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:
- Effective practice in consent education / respectful relationships education
- Evidence of the effectiveness of sexual violence prevention education
- Consent education and comprehensive sexuality education
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
- 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
- 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)
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.)
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.
Key readings on respectful relationships education and consent education:
- Flood, M., L. Fergus, and M. Heenan. (2009). Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools. Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria.
- Gleeson, C., S. Kearney, L. Leung and J. Brislane (2015). Respectful Relationships Education in schools: evidence paper. Melbourne: Our Watch.
- Edwards, K. E., & Banyard, V. L. (2018). Preventing Sexual Violence among Adolescents and Young Adults. In D. A. Wolfe & J. R. Temple (Eds.), Adolescent Dating Violence: Theory, Research, and Prevention (pp. 415-435). London: Academic Press.
- Short or key overviews of violence prevention in schools and/or among children and young people: Bibliography
- Short introductions to violence prevention
- Key reports and scholarship on violence prevention
- Consent: An XY collection
- Bibliography on sexuality education
- Readings on rape, sexual assault, and sexual violence
Arango, D. J., Morton, M., Gennari, F., Kiplesund, S., & Ellsberg, M. (2014). Interventions to prevent or reduce violence against women and girls: a systematic review of reviews. Washington DC: The World Bank.
Banyard, V. L., & Recktenwald, E. A. (2017). Primary Intimate Partner Violence Prevention Programs for Adolescents and Young Adults. In A. L. Coker, C. M. Renzetti, & D. R. Follingstad (Eds.), Preventing intimate partner violence (pp. 39-70): Policy Press.
Brecklin, L. R., & Forde, D. R. (2001). A meta-analysis of rape education programs. Violence and victims, 16(3), 303-321.
Carmody, M., Evans, S., Krogh, C., Flood, M., Heenan, M., & Ovenden, G. (2009). Framing best practice: national standards for the primary prevention of sexual assault through education. Sydney: University of Western Sydney.
Crooks, C. V., Jaffe, P., Dunlop, C., Kerry, A., & Exner-Cortens, D. (2019). Preventing Gender-Based Violence Among Adolescents and Young Adults: Lessons From 25 Years of Program Development and Evaluation. Violence Against Women, 25(1), 29-55. doi:10.1177/1077801218815778
De La Rue, L., Polanin, J. R., Espelage, D. L., & Pigott, T. D. (2017). A Meta-Analysis of School-Based Interventions Aimed to Prevent or Reduce Violence in Teen Dating Relationships. Review of Educational Research, 87(1), 7-34. doi:10.3102/0034654316632061
DeGue, S., Valle, L. A., Holt, M. K., Massetti, G. M., Matjasko, J. L., & Tharp, A. T. (2014). A systematic review of primary prevention strategies for sexual violence perpetration. Aggression and violent behavior, 19(4), 346-362. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2014.05.004
Edwards, K. E., & Banyard, V. L. (2018). Preventing Sexual Violence among Adolescents and Young Adults. In D. A. Wolfe & J. R. Temple (Eds.), Adolescent Dating Violence: Theory, Research, and Prevention (pp. 415-435). London: Academic Press.
Edwards, S. R., & Hinsz, V. B. (2014). A meta-analysis of empirically tested school-based dating violence prevention programs. SAGE Open, 4(2), 2158244014535787.
Ellsberg, M., Arango, D. J., Morton, M., Gennari, F., Kiplesund, S., Contreras, M., & Watts, C. (2015). Prevention of violence against women and girls: what does the evidence say? The Lancet, 385(9977), 1555-1566.
Ellsberg, M., Ullman, C., Blackwell, A., Hill, A., & Contreras, M. (2018). What works to prevent adolescent intimate partner and sexual violence? A global review of best practices. In Adolescent Dating Violence (pp. 381-414): Elsevier.
Fellmeth, G., Heffernan, C., Nurse, J., Habibula, S., & Sethi, D. (2013). Educational and skills-based interventions for preventing relationship and dating violence in adolescents and young adults. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 6(ePub), CD004534-CD004534. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004534.pub3
Flood, M., Fergus, L., & Heenan, M. (2009). Respectful Relationships Education: Violence prevention and respectful relationships education in Victorian secondary schools. Melbourne: Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, State of Victoria.
Fryda, C. M., & Hulme, P. A. (2015). School-based childhood sexual abuse prevention programs: An integrative review. The Journal of School Nursing, 31(3), 167-182.
Gavine, A. J., Donnelly, P. D., & Williams, D. J. (2016). Effectiveness of universal school-based programs for prevention of violence in adolescents. Psychology of Violence, 6(3), 390-399.
Gidycz, C. A., Orchowski, L. M., & Berkowitz, A. D. (2011). Preventing sexual aggression among college men: An evaluation of a social norms and bystander intervention program. Violence Against Women, 17(6), 720-742.
Graham, L. M., Embry, V., Young, B.-R., Macy, R. J., Moracco, K. E., Reyes, H. L. M., & Martin, S. L. (2019). Evaluations of prevention programs for sexual, dating, and intimate partner violence for boys and men: a systematic review. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1524838019851158. doi:https://doi.org/10.1177/1524838019851158
Haberland, N. A. (2015). The case for addressing gender and power in sexuality and HIV education: a comprehensive review of evaluation studies. International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 41(1), 31-42.
Leen, E., Sorbring, E., Mawer, M., Holdsworth, E., Helsing, B., & Bowen, E. (2013). Prevalence, dynamic risk factors and the efficacy of primary interventions for adolescent dating violence: An international review. Aggression and violent behavior, 18(1), 159-174. Retrieved from http://www.scopus.com/inward/record.url?eid=2-s2.0-84871481552&partnerID=40&md5=8082e82ddd3b5344078ad5e5b9002f7f
Lundgren, R., & Amin, A. (2015). Addressing Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Among Adolescents: Emerging Evidence of Effectiveness. Journal of Adolescent Health, 56(1), S42-S50. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2014.08.012
Matjasko, J. L., Vivolo-Kantor, A. M., Massetti, G. M., Holland, K. M., Holt, M. K., & Dela Cruz, J. (2012). A systematic meta-review of evaluations of youth violence prevention programs: Common and divergent findings from 25 years of meta-analyses and systematic reviews. Aggression and violent behavior, 17(6), 540-552. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2012.06.006
Morrison, S., Hardison, J., Mathew, A., & O’Neil, J. (2004). An evidence-based review of sexual assault preventive intervention programs: Technical report. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.
Ricardo, C., Eads, M., & Barker, G. T. (2011). Engaging boys and young men in the prevention of sexual violence: a systematic and global review of evaluated interventions. Pretoria, South Africa: Sexual Violence Research Initiative.
Rothman, E., & Silverman, J. (2007). The Effect of a College Sexual Assault Prevention Program on First-year Students' Victimization Rates. Journal of American College Health, 55(5), 283-290. doi:10.3200/JACH.55.5.283-290
Santelli, J. S., Grilo, S. A., Choo, T.-H., Diaz, G., Walsh, K., Wall, M., . . . Khan, S. (2018). Does sex education before college protect students from sexual assault in college? PLoS ONE, 13(11), e0205951.
Schneider, M., & Hirsch, J. S. (2018). Comprehensive sexuality education as a primary prevention strategy for sexual violence perpetration. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 1524838018772855.
Senn, C. Y., Eliasziw, M., Barata, P. C., Thurston, W. E., Newby-Clark, I. R., Radtke, H. L., & Hobden, K. L. (2015). Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women. New England Journal of Medicine, 372(24), 2326-2335. doi:doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1411131
Senn, C. Y., Eliasziw, M., Hobden, K. L., Newby-Clark, I. R., Barata, P. C., Radtke, H. L., & Thurston, W. E. (2017). Secondary and 2-Year Outcomes of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 41(2), 147-162.
Senn, C. Y., Gee, S. S., & Thake, J. (2011). Emancipatory sexuality education and sexual assault resistance: Does the former enhance the latter? Psychology of Women Quarterly, 35(1), 72-91.
Sinclair, J., Sinclair, L., Otieno, E., Mulinge, M., Kapphahn, C., & Golden, N. H. (2013). A self-defense program reduces the incidence of sexual assault in Kenyan adolescent girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(3), 374-380.
Social Policy Evaluation and Research Unit, F. C. (2013). Effectiveness of Relationship Education Programmes in Schools Years 7-13. Wellington: Families Commission, New Zealand.
Stanley, N., Ellis, J., Farrelly, N., Hollinghurst, S., & Downe, S. (2015). Preventing domestic abuse for children and young people: A review of school-based interventions. Children and Youth Services Review, 59, 120-131.
Vladutiu, C. J., Martin, S. L., & Macy, R. J. (2011). College- or University-Based Sexual Assault Prevention Programs: A Review of Program Outcomes, Characteristics, and Recommendations. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 12(2), 67-86. doi:10.1177/1524838010390708
Waling, A., Bellamy, R., Ezer, P., Kerr, L., Lucke, J., & Fisher, C. (2020). ‘It’s kinda bad, honestly’: Australian students’ experiences of relationships and sexuality education. Health Education Research, 35(6), 538-552.
Walsh, K., Zwi, K., Woolfenden, S., & Shlonsky, A. (2018). School-based education programs for the prevention of child sexual abuse: A Cochrane systematic review and meta-analysis. Research on social work practice, 28(1), 33-55.
Whitaker, D. J., Morrison, S., Lindquist, C., Hawkins, S. R., O’Neil, J. A., Nesius, A. M., . . . Reese, L. R. (2006). A critical review of interventions for the primary prevention of perpetration of partner violence. Aggression and violent behavior, 11(2), 151-166. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.avb.2005.07.007
World Health Organization. (2015). Preventing youth violence: an overview of the evidence. Geneva: World Health Organization.