Sexual violence sits high on the list of behaviours we abhor as a society.
A recent 10 per cent rise in New South Wales sexual assault cases surely makes us wonder how to raise children who avoid becoming perpetrators or victims of a Roast Busters sequel.
Years before young adults might consider using an app to give consent, as suggested by the NSW Police Commissioner, I purport that children as young as 3 are given the wrong messages about consent by well-meaning parents and teachers. As counter-intuitive as this may seem, the key to consent might lie in allowing children to act out physically aggressive behaviours in play. Hear me out.
Physical play is a normal part of childhood from the years 3 to 12. Sometimes, this play can look quite rough, scary, or even violent to observing adults.
Bullrush, wrestling matches, king of the castle, or just grabbing a stick and swinging it at someone -these are all examples of normal childhood play that adults have increasingly banned since the 1970s. It came from a good place, with anti-war pacifists thinking we could educate away violent tendencies by simply telling little children it wasn't allowed.
But it turns out that even if you take all the plastic guns and sticks away, there's still a pointed finger and imaginary battles.
What does this have to do with consent? It may help to understand the purpose of rough physical play, a behaviour seen in all mammals.
Anthropologist Peter Gray points out: "Play fighting is an exercise in restraint, it's about learning how not to hurt someone else."
You want the game to continue, so you learn to listen to your playmate. You adjust the strength of your blows and the rules of the game so everyone can keep playing. In that sense, rough play can be seen as nature's way of learning about consent.
Of course the problem is that sometimes we do get hurt. Play fights can become real fights, with flushed cheeks, angry tears, and scraped knees. Parents worry about their children being bullied.
Concerns around health and safety have led schools and ECEs to put play fighting in the too-hard basket. "No fighting" has become the rule.
The connection with consent is that by banning rough play, we have effectively said, "we don't trust you to listen to your playmate".
Most of the time in rough play, children are absolutely riveted and willing participants, but of course there is constant change as emotions ebb and flow, as physical manoeuvres turn too rough or the child's energy flags.
To keep the game going requires a high level of sensitivity to the needs of your playmate, particularly when we are playing with others younger or weaker than us. If we want to grow adults that can accurately read the messages sent by their sexual partners, how should they be expected to suddenly be competent when we have not allowed them to practice this complex skill, meanwhile compounding the problem by sending them messages of mistrust?
There is a fairly simple solution. Ask the children, "Do you like this game?" If they say yes, leave them to it, and look away if it makes you uncomfortable (keep the plasters handy).
If they say no, help the group to adjust the rules of the game or support that individual to choose something else to do.
Perhaps if we allow children to develop these skills when they are young they will be better placed to understand and navigate the complex rules of sexual engagement in modern society.
• Ann Langis a play specialist and is the director of Ann Langis Play.
Where to get help:
• If it's an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
• If you've ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline
on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334.
• Alternatively contact your local police station
• If you have been abused, remember it's not your fault.