Sexual Violence Prevention Hub

Prof. Jonathan Crowe

In 2019, RASARA’s Katrina Marson undertook a Churchill Fellowship to travel across Europe and North America, learning from internationally renowned organisations, initiatives and practitioners about best practice relationships and sex education and implementation strategy.  

Her research findings are detailed in the report Ignorance is not Innocence: safeguarding sexual wellbeing through relationships and sex education.

Here we explore some of her key findings.

RASARA advocates for the right of all young people to have access to comprehensive relationships and sex education that will equip them with the information they need to make autonomous decisions.  

About Relationships and Sex Education

The only proven measure for the prevention of sexual violence is comprehensive relationships and sex education.

Studies around the world provide strong evidence of the success of relationships and sex education in reducing the incidence of sexual violence. The World Health Organisation (WHO) strongly promotes comprehensive relationships and sex education as a means to improve sexual health outcomes and reduce sexual violence for all.

“…too many young people still make the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete or judgement-laden information affecting their physical, social and emotional development. This inadequate preparation not only exacerbates the vulnerability of children and youth to exploitation and other harmful outcomes, but it also represents the failure of society’s duty bearers to fulfil their obligations to an entire generation”
— World Health Organisation

Principles of Design and Delivery of Relationships and Sex Education

Relationships and sex education is a specialist field, and there is a significant body of scholarly literature exploring the best practice approaches for consent development and delivery. Katrina Marson’s research demonstrated that the professionals working across Europe and North America to implement relationships and sex education prioritised a range of principles in the design and delivery of programs.  

All relationships and sex education must:

Utilise multiple sites of intervention.

It cannot be limited to individual lessons or school programs – it must extend to whole schools, families and communities.

Start in early childhood.

It is important that children be exposed to relationships and sex education from a young age, in order to promote and protect wellbeing as early as possible.

Normalise a positive approach to sexuality and wellbeing.

Reducing shame and taboo around sex, bodies and relationships promotes the entitlement to wellbeing and increases the likelihood that young people will learn to communicate appropriately and openly about such matters over the course of their lives.

Be holistic.

Matters of consent, respect and relationships cannot be separated from puberty, sex, bodies and families: to address these matters in isolation from each other is ineffective. All relationships and sex education programs must cover topics of:

  • Reproduction and families
  • Consent and expressing boundaries
  • Social and emotional development (friendships/relationships)
  • Bodies (including puberty)

Relationships and sex education must focus on improving knowledge, developing attitudes and building behavioural skills.

Be modified appropriately for particular groups.

While all relationships and sex education should be relevant to the widest range of participants, particular groups will require important modifications in order to better meet their needs and ensure learning takes place – for example, students with educational needs or disability.

Be age-appropriate, repeated and consistent.

Relationships and sex education must be age-appropriate and initiatives should adopt a ‘spiral curriculum’ approach, progressively building on prior learnings.

Promote diversity and inclusivity.

Lessons, materials and resources should represent the lived experience of everyone; for example, images and narratives of people from a diverse range of backgrounds is important.

Incorporate evaluation and protection mechanisms.

Measuring performance of relationships and sex education initiatives is important, as is the need to ensure protections are in place to support the safety of participants.

Implementing Relationships and Sex Education

With the weight of evidence in favour of comprehensive relationships and sex education, as well as a significant body of literature about appropriate content and modes of delivery, one might expect to see more widespread uptake of relationships and sex education initiatives. Yet implementation remains rocky terrain, or an entirely untrod frontier, for many jurisdictions within Australia and internationally. A consistent frustration for advocates, practitioners and other professionals in this space is the struggle to bring comprehensive relationships and sex education to life.

Even the most well-designed relationships and sex education means nothing if implementation cannot be achieved.  There are six key factors necessary to achieve successful implementation of relationships and sex education.

Looking to the future

It is imperative that the capacity for comprehensive relationships and sex education to empower and protect our youth is recognised and prioritised. To mistake ignorance for innocence and to insist on covering the ears of our children and young people is to leave their wellbeing and safety to chance. A hopeful perspective is that, in the pursuit of wellbeing for all, universal access to comprehensive relationships and sex education could be inevitable in the face of mounting evidence of its protective power.