Rape prevention and sexual education experts have criticised the federal government’s new consent education campaign, accusing it of creating “bizarre” videos and spreading misinformation about sex and consent.
The Good Society website, launched as part of the Department of Education’s Respect Matters program, contains more than 350 videos, digital stories, podcasts and teaching materials to help teach sex and consent to school-age children.
None of the videos aimed at students in years 10-12 use the words sex, rape, or assault. Instead, they employ confusing metaphors. In one video, a girl being scared to swim at the beach because of sharks is supposed to represent her being afraid to have sex because of STDs and pregnancy. In another, a girl smearing her milkshake in her boyfriend’s face has been taken by some to represent sexual assault or rape.
The director of End Rape on Campus, Sharna Bremner, warned that the videos fail to meet the national standards for the prevention of sexual assault through education. She added that the videos are “bizarre” and “really trivialise an incredibly serious issue”.
“This resource doesn’t give young people enough credit,” she told Guardian Australia. “It undermines their intelligence. It underestimates what they already know, and I wonder if anyone involved in it has ever met a 17-year-old boy.
“It assumes that the problem is that people don’t know what consent is, not that they ignore it. Kids aged 15 to 18 are the most likely to be victims of sexual violence, and also perpetrators of sexual violence. So we need to be giving them correct information.”
Dr Jacqui Hendriks, a sexual health academic at Curtin University, said the videos skirted around the issue of sex and consent.
“Trying to talk about sex without actually talking about sex isn’t helpful,” she said. “We need to be specifically talking about consent in an intimate and sexual relationship.”
The videos are built around a concept called “the field model”. Students are shown an image resembling a football field to explain how shared decisions are made.
Bremner said neither she, nor other rape prevention experts she has spoken to, had heard of the field model.
“The only thing I can find on it is that it is a communication theory created by a public relations expert to do with communication in the workplace,” she said. “This is not a theory based in anything to do with sex, consent or relationships.”
The videos have been widely shared and mocked on social media.
Some users compared the videos to Look Around You, a British comedy show that parodied educational programs.
One of the creators of Look Around You weighed in on the conversation, tweeting that the Australian government’s program was the “worst use – for so many reasons – of Look Around You ‘borrowing’ I’ve ever seen”.
Another Twitter user pointed out that the videos depict a woman as the perpetrator, when sexual assault and harassment is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.
Bremner said the Good Society campaign was also littered with “dead links, incorrect information, and some really harmful messaging about the drivers of sexual violence”.
The videos are accompanied by a student guidebook. In one section called Consent Laws and Rights, students are told they can report any sexual violation to the Australian Human Rights Commission. Not only is that not true, but there is no information about reporting assault or harassment to police, or talking to a trusted adult.
Another section called Sex and Gender Norms, confuses “norms” with “myths”. Examples of gender norms provided include, “males enjoy sex more than females” and “males want sex all the time”.
“Everything is also incredibly heteronormative, everything is framed in terms of male-female relationships,” Bremner said.
In the original media release announcing the Good Society, the education minister, Alan Tudge, and the minister for families, Anne Ruston, said the program had been developed in conjunction with Our Watch and Foundation for Young Australians.
Both organisations have since been quick to distance themselves from the project.
Foundation for Young Australians told Guardian Australia that while it had introduced the government to a young person in their network who may have taken part in a confidential reference group process, “FYA has not been asked to review, use or endorse the materials subsequently”.
Our Watch clarified in a press release on Friday that “Our Watch was consulted between late 2017 and early 2019 when the materials were being developed and provided advice … We have not been asked to use or endorse the materials subsequently.”
Rather, the Good Society appears to have been developed by a public relations firm, called Liquid Interactive, which Bremner said was part of the problem.
“The government needs to actually start speaking to experts,” she said. “They need to stop responding as though this is a public relations problem.”
While Hendriks said she was happy to see information and sex and consent freely available, the government was ignoring the lack of professional development teachers were being provided with to know how to use these resources.
“Teachers come through teacher-training organisations, and sex and relationships education broadly is not taught, and there is very limited education available for teachers when they are actually in schools,” Hendriks said.
“So having something on a website, particularly when it skirts around the issue of sex, is still not going to have the impact that we need in the classroom.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Education told the Guardian that “content on The Good Society website was created by experts and reviewed by a Resource Review Group of subject matter experts. Community members, teachers, and school leaders were also consulted to ensure the content was engaging for students and consistent with community standards”.