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Consent

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How we define consent affects how we define and understand family, domestic and sexual violence. Consent can be broadly defined as a person freely and voluntarily agreeing to participate in an interaction. While consent can apply to a broad range of issues, in this topic page the term refers to sexual consent. Over time both community perceptions and legal definitions of consent have changed. These changes are a critical part of improving how Australia’s legal system responds to the complex circumstances in which sexual violence can occur and ensuring that everyone can feel safe and respected in their relationships.

Consent can be broadly defined as a person freely and voluntarily agreeing to participate in an interaction. Consent can relate to a wide range of issues including medical procedures, the use of personal information and images, and physical and sexual interactions. In this topic page, consent is discussed in terms of sexual interactions. Sexual violence occurs when a person is involved in sexual acts without consent. For further discussion of sexual violence, see Sexual violence. For a discussion of data related to other forms of consent, such as in technology-facilitated abuse, see Stalking and surveillance, and in forced marriage, see Modern slavery.

Consent requires ongoing mutual communication and decision-making and can be withdrawn at any point through verbal and non-verbal communication and cues. A lack of physical or verbal resistance (for example, where a person has a freeze response) does not indicate consent (NSW LRC 2018). A freeze response is an involuntary, reflexive fear response characterised by a person being unable to move or give physical or verbal resistance in a situation involving extreme fear.

In Australia’s legal system, consent is defined by relevant laws of all state and territories, which vary between jurisdictions (AIFS 2021). There are ongoing reforms in a number of states and territories to amend the legal definition of sexual consent to an affirmative model of consent that requires a person to take active steps to say or do something to find out whether the other person consents to the sexual activity (Australian Government 2022; DSS 2022).

Consent must be ‘informed’, this refers to the need for a person to understand what they are consenting to, with nothing preventing them from providing their consent or changing their mind. Informed consent cannot be given in many circumstances including if someone is:

  • under the age of consent (see Box 1)
  • unclear about the sexual behaviour being asked of them at the time
  • unable to understand the sexual behaviour being asked of them, for example due to cognitive impairment
  • passed out, unconscious or asleep
  • heavily affected by alcohol or other drugs
  • misled about what the sexual activity involves or its purpose, including the identity of the other person
  • forced or pressured into the sexual interaction (Australian Government 2022; DSS 2022).

A pattern of controlling and abusive behaviour in relationships may make a person unable or reluctant to express or withdraw consent due to factors including fear of the perpetrator:

  • harming them or their family
  • taking away their access to money, medical treatment, support and so on
  • spreading damaging information or misinformation about the person (Australian Government 2022).

For a further discussion of patterns of controlling and abusive behaviour, refer to Coercive control.

Consent is needed no matter a person’s relationship with another. In relationships where a person is in a position of authority over the other person it is never acceptable for them to do sexual things together, even with consent. This includes relationships between:

  • anyone and a child, as children under the age of consent cannot consent to sex or sexual acts (see Box 1)
  • teachers and school students
  • employers and employees
  • professional health workers and their patients
  • professional carers or support workers and their clients (Australian Government 2022).

What do we know about attitudes relating to consent?

A survey of about 2,000 adults in Australia in 2021 showed 7 in 10 (70%) believe the way people broadly think and talk about sexual consent is different now compared to a few years ago (Kantar Public 2022). However, when asked for how it was different, there was little consistency in responses, with many unable to describe specific changes. About half (48%) of respondents were conflicted in their understanding of consent, uncertain of their own ability to define it and/or found it difficult to talk about (Kantar Public 2022).

Some people still hold negative beliefs and attitudes about consent and sexual violence including views that:

  • sexual violence can’t happen within an intimate relationship
  • the victim of sexual violence is fully or partly responsible for ‘inviting’ or not preventing violence
  • the damage that can be caused by sexual violence is not as serious as it really is (DSS 2022; Coumarelos et al. 2023).

Many people desire clarity and leadership on providing education around consent to the broader community (Kantar Public 2022). Over 1 in 5 (22%) university students suggested universities need to educate students about sexual harassment and consent to reduce incidents of sexual violence (Heywood et al. 2022). The National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022–2032 also emphasises the need for increased consent education across the community to promote positive, equal and respectful relationships between people of all genders and in all contexts (DSS 2022). The National Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Child Sexual Abuse 2021–2030 focuses future activity towards raising child sexual abuse awareness and better and more targeted education about child sexual abuse and healthy relationships (NOCS 2021).

Recently there has been progress towards more widespread education and awareness of issues around consent. These include the implementation of respectful relationships education in schools, recent campaigns on consent and the #metoo movement (DSS 2022). Education ministers around Australia agreed to mandate consent education in schools from 2023 (Woodley et al. 2022). All Australian schools are now required to teach age-appropriate consent education from the first year of compulsory schooling to Year 10 and in 2022, a new Australian Curriculum was released with updated content and guidance for teaching about consent (ACARA 2022).

What do the data show?

Negative attitudes about consent

  • 1 in 4

    respondents in 2021 agreed with the false statement ‘when a man is very sexually aroused, he may not realise that the woman doesn’t want to have sex’

    Source: National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey

The 2021 NCAS asked questions related to attitudes that disregard the need for sexual interactions to be based on the presence of and ongoing negotiation of consent. Many of these attitudes reflect stereotyped beliefs about the roles of men and women in sexual relationships. This included:

  • Attitudes that mistrust women’s reports of violence – about 1 in 3 (34%) believed it is common for sexual assault accusations to be used as a way of getting back at men, contrary to the evidence
  • Attitudes that minimise violence against women and shift blame – about 1 in 5 (19%) agreed that ‘sometimes a woman can make a man so angry that he hits her when he didn’t mean to’
  • Attitudes that objectify women – 1 in 10 (10%) agreed that ‘since some women are so sexual in public, it’s not surprising that some men think they can touch women without permission’
  • Attitudes that promote disregard for consent – 1 in 4 (25%) agreed that ‘when a man is very sexually aroused, he may not realise that the woman doesn’t want to have sex’
  • Attitudes that justify forced sex – about 1 in 13 (8%) believed that a man would be justified in forcing sex with a woman in a situation where they had just met at a party, got on well, gone to the woman’s home and the woman had initiated intimacy before pushing him away (Coumarelos et al. 2023).

For a more detailed discussion of community attitudes and understanding of violence against women, see Community attitudes.

Attitudes about coerced sex in marriage

About 1 in 9 (11%) people in 2021 thought that a married man was justified in insisting on or forcing sex on their wife if intimacy was started by the woman then the woman pushed him away.

About 1 in 5 (20%) people in 2021 did not know that it is a criminal offence for a man to have sex with his wife without her consent, reporting that they were either unsure (9%) or thought it was not a criminal offence (11%). Historically, sexual assault in marriage was not explicitly criminalised in many countries. In Australia, from 1976 into the 1980s, legislation was enacted to make it clear that sexual assault in marriage is against the law (Coumarelos et al. 2023; Larcombe and Heath 2012).

The 2021 NCAS asked whether, contrary to law, people agreed that a married man was justified in insisting on or forcing sex on his wife in certain situations:

  • very few (3%) supported the husband if intimacy was started by the man but the woman pushed him away
  • about 1 in 9 (11%) supported the husband if intimacy was started by the woman then the woman pushed him away (Coumarelos et al. 2023).

Attitudes about alcohol use and consent

  • 10%

    of respondents in 2021 had the false belief that ‘If a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible

    Source: National Community Attitudes towards Violence against Women Survey

According to the 2021 NCAS, some people hold attitudes that violence can be excused if alcohol is involved:

  • 1 in 10 (10%) agreed that ‘If a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible’
  • about 1 in 20 (6%) agreed that ‘a man is less responsible for rape if he is drunk or affected by drugs at the time’ (Coumarelos et al. 2023).

The NCAS found that some people hold attitudes around alcohol and consent in relationships that are inconsistent with laws related to consent – 1 in 17 (6%) agreed that ‘if a woman is drunk and starts having sex with a man, but then falls asleep, it is understandable if he continues having sex with her anyway’ (Coumarelos et al. 2023).

Consent education in Australia

  • 1 in 4 secondary school students

    surveyed in 2021 said their sexuality/relationship education was very or extremely relevant

    Source: National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health

The 2021 7th National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health asked students aged 14 to 18 years about sexuality/relationship education (SRE) and found that 93% reported receiving SRE at school, most commonly in Years 8 and 9. A smaller proportion of those who were homeschooled (80%) or from Catholic schools (89%) reported receiving SRE than those from independent (93%) or government schools (95%) (Power et al. 2022).

Most (96%) students reported that they thought SRE was an important part of the school curriculum. However, only 1 in 4 (25%) participants reported that their SRE was very or extremely relevant, with higher proportions for:

  • males (29%) than females (23%) or trans and non-binary people (20%)
  • heterosexual young people (28%) than LGBQ+ young people (21%)
  • students from government (26%) and independent (24%) schools than students from catholic schools (21%) or that were homeschooled (19%) (Power et al. 2022).

When asked about the range of topics covered in SRE, most students reported that safe sex in same sex relationships, anal sex and issues of sex for people with disabilities were not covered at all (Power et al. 2022).

Based on student comments on SRE:

  • many described it as largely inadequate to their needs and overall, not supporting their development of sexual relationships or health
  • some students described a lack or absence of detail on topics they wanted and expected, such as consent, anatomy, reproductive processes, sexuality, sexual communication and relationships
  • the capacity, attitude and comfort of teachers in delivering SRE was central to students’ experience of SRE (Power et al. 2022).

See The 7th National survey of Australian secondary students and sexual health 2021 for further information.

Has it changed over time?

Negative attitudes about consent over time

More people disagreed that ‘Women often say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’ in 2021 (86%) than in 2013 (74%).

Some questions related to attitudes that disregard the need for an ongoing negotiation of consent have been asked in more than one iteration of the NCAS. For some attitudes, improvements are evident over time:

  • Attitudes that objectify women – more people disagreed that ‘since some women are so sexual in public, it’s not surprising that some men think they can touch women without permission’ in 2021 (89%) than in 2017 (76%).
  • Attitudes that promote disregard for consent – more people disagreed that ‘Women often say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’ ’ in 2021 (86%) than in earlier years (78% in 2009 and 74% in 2013).
  • Attitudes that excuse violence if alcohol is involved – more people disagreed that ‘If a woman is raped while she is drunk or affected by drugs she is at least partly responsible’ in 2021 (88%) than in earlier years (80% in 2009, 78% in 2013) (Coumarelos et al. 2023).

Consent education over time

Based on data from the National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health:

  • more Year 10, 11 and 12 students reported receiving SRE in 2021 (94%) than in 2018 (84%) or 2013 (86%)
  • fewer Year 10, 11 and 12 students reported finding RSE ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ relevant in 2021 (24%) than in 2018 (38%) or 2013 (48%) (Power et al. 2022).
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