Ignorance is not Innocence

Implementing Relationships and Sex Education to safeguard sexual wellbeing

Ignorance is not Innocence by Katrina Marson (CF 2018, ACT). Photo by Helena Lopes / Unsplash

Photo from Unsplash / Helena Lopes .

Photo from Unsplash / Helena Lopes .

By Katrina Marson
Churchill Fellow 2018, ACT

Sexual violence and harassment is a prevalent public health issue with enormous social consequences. It is not enough to hope the imprisonment of perpetrators will do anything to slow the rates of sexual violence.1 If Australia and its jurisdictions are to be champions of human rights and gender equality, the right to live free from sexual violence must be defended before it is violated.

Comprehensive Relationships and Sexual Education (RSE) from an early age is a proven measure for mounting such a defence, but Australia has traditionally struggled to implement it at scale. Long-term policy commitments are key to ensuring prevention begins at the school gate, and those commitments depend on political will. The embers of that will are fanned by increasing media and community attention, alongside recent recommendations for preventative education by the Human Rights Commission, state Law Reform Commissions, Royal Commissions and legislature inquiries.2

Stubbornly high rates of sexual violence in Australia in recent decades3 show that:

  • one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence and more than half have experienced sexual harassment since age 15;4
  • one in 20 men have experienced sexual violence and one in four have experienced sexual harassment since age 15;5 and
  • one in six women and one in nine men have been physically or sexually abused before age 15.6

Sexual violence and negative sexual experiences carry significant health, social and economic cost,7 and can have a devastating impact on individuals, their families and communities. Long-term physical and emotional health, the capacity to undertake education, contribute to society and otherwise lead a fulfilling life can be severely affected,8 and the incidence of premature death increased.9

Sexual and reproductive health is a crucial factor in the quality of human life, and cannot be achieved without education.10 Add a quote source (optional)

The right to freedom from all forms of violence, including sexual violence, must be protected before it is violated. Sexual violence weakens Australia's credibility as a bastion of gender equality in our region,11 and as a global advocate for human rights.12 Preventative action must be taken, to support the Australian Government's "steadfast and ongoing commitment to be at the forefront of efforts to promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls"13 and to "advancing human rights globally".14

This article makes recommendations for the implementation of RSE in Australia as a protective factor against sexual violence and harassment.

Photo: Getty Images / DenBoma & iStock.

Teenage boy and girl facing apart.

The case for comprehensive RSE

Comprehensive RSE empowers young people to understand their bodies, pursue emotional and sexual wellbeing as they get older, and engage in respectful and healthy relationships. It is also a proven method for protecting against negative sexual experiences and sexualised violence. For example, a review of sexual violence intervention programs provided evidence that schools-based programs reduced physical, sexual, and emotional violence in adolescent relationships, while longer term, repeated exposure to such interventions achieved better results than single awareness-raising or discussion sessions.15

"Sexuality education is an effective life-course intervention that increases the health and wellbeing of children and young people. It can enable them to expand their knowledge of sexual and reproductive health and rights, develop communication, decision-making and risk-education skills, and adopt positive and responsible attitudes to sexuality and relationships."16

Far from just a few classes a year where students learn how to put condoms on bananas, comprehensive RSE must be age appropriate, evidence based and holistic. For it to be effective, it must commence in early childhood and continue throughout life.

Starting RSE in early primary school, then building throughout high school, allows young people to be gradually equipped and empowered with relevant "information, skills and positive values"17 long before they will act on their sexuality.18 This is the example set by the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, where the school is prioritised as the central (although not sole) site for RSE delivery, thereby reaching most young people.19

Design standards for what best practice RSE programs look like are well established and need not be repeated here;20 rather, this article focuses on overcoming the stumbling block of implementing comprehensive and effective RSE in schools throughout Australia.

Children raising their hands in class at school.

Photo from Katrina Marson & EdCan Network.

Photo from Katrina Marson & EdCan Network.

RSE implementation: the need for public policy

Despite evidence justifying its use as a protective factor against sexual violence,21 implementation of RSE in Australia is inconsistent between, and even within, states and territories.22 While the Australian Curriculum provides some guidance with respect to RSE,23 individual jurisdictions—and often the schools within them—are vested with significant autonomy as to delivery.24 The lack of "clarity in the [curriculum] may also cause teachers to teach in an inconsistent and variable manner, resulting in varied sexual and relationship knowledge among students across different schools."25 Regardless, successful RSE implementation requires much more than a sound curriculum.

Evidence from overseas shows that strong public policy frameworks are the key to ensuring successful and ongoing implementation of RSE programs at scale. The unmatched capacity of governments to drive policy initiatives which protect community wellbeing, to resource and mobilise their executive arm, and to ensure implementation, is vital to safeguarding sexual wellbeing for all of society.

"You always need … government to drive sexuality education and sexualised violence prevention. If you try and use bottom-up strategies to drive it, you will never be successful."26

Without government buy-in, implementation failure will persist. Accordingly, two major contributors to successful RSE implementation and outcomes are political will and a coordinated strategy to create an enabling environment.

First, strong public policies depend on sufficient political will, and no small measure of political courage, to ensure that:

  • RSE is established as a fundamental public health measure designed to prevent sexual violence and promote wellbeing, rather than being considered as an 'optional extra';
  • Real impact is achieved through long term commitments aimed at preventative action and cultural change, rather than reactive approaches that merely respond to sexual violence, such as criminal justice reform; and
  • Bipartisanship is sought to create a sensible, evidence-based debate that informs the public of the benefits of RSE to safeguard young people, rather than political discourse that fuels controversies around outdated and unfounded fear that RSE 'sexualises' children.

Second, sexual violence and harassment is a distinct issue that requires a specialist and sophisticated response.27 Bottom-up approaches are not powerful enough to confront the enormity of the task at hand, nor to protect RSE implementation from the headwinds of ignorance, apathy or opposition.

International lessons

Creating an enabling environment for widescale RSE implementation, with a view to cultural change, is achievable. I discovered this in 2019, when I travelled to Europe and North America on a Churchill Fellowship. Initially, I sought to discover whether the practical perspective would testify to the power of RSE to equip children and young people with the skills they need in order to pursue wellbeing. As I travelled, my focus was increasingly drawn to the issue of implementation: how can jurisdictions turn the best intentions into action? How can communities be mobilised to take up the fight for their young people's wellbeing?

Examples in Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada demonstrate that the key to successfully implementing RSE at scale is a public policy framework that deploys several, mutually reinforcing instruments across multiple sectors.28 Those instruments must provide both the mandate and the means for universal access to comprehensive RSE, including:

  • A legislative mandate that all children and young people access comprehensive RSE with content based on scientific inquiry;
  • A mechanism ensuring development of RSE programs/curricula is expert-led and evidence based—such as creating an intersectoral (e.g. health and education) government body, or funding an appropriate non-government agency;
  • Equipping schools adequately to implement whole-school policies and roll out RSE—including through funding, training teachers (at qualification stage and beyond) and using appropriately qualified external providers;
  • Engaging and educating parents/caregivers;
  • Evaluating RSE programs and their implementation;
  • Identifying additional sites for intervention, such as youth groups, sporting clubs, television programs, and online resources; and
  • Preemptive public health/media campaigns about the need for and nature of RSE.
Children raising their hands in class at school. Photo by Getty Images

Photo by Getty Images / DGLimages & iStock.

Photo by Getty Images / DGLimages & iStock.

Policy options for Australian governments

1. The mandate: compulsory RSE in schools

Overseas, a legislative mandate is a common instrument for successful implementation of RSE, and is a strategy deployed in the United Kingdom (case study 1), Germany and the Netherlands.29

Case study 1: The United Kingdom's Legal Framework for RSE

In 2019, the United Kingdom introduced legislation mandating the delivery of Relationships Education (RE), RSE and Health Education in primary and secondary schools.37 While the regulations largely vest discretion in schools as to modes of delivery and content, some key factors were mandated:

  • Relationships Education is compulsory for all pupils receiving primary education;
  • Relationships and Sex Education is compulsory for all pupils receiving secondary education; and
  • Health Education is compulsory in all schools except independent (private) schools (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education [PSHE] remains compulsory in independent schools).

The policy was ultimately introduced by a conservative government and a Statutory Guidance was also produced by the Education Department38 to assist in guiding the implementation process for local authorities, councils and individual schools. The move was supported by funding commitments,39 as well as accountability and evaluative mechanisms which will be key to ensuring quality, comprehensive RSE delivery in the absence of specifications in the legislation. A legislative mandate is representative and formal, demonstrating government buy-in and ensuring prioritisation of RSE at scale. It can also operate to 'future-proof' RSE programs by better withstanding a shifting political landscape, and provides greater accountability.

2. The means: mobilising executive resources effectively

Executive resources must be mobilised to deliver on the mandate, and any mechanism to achieve this must be intersectoral because,

"Inadequate cooperation between responsible governmental authorities [is] a strong [obstacle] to effective sexuality education."

Germany and the Netherlands provide instructive examples of governments mobilising their executive arm to deploy the instruments outlined above—and both have proved effective (case studies 2 and 3). For example, studies have shown that RSE participants' first sexual experiences tended to occur later and were less likely to be negative, with students reporting improved confidence in protective behaviour.

Case study 2: Germany's 'Department Four' — a dedicated public agency for sexual violence prevention and RSE delivery

Germany's federal government created a department dedicated to sexual violence prevention and RSE ('Department Four') within their Federal Centre for Health Education (the Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung [BZgA]). 

Department Four employs appropriately qualified professionals to conduct research, develop teaching packages, resources, materials and curricula, as well as online platforms and a theatre play ('Trau Dich!'). Taking an intersectoral approach, Department Four maintains relationships with: non-public sector partners; academia; the European Union and international organisations including the World Health Organisation; public sector partners such as federal and state ministries, and state-based education departments and institutions. This approach ensures RSE is expert-led and evidence-based. 

Department Four is an example of the federal executive function being mobilised across both the health and education sectors to ensure rollout at the state level. They are responsible for working with state education departments to roll out the programs they develop, including training resources for teachers.  For example, BZgA has developed a 'General Concept for Sexuality Education'40 for states to adhere to when delivering RSE, which covers tasks, goals, target groups, strategic communication approach, main topic areas and actions. Department Four also create public-facing resources to educate parents and the community about the importance and nature of RSE being delivered, as well as managing evaluation of RSE measures. 

The magnitude of Department Four's achievements domestically and abroad reflects the German government's commitment to safeguarding sexual wellbeing. With highly comprehensive policy documents and resources and well designed RSE lessons, activities and teaching packages, it is unsurprising that they play such a significant role on the international stage when it comes to RSE.

Case study 3: Public-civil sector partnerships for sexual violence prevention and RSE delivery — the Netherlands

The Dutch model closely mirrors that in Germany, however, instead of creating a public department, the Dutch government funds a civil sector organisation, Rutgers, to do the same work. Rutgers' dedicated departments for RSE and sexual violence prevention cooperate with government Municipal and Regional Health Services known as GGDs that are responsible for preventative healthcare.  GGDs, in turn, engage their region's schools in the roll-out of Rutgers' RSE programmes and curricula, and assist in training teachers and organising information sessions for parents and care givers. 

Rutgers also contributes to the development of resources such as picture books and television programs, as well as evaluating the efficacy of their RSE content. Evaluation has demonstrated later first sexual experiences as well as a decreased likelihood of negative sexual experiences among participants.41

In addition to successful cooperation and partnership with a non-government organisation, successful RSE implementation in the Netherlands is due to the commitment of government for funding and rollout at the municipal level.

3. Mitigating political risk

The public's perceived risk that RSE will sexualise children and the perceived backlash it could bring to political parties has, to date, been a deterrent for governments to make RSE compulsory in schools. Debunked by evidence,33 the paranoia of sexualising children is unfounded—as is the perception of the severity of the political risk it presents.

The outcry over the Safe Schools program that sought to work with schools to create safe and inclusive schools for LGBTIQ students, families and staff is a painful memory for many,34 but is not unique to Australia: vocal opposition to RSE is faced in all jurisdictions that enjoy successful implementation.35 With steadfast commitment to protecting sexual wellbeing, those jurisdictions have insulated their RSE policies with strong, mutually reinforcing frameworks as described above.

It is also fundamental to engage parents, caregivers and the community with information sessions and public facing resources educating about the nature and purpose of RSE—as exemplified in the case studies from Germany and the Netherlands. A Canadian politician who campaigned for RSE reform in Ontario suggested harnessing the media with proactive, evidence-based information campaigns, highlighting the dangers of not providing RSE, as well as its benefits, may help forestall propaganda and misinformation.36

Policy recommendations

  1. Introduce legislation to mandate universal access to RSE. Human rights jurisdictions should enshrine the right to access such information in their human rights legislation.
  2. Create mechanisms for the delivery and evaluation of comprehensive RSE in schools and beyond, for example, by the creation of an intersectoral government body or by funding an appropriate NGO to undertake the task. That mechanism must provide for:
    - Developing evidence based RSE programs, curricula (e.g. with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]) and resources by appropriately qualified people;
    - Equipping schools adequately to implement policies and roll out RSE, including through funding, training teachers, and using appropriate external providers;
    - Evaluating RSE programs as well as their implementation; and
    - Identifying additional sites for intervention.
  3. Develop action plans anticipating potential sources and nature of RSE opposition, and prioritise engaging parents/caregivers and community in RSE policy and rollout.
  4. Engage governments in preemptive media briefings and public health campaigns highlighting the evidence-based need for, and nature and content of, RSE delivery.

Photo courtesy of Katrina Marson.

School girl with backpack smiling. Photo from Katrina Marson.

Stakeholder consultation

Stakeholder consultation is key to achieving the recommended intersectoral approach. Preliminary consultation should include, but is not limited to, the following groups (some of whom I have commenced consultation with):

  • Federal and state/territory government health and education departments
  • The Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA)
  • Family Planning organisations and Sexual Health services and peak bodies
  • Parent and community representative bodies
  • Statutory authorities (e.g. federal and state/territory Human Rights Commissions)
  • Professional and workforce representative bodies (e.g. education unions, the Society of Australian Sexologists)
  • Academic institutions undertaking relevant social research and impact evaluation
  • Organisations providing victim/survivor perspectives.


Political courage to act on the evidence of the protective power of RSE is needed, and—when taken—has been shown on the international stage to be successful. By choosing inaction or action by halves for the sake of political expediency, governments condemn young Australians to the likelihood that they will experience sexual violence and harassment. Governments must ensure universal access to comprehensive RSE—after all, in matters of great consequence for the safety and rights of individuals, history looks kindly on those in power doing what they know to advance community safety and wellbeing, even in the face of resistance.


My sincere gratitude to my reviewers, Dr Alex McKay (Executive Director, Sex Information and Education Council of Canada) and Tim Bavinton (Executive Director, Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT) for your invaluable insights. Thank you also to The University of Queensland and The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust for selecting me for the inaugural Policy Impact Program, and for the guidance in producing this work. All errors and omissions are of course mine alone.

Katrina Marson, CF portrait

Katrina Marson is an ACT criminal lawyer, recently returned to the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, after leading the ACT implementation of the Child Sexual Abuse Royal Commission’s criminal justice recommendations between 2018–2020. In 2019, Katrina undertook her Churchill Fellowship, travelling to Europe and North America to research the use of relationships and sex education to safeguard sexual wellbeing. Read more about Katrina Marson and her Churchill Fellowship.

References and endnotes

1. Powell, A. Sex, Power and Consent: Youth Culture and the Unwritten Rules. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, 60, 92. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511777080; Smart, C. Feminism and the Power of Law, Routledge, 2002, 160.
2. Davey, M. "'Men need to change': anger grows over police response to Eurydice Dixon's murder," The Guardian, 15 June 2018; Roberts, L. "Push to introduce mandatory, unified ... sexual consent lessons in Australian schools," Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 29 February 2020; Fyfe, M. "Sex education in a time of moral panic – and how it's failing our children," Good Weekend, 12 October 2019; "Boys Club," [Television Series Episode]. In Four Corners, ABC Television, 17 February 2020; Marson, K. "More to sex education than condoms on bananas," Sydney Morning Herald, 24 February 2020; Australian Human Rights Commission, Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, 2020; New South Wales Law Reform Commission, Consent in relation to sexual offences: draft proposals, October 2019; Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, Final Report, 2019; Royal Commission into Family Violence, 2016; ACT Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety, Report on Inquiry into Crimes (Consent) Amendment 2018, 2018; Parliament of Australia, The House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs: Inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence, 2020.
3. See, for example, Patton, W and Mannison, M. "Sexual coercion in high school dating." Sex roles 33, 5-6 (1995): 447; ABS, Women's Safety Report, 1996, 5; Young, M, Byles, J, and Dobson, A. "The Effectiveness of Legal Protection in the Prevention of Domestic ... Violence in the Lives of Young Australian Women" Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 1 (2000): 48; Flood, M, and Hamilton, C. Youth and Pornography in Australia: Evidence on the Extent of Exposure and Likely Effects, (Discussion Paper No 52), The Australia Institute, 2003, 47; Australian Institute of Criminology, "Sexual assault, male offenders by age, rate per 1000,0000 persons, 1995–1996 and 2000–2001." Australian Crime: Facts and Figures 2001; Smith, A. et al., Secondary Students and Sexual Health: Results of the 4th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students, HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health, 2009, 32; ABS, Personal Safety Survey, 2006; Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia: continuing the national story, Cat. no. FDV 3. Canberra: AIHW. 2019, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/domestic-violence/family-domestic-sexual-violence-australia-2019/.
4. AIHW, 'Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia'; Cox, P. Violence against women in Australia: Additional analysis of the Australian Bureau of Statistics' Personal Safety Survey, 2012, 2015.
5. ABS, "Personal Safety, Australia, 2016," Released 8 November 2017, https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/crime-and-justice/personal-safety-australia/; AIHW, 'Family, domestic and sexual violence'.
6. AIHW, 'Family, domestic and sexual violence,' vii.
7. ANROWS, Are we there yet? Australians' attitudes towards violence against women and gender equality, NCAS Summary Report, 2017. https://anrows.org.au/.
8. Boyd, C. "The impacts of sexual assault on women", ACSSA Resource Sheet 2, April 2011.
9. Taylor et. al. 2012. "Sexual trauma in women: The importance of identifying a history of sexual violence," Australian Family Practitioner, 41, 7. (2012): 538–41.
10. Krieger, J. Sexuality Education: Lessons Learned and Future Developments in the WHO European Region, Conference Report, Berlin, Germany: Federal Ministry of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, 2017, 18.
11. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), "Gender equality and empowering women and girls, 2020-21 total Australian ADO [budget estimate]" Accessed September 2020, https://dfat.gov.au/.
12. DFAT, "Human Rights," Accessed July 2020, https://dfat.gov.au/.
13. Australian Government, Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Office for Women, Accessed 26 July 2020: https://pmc.gov.au/office-women; DFAT, "Australia's assistance for gender equality," Accessed 26 July 2020, https://dfat.gov.au/.
14. DFAT, "Human Rights," Accessed July 2020, https://dfat.gov.au/.
15. See, for example, Lundgren, R, and Amin, A. "Addressing Intimate Partner Violence and Sexual Violence Among Adolescents: Emerging Evidence of Effectiveness," Journal of Adolescent Health 1 (2015): 56; Apter, D. "Recent developments and consequences of sexuality education in Finland," BZgA Sexuality Education and Family Planning FORUM, February 2011, 3–8; van Keulen, HM, et al., "Effectiveness of the Long Live Love 4 program for 13- and 14-year-old secondary school students in the Netherlands: a quasi-experimental design," Delf: Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, 2015.
16. BZgA. 'Sexuality Education: Lessons Learned and Future Developments in the WHO European Region' Conference Report, Berlin 15–16 May 2017, 4.
17. WHO Regional Office for Europe and BZgA, Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe: A framework for policy makers, education and health authorities and specialists, Cologne: World Health Organisation, 2010, 20.
18. BZgA, WHO and UNFPA, Sexuality Education: Policy brief No. 1, 2015.
19. Marson, K. Ignorance is not innocence: safeguarding sexual wellbeing through relationship and sex education. Churchill Fellowship Report: The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, 2019. https://www.churchilltrust.com.au/fellow/katrina-marson-act-2018
20. Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence'; Carmody, M, Evans, S, Krogh, C, Flood, M, Heenan, M, Ovenden, G. Framing best practice: National standards for the primary prevention of sexual assault through education, National Sexual Assault Prevention Project for NASASV, University of Western Sydney, 2009.
21. See, for example, Carmody, M, and Carrington, K, "Preventing Sexual Violence?" The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Criminology, 33, 3 (2000); Carmody, M. "Preventing Adult Sexual Violence Through Education?" Current Issues in Criminal Justice, 18, 2 (2006): 342; Powell, A. Sexual Pressure and Young People's Negotiation of Consent, Newsletter 1, Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, 2007, 14.
22. Roberts, L. 'Push to introduce mandatory, unified sexual consent'; Ezer, P, Jones, T, Fisher, C, Power, J. "A critical discourse analysis of sexuality education in the Australian curriculum," Sex Education, 19, 5 (2019).
23. Ezer et al. 'A critical discourse'; Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, "Personal and Social Capability Learning Continuum" and "Health and Physical Education Focus Areas", Accessed 23 August 2020. https://acara.edu.au.
24. Ezer et al. 'A critical discourse'; Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, The Shape of the Australian Curriculum, Version 4.0, October 2012.
25. Ezer et al. 'A critical discourse,' 564.
26. Erkens, C, BZgA Germany; Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence', 59.
27. Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence'.
28. Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence'.
29. Children and Social Work Act 2017 (UK); Böhm, C and Proll, B. Children and Adolescents Have a Right to Protection and Self-Determination, BZgA Sexuality Education and Family Planning FORUM February 2015, 37; Rutgers, CSE materials of Rutgers in the Netherlands and Internationally, June 2019.
30. BZgA. 'Sexuality Education: Lessons Learned and Future Developments in the WHO European Region' Conference Report, Berlin 15–16 May 2017, 80.
31. Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence'.
32. van Keulen et al., 'Effectiveness of the Long Live Love 4 program'; BZgA, Evaluation of the theatrical play: Select results of the survey of children, their parents and teaching staff in Schleswig-Holstein and Saxony, 2017.
33. van Keulen et al., 'Effectiveness of the Long Live Love 4 program'.
34. Law, B. Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal, Quarterly Essay, QE67 September 2017.
35. Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence'.
36. Marson, 'Ignorance is not Innocence'.
37. The Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019 were made under sections 34 and 35 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
38. Department for Education (UK), Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education: Statutory Guidance, 2019.
39. Westminster Education Forum, Next steps for the implementation of compulsory relationships and sex education and health education in schools – curriculum design, inclusivity and developing the teaching workforce transcript, Keynote Seminar, London UK, 14 May 2019.
40. BZgA General Concept for Sexuality Education of the Federal Centre for Health Education in collaboration with the federal states (2016).
41. van Keulen et al., 'Effectiveness of the Long Live Love 4 program'.