Best practice in consent education

Consent education among young people is an important strategy for the prevention and reduction of sexual violence. Consent education is one form of ‘respectful relationships’ or ‘healthy relationships’ education, and there is a wealth of research on effective practice in this field.

In this article, I cover three areas:

In a companion piece, I comment on the challenges of fostering affirmative consent and preventing sexual violence.

Effective practice in consent education

There is a broad consensus regarding the elements of good practice in violence prevention education (Carmody et al., 2009; Flood, Fergus, & Heenan, 2009). Five criteria represent the minimum standard for effective violence prevention: (1) A whole-of-school approach; (2) A program framework and logic; (3) Effective curriculum delivery; (4) Relevant, inclusive, and culturally sensitive practice; and (5) Impact evaluation (Flood et al., 2009). See this report for more detail.

These five key elements of best practice are summarised below. Programs which live up to only some of the criteria may be able to have significant positive impacts. But the most effective programs will be those that make strong claims against all five criteria.

 (1) A whole-of-school approach

Programs should be based on a whole-of-school approach, operating across:

  • Curriculum, teaching and learning;
  • School policy and practices;
  • School culture, ethos and environment;
  • The relationships between school, home and the community.

A whole-of-school approach involves;

  • Comprehensive curriculum integration;
  • Assessment and reporting;
    • Standards and accountability systems: Collection of data on students’ outcomes and competencies and on school climate.
  • Specialised training and resources for teaching and support staff;
  • Reinforcement of violence prevention programming through school policies, structures, and processes.

(2) A program framework and logic

Programs should:

  • Incorporate an appropriate theoretical framework for understanding violence, which:
    • Addresses the links between gender, power, and violence, examining violence-supportive constructions of gender and sexuality, and fostering gender-equitable and egalitarian relations.
  • Incorporate a theory of change – an account of the ways in which project content and processes will be used to achieve the project’s intended outcomes.

(3) Effective curriculum delivery

This has four dimensions: content, delivery (teaching methods), structure (duration and intensity, timing, and group composition), and staff (teachers and educators)

a) Curriculum content

Programs should:

  • Be informed by feminist scholarship on violence against girls and women;
  • Address various forms of violence;
  • Target the antecedents to or determinants of violent behaviour;
  • Address not only attitudes but also behaviours, interpersonal relations, and collective and institutional contexts.

b) Curriculum delivery (teaching methods)

Programs should:

  • Be interactive and participatory.
  • Involve the use of quality teaching materials.
  • Address cognitive, affective, and behavioural domains.
  • Be matched to stages of change.
  • Give specific attention to skills development.
  • Respond appropriately to participants’ disclosures of victimisation and perpetration.

c) Curriculum structure

Programs should:

  • Be of sufficient duration and intensity to produce change.
  • Be timed and crafted to suit children’s and young people’s developmental needs, including their developing identities and social and sexual relations.
  • Have clear rationales for their use of single-sex and/or mixed-sex groups, including an understanding of the merits and drawbacks of each.

d) Staff: teachers and educators

Programs should:

  • Be delivered by skilled teachers and/or educators;
    • Supported by resources, training, and ongoing support.
  • Have clear rationales for their use of teachers, community educators, and/or peer educators;
  • Have clear rationales for, or a critical understanding of, their use of female and/or male staff.

(4) Relevant, inclusive, and culturally sensitive practice

Programs should:

  • Be relevant, that is, informed in all cases by knowledge of their target group or population and their local contexts. 
  • Be inclusive and culturally sensitive, embodying these principles in all stages of program design, implementation and evaluation.
  • Involve consultation with representatives or leaders from the population group(s) participating in the program where appropriate.

(5) Impact evaluation

Programs should involve a comprehensive process of evaluation, which at minimum:

  • Reflects the program framework and logic;
  • Includes evaluation of impact or outcomes, through;
    • Pre- and post-intervention assessment.
    • Long-term follow-up.
  • Includes a process for dissemination of program findings in the violence prevention field.

And which ideally includes:

  • The use of standard measures or portions of them;
  • Longitudinal evaluation including lengthy follow-up at six-months or longer;
  • Measures of not only attitudes but also behaviours;
  • Examination of processes of change and their mediators;
  • Experimental or quasi-experimental design incorporating control or comparison schools, students, or groups.

Evidence of the effectiveness of sexual violence prevention education

There is strong evidence that education programs among children and young people can contribute to the prevention of sexual violence, dating violence, and other forms of interpersonal violence. If done well (and this is a significant ‘if’), such programs can produce declines in factors associated with violence such as attitudes and beliefs, and in some instances can produce declines in actual perpetration and victimisation.

There is now a very substantial body of scholarship regarding the impact of educational programs among children and young people regarding sexual violence, dating violence, and other forms of interpersonal violence. There are literally 100s of studies of the effectiveness of violence prevention education programs in schools and universities. Various reviews attest to the value of group education programs (Banyard & Recktenwald, 2017; Crooks, Jaffe, Dunlop, Kerry, & Exner-Cortens, 2019; De La Rue, Polanin, Espelage, & Pigott, 2017; K. E. Edwards & Banyard, 2018; S. R. Edwards & Hinsz, 2014; Ellsberg, Ullman, Blackwell, Hill, & Contreras, 2018; Fellmeth, Heffernan, Nurse, Habibula, & Sethi, 2013; Fryda & Hulme, 2015; Gavine, Donnelly, & Williams, 2016; Leen et al., 2013; Lundgren & Amin, 2015; Matjasko et al., 2012; Morrison, Hardison, Mathew, & O’Neil, 2004; Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, 2013; Stanley, Ellis, Farrelly, Hollinghurst, & Downe, 2015; Vladutiu, Martin, & Macy, 2011; Walsh, Zwi, Woolfenden, & Shlonsky, 2018; Whitaker et al., 2006; World Health Organization, 2015).

In more detail:

  • School and university students who have attended education programs focused on sexual assault prevention show less adherence to rape myths, express less rape-supportive attitudes, and/or report greater victim empathy than those in control groups (Brecklin & Forde, 2001; Morrison et al., 2004).
  • The evidence base for educational programs’ impact on actual perpetration and victimisation is weaker. For a start, most interventions have not been evaluated. When they are, many evaluations rely only on risk factors or proxy variables for violence such as attitudes rather than including measures of violent behaviours themselves, and some studies assessing victimisation show no effects (Rothman & Silverman, 2007).
  • Only a few school-based or university-based group interventions can show evidence of reductions in violence perpetration and/or victimisation.
  • Among schools-based efforts example, these include a ten-session curriculum called Safe Dates that showed reductions in sexual dating violence perpetration and victimisation including four years later, a school-wide prevention strategy called Shifting Boundaries, an 18-session intervention titled the Youth Relationships Project (DeGue et al., 2014; K. E. Edwards & Banyard, 2018; Ellsberg et al., 2018), and a six-week self-defence program among high school girls (Sinclair et al., 2013).
  • Among university efforts for example, these include a multi-session program among men in a university residence (Gidycz, Orchowski, & Berkowitz, 2011), a four-by-three-hour sexual assault resistance program among female students (Charlene Y. Senn et al., 2015; Charlene Y Senn et al., 2017), a mixed-sex, multi-session program among first-year students (Rothman & Silverman, 2007), and various other interventions (Ellsberg et al., 2015; Graham et al., 2019; Ricardo, Eads, & Barker, 2011).
  • Comprehensive sexuality education has been shown to lessen rates of later sexual assault victimisation, as noted below.
  • In addition, programs among young adults in non-university contexts have also shown positive impacts (Arango, Morton, Gennari, Kiplesund, & Ellsberg, 2014; Ellsberg et al., 2015).

Consent education and comprehensive sexuality education

Consent education, and sexual violence prevention and healthy relationships education more broadly, share a common cause with sexuality education. However;

  • The teaching of sexuality education is highly uneven in Australia, and particularly limited in religious (Christian and other) schools. There is little teacher training, professional development, and support.
  • Much sexuality education in schools is focused only on risk, teaching only about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease
  • There is little content in most sexuality education curricula that moves beyond the ‘birds and the bees’ to address lust, desire, etc.
  • Students report both positive and negative experiences of relationships and sexuality education. National data finds that many students report that sexuality education is not taught early enough, basic and limited in its content, does not explore emotional aspects of sex and sexuality, relationships, pleasure, or consent, neglects LGBTI needs, and too often relies on scare tactics and focuses on abstinence. At the same time, students also report positive experiences, of sexuality education that was informative and comprehensive, inclusive and open (Waling et al. 2020).

Sexuality education in Australia must be provided comprehensively across school systems. In addition;

  • In addressing consent, curricula must move beyond simplistic ‘no means no’ messages.
  • Sexuality education curricula needs new content on pornography and sexting. And content on topics including masturbation and sexual pleasure.
  • Sexuality education must address gender and power. Research finds that in sexuality education, programs with content on gender and power were more effective than programs without these. Programs with content on gender and power showed significant decreases in pregnancy or STIs, more so than program without such content. The programs that addressed gender or power were five times as likely to be effective as those that did not (Haberland, 2015).
  • Sexuality education must include sexual diversity, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and other non-heterosexual sexualities

Comprehensive sexuality education can make an important contribution to the prevention and reduction of sexual violence.

  • Comprehensive sexuality education can lessen the perpetration of sexual violence because it addresses many of the risk factors associated with perpetration and reaches young people at a developmentally appropriate age (Schneider & Hirsch, 2018).

There is evidence that comprehensive sexuality education is protective against sexual assault victimisation and perpetration.

  • Among undergraduate students in a US study, those students who had received school-based sex education promoting refusal skills before age 18 had lower levels of sexual assault victimisation since entering university (termed ‘college’ in the US system). While comprehensive sexuality educaton was protective against later victimisation, abstinence-only instruction was not. As the study notes, “Pre-college comprehensive sexuality education, including skills-based training in refusing unwanted sex, may be an effective strategy for preventing sexual assault in college [university].” (Santelli et al., 2018, p. 2)
  • When added to a sexual assault resistance program for female first-year university students, content on ‘emancipatory sexuality education’ increased the program’s impact. Women who went through the enhanced program had stronger perception of their own risk, greater confidence that they could defend themselves if attacked, and planned to use more effective methods of self-defense in hypothetical situations of acquaintance sexual assault (Charlene Y Senn, Gee, & Thake, 2011). (Note: For further scholarship on feminist rape resistance education, see here.)

 

Citation:

Flood, M. (2021). Best practice in consent education. Unpublished notes, Brisbane: Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

This document both summarises elements of Flood et al.’s report Respectful Relationships Education (below) and also draws on other, more recent literature on consent education.

Resources

Key readings on respectful relationships education and consent education:

Further reading:

References

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