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Consent and sex

For any parent, thinking about your child having sex can be confronting. It’s common to have concerns about your child’s ability to consent to sex.

Introduction

For any parent, thinking about your child having sex can be confronting. It’s common to have concerns about your child’s ability to consent to sex, or them being at risk of being taken advantage of by other people. This may especially be the case if your child has an intellectual disability or autism spectrum disorder, or they are non-verbal communicators.

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It can be tempting to wait until your child shows an interest in sex or they reach the age of consent before teaching them about these topics. However, to help build your child’s self-protection skills when it comes to consent and sex, it is important to introduce the broad concept of consent early and in a way that fits with the things they do in daily life. This means practising asking for and giving consent, for example, prior to personal care or consent to touch in friendships or family relationships. You can read more about these in the Introduction to Consent and Consent and Relationships pages.

To be able to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to sex, it is also necessary for your child to understand what sex is. Talking early and often with your child about sex builds their safety skills and empowers them to make decisions and reduces their vulnerability. For information on how you can teach your child about what sex is, go to How are Babies Made.

Many parents of children with intellectual disability and/or autism spectrum disorder are concerned about their child’s current and future ability to consent to sex.

Generally speaking, a person has capacity to consent to sex if they can:

  • understand the nature of the sexual activity
  • consider the information relevant to make a decision about the sexual activity
  • communicate that decision

The person needs to be over the legal age of consent to be able to consent to sex. In Tasmania and South Australia, the age of consent is 17. In all other states and territories In Australia, the age of consent is 16.

Most state and territories have laws saying that a person cannot consent to sex if they lack capacity due to an intellectual disability or mental impairment. There are also laws saying that all people must be presumed to have the capacity to consent, unless it proven that they don’t have capacity.

In practice, however, determining whether a person does or does not have the capacity to consent to sex is a difficult and ongoing conversation. This is because capacity to consent can change over time, particularly if a person receives education and support to build their decision making skills.

If you have concerns about your child’s capacity to consent, you should speak to your child’s doctor, psychologist or behaviour support practitioner. Keep in mind, however, that whether your child does or does not have the capacity to consent to sex or other important things in life (e.g., medical decisions), what is most important is that you are consistently working to build their decision making skills and capacity to consent. For more information, go to Supporting Decision Making.

Sex that happens without a person’s consent is sexual assault. This includes sexual acts where an object or body part is used to penetrate a person’s vagina, mouth or anus. Sexual assault is a crime in all states and territories. Sexual assault is never the fault of the person who has been assaulted.

Sexual assault impacts people differently. Having an intellectual disability or autism spectrum disorder, or being non-verbal, does not mean that person is less affected by sexual assault. All people who have experienced sexual assault should have access to help and support for their physical, emotional and social wellbeing.

If your child has told you they have been assaulted, somebody else has reported that your child has been assaulted, or you notice injuries or behaviour changes in your child that concern you, it can be difficult to know what to do or where to go for help. Below is a list of services you can contact for support and advice.

National

National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for advice and local referral options.

Australian Capital Territory
Contact the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre or phone the crisis line on (02) 6247 2525 between 7 am and 11 pm, seven days a week.

New South Wales 
Contact Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia or phone the NSW Rape Crisis line on 1800 424 017, 24 hours.

Northern Territory
Contact an NT sexual assault referral centre or phone:

  • (08) 8922 6472 (Darwin, 24 hours)
  • (08) 8973 8524 (Katherine)
  • (08) 8962 4361 (Tennant Creek)
  • (08) 8955 4500 (Alice Springs, Monday-Friday, 8 am-4.20 pm)
  • 0401 114 181 (Alice Springs, out of hours).

Queensland
Contact Queensland sexual assault services or phone the Statewide Sexual Assault Helpline on 1800 010 120.

South Australia
Contact Yarrow Place (Rape and Sexual Assault Service) or phone 1800 817 421 – toll free in South Australia, 24 hours, 7 days a week.

Tasmania
In southern Tasmania contact Sexual Assault Support Service or phone 1800 697 877 – 24 hours, 7 days a week.

In north and north-west Tasmania contact Laurel House – North and North-West Tasmania Sexual Assault Support Services:

  • North: (03) 6334 2740 – 8.30 am-5 pm, Monday-Friday
  • North-west: (03) 6431 9711 – 9 am-5 pm, Monday-Friday
  • North and north-west after-hours crisis line: 1800 697 877.

Victoria
Contact the Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault or phone the 24-hour crisis line on 1800 806 292.

Western Australia
Contact the WA Sexual Assault Resource Centre or phone:

  • (08) 6458 1828 (24-hour emergency service)
  • 1800 199 888 (freecall, 24-hour emergency service).

Conversation Starters

The couple in the movie are in kissing in bed. Do you know what they might do next? Does it look like they’re both agreeing to have sex?
The woman on TV just told the man she doesn’t want to go out with him. What should he do?

Strategies for you to try

Practice consent in daily life

Use everyday opportunities in your child’s routine to practise giving and asking for consent.

Key opportunities for practise include:

  • Before your child touches other people e.g., giving hugs to other people, including you
  • Before your child touches other people’s belongings e.g., phone, computer, toys
  • When planning outings or playing games with friends
  • Before you or other support people provide personal care (showering, toileting, dressing)
  • Before you or other people give hugs or other affectionate touch
  • Before your or other people enter your child’s private space (e.g., bedroom)

Teachable moments

Have a conversation about sex while watching a movie or tv show. Do the characters look like they are consenting to sex? What are the signs?

Develop a No-Go-Tell Plan

Teach your child that if someone asks to touch or touches their body in a way they do not like, they need to say no (verbally or by signing stop) and go and tell one of their trusted people.

Use the Trusted People worksheet to help your child identify their 3 trusted people. Put the completed worksheet on their wall and refer to it in conversations.

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