My six-year-old daughter gave me an important lesson about consent

Let's stop trivialising our kids' schoolyard experiences, writes Cat Rodie.
Let's stop trivialising our kids' schoolyard experiences, writes Cat Rodie.  Photo: Supplied

 

Last week the Australian Human Rights Commission released an alarming report on sexual assaults on university campuses across the country. The report found that as many as one in five students had been sexually harassed in a university setting and that women were three times as likely as men to have been sexually assaulted.

On the back of these findings, the report recommends that consent education should be taught on campus. But if our young people are getting to university age without grasping the basics of consent, then we've clearly missed a lot of opportunities along the way.

Cat Rodie
Cat Rodie Photo: Supplied

My six-year-old daughter recently had an issue with kiss chasey at her school. Although she told them that she didn't want to play, a group of boys from her class chased her anyway. When they caught her they pinned her to the ground, kissed her and tickled her.

Kids have been playing kiss chasey in the schoolyard for decades. There are even nursery rhymes about it. Georgie Porgie pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. But when the person being chased doesn't want to play – indeed, if it makes them cry – it's not much of a game.

The more I thought it over the more I realised how disturbing it was that the teacher and I had both automatically trivialised her experience.

When my daughter told the teacher on duty, she was told that it was "just a game" and that the group of boys just wanted her to join in. The teacher also told her that the boys probably liked her and that she should be pleased that they wanted to play with her.

I'll admit that my first reaction when she told me about this was to smile and stifle a little laugh, too. But my daughter, quite rightly, reminded me that it wasn't funny.

The more I thought it over the more I realised how disturbing it was that the teacher and I had both automatically trivialised her experience just because kiss chasey is such a familiar game.

A friend's daughter had a similar experience when a little boy threw sticks at her in the playground. The teacher on duty told her that the boy probably liked her – she even told the girl that she should be flattered.

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Why are we teaching kids that it's totally fine to pin someone down against his or her will? That they should just accept it when someone hurts them?

Follow this attitude through to its natural conclusion and the Australian Human Rights Commission report isn't very surprising.

We're really missing a trick. If we stop trivialising things that happen in every day schoolyard games and start using them to teach kids about consent we might be able to turn the tide of sexual harassment that has become so shockingly normal.

Last year a report by the Women and Equalities Committee (in the UK) found that a third of 16 to 18-year-old girls have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, while nearly three-quarters of all 16 to 18-year-old boys and girls say they hear terms such as "slut" or "slag" used towards girls on a regular basis.

Writing for The Conversation, Nancy Lombard, Reader in Sociology and Social Policy, Glasgow Caledonian University, notes that too often teachers are dismissive in their handling of complaints. "I discovered that some girls as young as nine would tell their teachers about the physical or emotional abuse they had received, only to be dismissed," she says.

"And this lack of validation results in girls accepting and minimising their own victimisation, while boys learn to normalise such behaviours as an acceptable and every day part of their interactions with girls."

In addition to this, psychologist Jocelyn Brewer tells me that trivialising complaints from kids about unwanted attention (whether that comes in the form of kisses or sticks) could make a child stop reporting incidences altogether. "Kids rely on [parents and teachers] to listen to them and protect them. So if we don't validate or listen then their trust in us starts to wither away."

A sobering conclusion of this erosion of trust can be seen in the Australian Human Rights Commission report: 94 per cent of students that were sexually harassed and 87 per cent of students who were sexually assaulted did not make a formal complaint to their university.

New research from the journal Sex Education has also found that teachers are dangerously ill-equipped to deal with problematic sexual behaviour in schools.

Lesley-anne Ey, a lecturer in child development, educational psychology and child protection at the University of South Australia, said she was surprised to discover that 40 per cent of teachers involved in the research reported witnessing problematic sexual behaviour; such as simulated intercourse and attempts to coerce other students into sexual contact.

While teachers in the study felt confident about their mandatory reporting requirements, they were less confident about how to deal with children displaying worrying behaviour.

Clearly something has to change. Deanne Carson is co-founder of Body Safety Australia, a social enterprise that provides abuse prevention and sexuality education to students from kindergarten to year 12. She tells me that as a society we need to reframe the conversations we're having about consent in order to create a "consent culture".

"We can put that into action in every situation – whether it's friends or family or professionals like doctors and dentists. It should be normal for people to ask first (whether it's 'do you want to play kiss chasey?' or 'can I put my stethoscope on your back?') and respect a 'no'," she says.

Teachers and parents also have an enormous responsibility to uphold the body autonomy of children. "If we reinforce the message, if we normalise it and respect young people's consent then we're not going to be having these conversations in year nine, 10 or university – they'll already know," says Carson.

Let's stop trivialising our kids' schoolyard experiences. Kiss chasey is great – as long as everyone wants to play. Kiss chasey can be fun – as long as everyone consents.

It might be too late for the girls in Georgie Porgie's game – but it's not too late to change our tune.

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