featherstone said.

She said not everyone was in a position to be able to give an affirmative yes. 

Professor Featherstone said the study would also include examining the problem of reproductive coercion. 

Referencing data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, White Ribbon Australia said one in five women have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

"We're also keen to work with women in culturally and linguistically diverse groups …  we're trying to work with people who bring diverse stories to the table."

Access to sex education

Professor Featherstone said she was not convinced adequate sexual education was available to all young Australians. 

"I teach first and second year at the University of Queensland and I regularly teach students who have had no proper sex education," she said.

"At best, they might just have one lesson — some students in fact have had no sex education."

She said parents, schools and the community all had a part to play in educating young people on sexual consent. 

"Through our project, one of the outcomes, we hope, is to work with schools to produce some sex education that really covers what young people want to hear about sex [and consent].

"Not just what we think they might need to know."


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