The head of Catholic Education Tasmania, Dr Gerard Gaskin, has suggested the Australian curriculum on consent is amoral and potentially harmful. This is his opinion. The evidence base, to the contrary, shows education protects young people: delaying first sexual experiences, helping prevent child sexual abuse and reducing the likelihood of negative sexual experiences.
Gaskin’s is one voice in a global surge of vocal opposition to sex education in the name of protecting kids, even though age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education (RSE) teaches consent in a non-sexual context for younger years, and the research is clear that kids are better protected when you increase their access to RSE, not limit it.
“Whatever happened to just letting kids be kids?” a politician in Northern Ireland asked earlier this year, concerned about augmented RSE in that country. In Kenya, the sex education content of the primary education curriculum was described as “permissive” and suggested it would contribute to teen pregnancies and exacerbate moral decline.
Even the Netherlands, which has an impressive history of comprehensive RSE (and, consequently, lower teen pregnancy rates, among other things), has recently seen a mis- and disinformation campaign designed to derail quality sex education. Although opposition to RSE is cyclical, Rutgers — the respected Netherlands Centre on Sexuality that has been conducting sexuality research and designing celebrated sex education programs for decades — was surprised by the intensity of this campaign.
“What happened was a sharp reminder not to take things for granted,” the organisation’s Nina Hoeve told the Global Partnership for Comprehensive Sexuality Education.
In the same interview, Rutgers’ Josien Jacobs outlined this recent use of disinformation, a hallmark tactic of sex-ed opponents:
An ultra-right political party used elements of our video of parents discussing sexuality and relationships with their children and deliberately combined elements, introduced to varying year groups, to misinform and cause panic in response … Everything was misleading and miscommunicated. They also intentionally promoted disinformation by saying that something noted as part of the curriculum for 12-year-olds was content taught to four-year-olds.
Many sex-ed advocates worry about giving oxygen to the mis/disinformation of opponents by repeating it, even to debunk it. This is understandable. However, if lies and misrepresentations influence the decisions of politicians, educators and parents — decisions that materially impact the well-being of entire generations — we need to call a spade a spade. The influence is real: access to quality sex education often shrinks when opposition is vociferous, even if that opposition is misconceived. We must not restrict access to education on unmeritorious grounds — and, to make an obvious point, if you must routinely resort to lies or misinformation to win your argument, your argument must be without merit.
Back to Gaskin, who claimed that the Australian curriculum positions consent as the “only standard we should use to judge whether a sexual act is right or wrong”. This is incorrect; the curriculum does not do that. It does, however, emphasise the importance of consent to sexual encounters, something Gaskin himself accepts when he says: “In Catholic morality, consent is necessary, but not sufficient to make the sexual act right or wrong.”
As Dr Jacqui Hendriks, Senior Lecturer of Sexology at Curtin University, told me: “Best practice is very clear that young people require accurate education. If a school has a particular religious ethos, it is completely appropriate for these additional values and messages to be given to students. However, religious doctrine should not be used as an excuse to gatekeep and withhold information that will keep young people safe and enable them to experience optimal sexual wellbeing.”
Hendriks recently led research (of which I was also involved in conducting) that found a significant majority of Australian parents want better sex education in schools, on a comprehensive range of topics related to relationships and sexuality.
“This included parents of children at Catholic schools, 97.1% of whom endorsed schools to teach ‘reasons to engage or not engage in sexual activity’,” Hendriks says. This suggests most parents of kids in the Australian Catholic education system would disagree with Gaskin that the “sexual and moral formation” of a child was the “exclusive right of parents”, and certainly suggests they do not share his views about the amoral nature of consent education.
Indeed, many may consider that consent education is wholly consistent with Catholic teachings about the dignity of the human person. Perhaps the Catholic Catechism 1738 expresses it best:
Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings … All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.
It is difficult to see where a curriculum that teaches the importance of consent — that is, a principle founded on the right to freedom, respect and dignity — diverges from that.