Mandatory consent education legislated. Now what?

Mandatory consent education is legislated. Now what?


A year after Chanel Contos launched her consent education petition that led to the implementation of mandatory consent education across the country, discussions are now turning to what that implementation will look like. 

Gamilaroi woman and education academic Dr. Amy Thunig supports pre-service teachers becoming teachers — and she is excited about the new mandatory consent education. 

On Sunday night, she joined victim-survivor and campaigner Saxon Mullins and activist Bri Lee at the Opera House for the All About Women festival, as they discussed the future of consent laws in Australia with writer Lucia Osborne-Crowley. 

Dr Thunig believes that conversations around consent should begin and extend far beyond sexual contact. 

“We’re talking about body autonomy, rights and responsibilities,” she began.

“These are core to a healthy society, and societies teach and measure that which they value.”

“So the introduction of formal mandated consent education from Kindy to Year 10, although what that exactly looks like is yet to be seen – the fact that it’s being introduced is part of the lesson itself, it tells our young people their responsibilities and rights to respect the way they engage with their peers.”

Dr Thunig, who was the winner of our Emerging Female Leader in the Government or Public Sector in 2019, believes that the way we engage with each other physically is a spectrum.

“When we engage with people, we don’t have a right to know their story,” she said.

“We don’t know if different kinds of physical touch is difficult for them. Learning that we need to pause, from an early age, asking ‘Are you okay with physical touch?’ These kinds of questions and the practise, are wonderful tools across the spectrum to engage with one another as a society.”

Host Osborne-Crowley agreed.

“I hate hugging people. I find it very uncomfortable. I hate touching people.” 

Lee seconded Dr Thunig’s views, saying that from Kindergarden, bodily autonomy and respect for self and for others should be taught.

“Things as simple as ‘from my head to my toes, I say what goes’, helps, ” she said.

Lee made a link between early consent education and the rights of victims who attempt to seek justice through legal means.

“There are so many similarities and differences. A huge part of the problem is that it takes a least two decades to come forward. Part of the problem is that it’s not part of the language that we learn as we grow up, what our boundaries are.” 

Lee said she gets asked to speak to high school students “…when it’s too late.”

“I get air drop in, at Years 10-12, and by then, 50 percent of the students are already sexually active and a third of them have had unwanted sexual experiences.”

Lee said that despite being a “relatively polarising person”, she continues to speak and do her advocacy in high schools because “every young person you reach is better.”

“Schools know that they can’t choose what I say. I’ll deliver evidence -based best practice, using the right words for the right body parts, I’ll use LGBTQI content.”

“Hopefully with these new changes [to the law], [the schools’] appetite for me is irrelevant.” 

Lee referenced her friend Katrina Marsen, the lead for primary prevention projects at Rape and Sexual Assault Research and Advocacy, who believes that getting consent education in the curriculum is one thing, but where every other country has faulted or done well is with implementation.

“It’s one thing to say, we’re going to do this, great, but looking at what that looks like specifically — it’s complex, but it’s a great first step.”

“There are issues around generational education,” Dr Thunig added. “One of the things we see within schools where they make this argument that sex education should come from parents, but we have generations who don’t know about it themselves, we can’t rely on it being taught at home.”

“I’ve been surprised how many people my age say to me quietly, ‘doesn’t getting consent kill the mood?’” 

“These are people who are scared because they don’t know what it looks like. What’s the script.” 

“Implantation will be messy, because the teachers and many of the family are not going to be able to know immediately what that looks like.”

Saxson Mullins, who told her story of sexual assault to Louise Mulligans ABC Four Corners episode in May 2018, has worked in the last few years to get NSW to have a similar legal system to Tasmania when it comes to criminal sexual assault laws.

Her advocacy has been successful: now, in NSW, if you want to rely on the mistake of fact defence— to say that you were unaware that someone wasn’t contenting, you have to show that you took steps to ascertain whether they were consenting, you can’t have absolutely no evidence and just say “Well I just assume they were” — which previously in NSW was the case. 

“I think it’s such an important step that NSW has taken,” Mullins said.

“Moving towards that space of checking in with your partner, the idea of affirmative consent, having those awkward conversations,” she said. “But when you look at whole idea of sexual consent and violence, how many people actually go to the police, feel comfortable to go to the police, how many go to trial?”

“One of the main things that is so important about this legal change, it’s sort of, having it in law, written down, trickles down into the rest of society — it works. People talk about it.”

Mullins acknowledges she had the “perfect victim status” and that we need to challenge this narrative: “We need to tackle that, tackle that with inter-sectionalism: race, sexuality.” 

“When we’re talking about the violence of the system, that it being reduced to a line, and dismissed, they weren’t the people with the power,” Dr Thunig said, referring to the victims.

“There is racism and violence in the health system, to gender diverse people, and how they’re treated in the system. It’s colonial in action. It erases us.”

“So while it’s not fair that white able-bodied women get the microphone, it’s better than no women having it,” Dr Thunig continued.

“I was grateful that you shared your story,” she told Mullins.

“Go help out at a local women’s legal service,” Lee recommends for those who want to advocate in this area.

“Whether you want to volunteer for them, swallow the urge to strike out on your own, until you’ve been doing this for a few years. The people fighting for change are already doing it. And they will love to have you.”

Dr Thunig quoted Murri artist, activist and academic Lilla Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”


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