The one thing missing from the conversation around consent education.

As a sexual offences prosecutor, Katrina Marson has spent a decade seeing the aftermath of sexual violence criminal cases come across her desk.

Feeling frustrated by the limits of the criminal justice system, in 2019 Marson moved to work in sexual violence prevention.

"It seemed the only solution to slow the steady stream of devastating, life-ruining cases landing on my desk," she says.

Over the years, Katrina's research has found that focusing on consent education alone is not enough - what we need is a focus on sexual wellbeing as well.

"We prioritise mental, physical and financial wellbeing. We empower our kids to learn to drive and to swim, we don't expect them to figure it out on their own. Why is this not the same for sexual education?" Marson tells Mamamia.

Watch part of Katrina Marson's TEDx Talk. Post continues below.

Video via TEDx Talks.

After a strong TedxBrisbane talk and authoring the book Legitimate Sexpectations: The Power of Sex-Ed, it's clear this is an issue close to Marson's heart. And for good reason - because she has seen the overwhelmingly positive impact that age-appropriate sex education has on young people.

Right now, it feels like conversations about consent education are at an all-time high. And this is great.


But like with anything, a multi-faceted issue needs a multi-faceted approach. 

With this in mind, Marson believes consent education isn't simply a 'silver bullet' solution to teaching young people about their sexuality and helping prevent sexual violence. 

What is Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE)?

Comprehensive RSE is education that begins during early childhood and continues throughout life, concerning the physical, emotional, mental and social aspects of sexuality and relationships.

It's about providing age-appropriate learnings about sexual wellbeing, relationships, and everything in between. 

"Right now sex ed in Australia is a risk-averse model. We're very focused on STI and pregnancy prevention. Now with consent education, we're focused on violence prevention. Although these are important to cover, a more holistic approach where we look at the positives of relationships and sexuality is also needed in order to give young people a comprehensive understanding," says Marson.

As for why some groups tend to stick their noses up about young people being taught sex ed in schools, there's a few arguments.

One is the suggestion that it's the responsibility of parents and families to deliver sex education, it's not the responsibility of schools. It's ideal for parents to be having these conversations too, notes Marson. But in a controlled learning environment like a school, she feels there is a greater chance of the student gaining the necessary information, skills and tools needed to safeguard their sexual wellbeing. 


"It's about a partnership between schools and the home and the rest of the community. Because we know there are a lot of families who are not able to deliver best-practice sex education at home for so many reasons. And sadly, we also know that a lot of young people will experience sexual violence in the home," she tells Mamamia

The other argument against sex ed in schools is the suggestion that it encourages young people to engage in sexual behaviour 'earlier than preferred'. Research evidence however doesn't back this up.

Interestingly, educational programs that only promote abstinence have been ineffective in delaying sexual initiation and reducing unintended pregnancies. We've seen this particularly in the US, where federally funded abstinence-only programs were found to be harmful and ineffective


"The evidence is clear that the more you talk to young people about this stuff, the later they're likely to have their first sexual experiences and they're less likely to have a negative sexual experience," says Marson. 

"It works for child abuse prevention, reduces teenage pregnancy rates and it actually improves academic performance."

A parenting expert's perspective. 

Dr Justin Coulson is the co-host and parenting expert on Channel Nine's Parental Guidance, and the founder of He holds a PhD in psychology and is one of Australia's most trusted parenting experts.

Having age-appropriate conversations about sex, consent and everything in between should begin as young as possible, he notes.

"My recommendation is that parents talk early to their kids and talk often to their kids about tricky subjects, like this one. By getting into the habit and having regular conversations, it will start to no longer feel tricky and awkward," Dr Coulson tells Mamamia.

One point that he feels differently on though is about schools delivering this sort of education.

"I don't think it's the role of the school to be providing this conversation to children. The other reason schools are being required to do it is because parents aren't stepping up and fulfilling their obligation. This is a parental responsibility, not a school responsibility," he explains.


"Parents know their kids best. And by the time these conversations start happening in schools, it's often behind the times. All kids mature at different stages, some later and some super early. So if consent education only begins at a certain grade, for lots of kids, this learning will be X years too late."

Anecdotally speaking as well, the response from parents, educators and the students themselves to consent education currently being delivered in schools has been sub-par.

And from his perspective, Dr Coulson feels that although we're getting better at having a conversation about consent education, the conversation itself could be improved upon.

"On the bright side, we're having the conversations now in schools. But I'm still hearing a lot of complaints saying it's not moving the needle enough.

"We need people with qualifications and academic backing providing this education in schools, to help supplement what parents have already been speaking about with their kids. Right now we're just filling a gap and ticking a box. We need more, the standard is the issue."

Given the fact the majority of sexual assault offenders recorded by police are males aged 15 to 19 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2020), we need to be addressing pertinent topics like empathy, sexual wellbeing and affirmative consent far younger than what we're doing right now. 


Why these conversations shouldn't be daunting.

For some parents, they might find the whole topic of sex ed a bit uncomfortable. But it's a conversation certainly worth having and getting used to.

"Regardless of your own baggage, nervousness, or anticipatory anxiety around the conversation, make sure to have them," says Dr Coulson.

"For my family - I have six kids - my wife and I on the first Sunday of every month sit down as a family and we talk about a tough topic. We bring some good snacks, we start with a monologue that goes for a few minutes and then get the kids to ask as many questions as they please. And they get into it." 

From Dr Coulson's perspective, he wants to see an additional focus on teaching kids good character and empathy - essentially how to be decent human beings. Teaching respect and integrity might sound simple, but in reality, it is a fundamental aspect of relationships and sexuality education.


Katrina Marson also wants parents to remember there's power in saying: "Actually I don't know the answer to your question but I'm going to go away and find it out for you". It's about meeting your kid's curiosity. 

Ultimately, Marson says she feels hopeful for the next generation. She continues to advocate for young people, determined they get access to the information and education they deserve and need to live fulfilling lives.

"Something I always hear when I go into universities is young adults saying they wished they had learned this at school or from their parents at a younger age. That really upsets me, because it suggests there was a moment in their lives where they needed this kind of education and didn't have it," she tells Mamamia

"I love knowing that we can make a real difference to giving young people a better chance for their future. I suppose coming from working in criminal law, where I was only dealing with the aftermath of harm and hurt and destruction, I feel really passionate about securing a better future for young people."

For more from Katrina Marson, you can see her website here and Instagram here. For Dr Justin Coulson, you can see his Instagram here and website here for Happy Families.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) - the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. 

Feature Image: Getty.

Calling all gift buyers! Take our survey now to go in the running to win one of four $50 gift vouchers!