Headlines this week have bemoaned “shocking” new evidence from Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, showing more than 50 per cent of women in their 20s have experienced sexual violence in this country. Shocking as in unacceptable? Sure. Shocking as in surprising? Hardly.
Although there is a worsening in recent reports, the rate of sexual violence in Australia and the poor attitudes that drive it have remained consistent(ly depressing) in the data for decades. The ANROWS findings are more of what we already know. In the face of that reality, what is truly shocking is our failure to do something about it.
Sexual violence is not some unchangeable constant. There are ways to prevent and protect against it. As a community, however, we have done not nearly enough to drive it down. Having sat on our hands for so long, there seems a touch of hypocrisy to the fist-shaking outrage.
Sexual violence is ubiquitous, and it is destructive: to individuals, families, communities. ANROWS chief executive Padma Raman said this new research “emphasised the need to see sexual violence as a health risk”. Hear, hear – because if we recognise it as such, perhaps we will be guided by the truism that prevention is better than a cure.
That was certainly what I saw overseas on a research fellowship in 2019: communities around the world treating the prevention of sexual violence as a matter of public health policy, not simply as a matter for the reactive justice system. One way they do this is by deploying a tool that is a proven protective factor against sexual violence and negative sexual experiences: relationships and sexuality education.
Comprehensive RSE gives young people the information, knowledge and skills to safeguard their own, and each other’s, sexual wellbeing. Over the past two years, Australia has witnessed a sustained community interest in this power of sex-ed; it has been compelling to hear young people draw a connection between a deficiency in their education and their experiences of sexual violence. And while, as a long-time advocate for sex-ed, I genuinely feel hopeful about this trend, we should tread carefully. We must not, in our rush to do better, cause further harm.
Another headline that caught my attention this week was one about a Canberra school student who, as a survivor of sexual violence, found himself needing to take time out of a mandatory “consent class”. Eventually, he was reportedly given an ultimatum to return to class or his parents would be called. The irony of forcing someone to participate in a class about consent was apparently not self-evident.
Comprehensive RSE is a nuanced exercise and, for reasons such as this student’s experience, if we get it wrong, it may not be merely ineffective – it can be counterproductive and cause harm.