Content warning: Mentions of rape and sexual violence.
Last week, education ministers across the country agreed to a raft of national health curriculum changes that would explicitly address issues of consent in sexual relationships.
Such changes come after an explosion in the national discourse last year regarding issues of consent and rape culture, with figures such as Grace Tame, Brittany Higgins and Chanel Contos quickly becoming household names. The latter of these women, in particular, drew attention to the abysmal state of the national health curriculum and built an entire campaign dedicated to improving consent education.
‘Teach Us Consent’, Contos’ campaign demanded.
The concept of ‘consent’ has become fundamental to discussions surrounding sexual relationships. It has been invoked as both a moral and legal standard to ascribe value judgements to sexual encounters. And whilst there are important implications for definitions of consent that situate it within a sexual context, this move towards a sex-centric understanding of ‘consent’ also risks alienating communities of people who have never centred sex in their relationships.
As an ace (asexual) person, I watched last year’s discussions unfold from a strange position of both identification and disidentification with the struggles that Contos’ campaign sought to platform and overcome. A culture of deference and shame in the Catholic school I grew up in left me questioning my own (a)sexual identity for years, leaving gaps in my understanding of sexual relationships that would be filled with insecurities and self-loathing. But at the same time, the thousands of testimonies of cases of sexual violence that had become representative of the campaign’s core, although extremely valid, did not represent my grievances with the national curriculum on sex education.
Whilst the solutions that the Teach Us Consent campaign and recent curriculum changes introduce are important first steps in addressing this gap in Australia’s sex education, it is important to note that much of these are premised on compulsory allonormativity – the assumption that all people are allosexual; or, experience sexual attraction.
For example, there is no explicit reference to the issue of corrective rape, which, although has been used as a form of conversion therapy for many queer people, has also uniquely affected ace people. Many closeted ace people with internalised aphobia willingly turn to sex in an effort to fix their sense of ‘brokenness’ at not experiencing sexual desire, only to contend with confusing feelings of shame and violation afterwards.
The biggest issue I take with the incoming curriculum changes is its sex-centric definition of ‘consent’. Stemming from compulsory allonormativity, such a definition privileges sexual situations and relationships in how we think about consent. Although the changes are reported to include education on the broader concept of consent from ‘foundation years’, consent will be explicitly tied to sex education from Years 7 to 10.
For asexual people, a sex-centric definition of consent risks diluting the concept of its thrust and relevance for developing and maintaining healthy relationships that are not sexual in nature. Asexuality and ace discourse sheds light on the multitude of ways that humans can experience attraction and form connections, on the many types of relationships that humans can engage in. Being aware of this plurality is important in dismantling systems of compulsory allonormativity that excludes and harms people who do not experience sexual attraction, nor engage in sexual relationships.
An asexual perspective is imperative when considering solutions to addressing the lack of sex education in national curriculums, a gap that has created survivors out of students. Whilst the incoming changes are an important first step in overturning a culture that systematically silences sexual assault survivors and protects abusers, we must always critically examine which communities are being excluded. An asexual perspective advocates for a broader definition of consent that recognises the usefulness of the concept beyond sexual relationships. Consent must be treated as more than just a moral or legal standard applied exclusively to sexual situations, but as an ethos that bears weight in relationships of a multitude of forms.