Let’s Discuss What You Need to Know About Being a BDSM Switch


It’s like a lil bit of dominant + a lil bit of submissive.


what is a bdsm switch


ICYMI: BDSM stands for bondage and discipline, domination and submission, and sadism and masochism. This is where the whole dominant (sometimes called a “top”) and submissive (a “bottom”) dynamic comes into play.

“A top is simply someone who leads/guides the scene and the bottom is there to receive the experience,” explains Mistress Rogue, professional dominatrix and headmistress of The Dom House. (The dominant and submissive terms can also be used when there’s a power dynamic as well.)This content is imported from {embed-name}. You may be able to find the same content in another format, or you may be able to find more information, at their web site.

And while you might be most familiar with what a dominant and submissive do, there’s another term you might not be as familiar with: a switch. Let’s dive deeper.

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What is a BDSM switch?

A BDSM switch is someone who goes back and forth between dominating and being submissive, says Rogue. The dynamic change depends on the mood, circumstances, and the vibe between the partners, she adds.

And while the term is used commonly in the BDSM community, it’s important to note that switching—just like being dominant or submissive—isn’t always sexual. It’s merely about an exchange of power, which could be anything from doing chores to consensually ordering your partner around. What’s done in the bedroom is like an ~added~ bonus.

How do you know if you’re a switch?

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re a switch, the answer is actually pretty simple: Just think about what turns you on.

If sometimes you feel more eager to take control in the bedroom (e.g. riding your partner, tying them up, etc.), and other times the idea of your partner running the show (e.g. spanking you, tying you up, or just managing the positions) sounds better, there’s a good chance you’re a switch, says Rogue.

If you’re still unsure, chatting with your partner(s) can help you figure it out. “It’s about being honest with yourself and with your partners so that you both are receiving as much pleasure from the interaction as the other,” says Florida department of health sexual health educator, Jasmine Akins. “As long as you have partner communication and honesty, you should be able to self-identify.”

What are the perks of switching?

The most obvious perk of switching is having the opportunity to play in different ways with potentially different partners. Not only will it give you more chances for connection (and uh, orgasms), but it will also give you a more well-rounded perspective, which can make you an even better dominant or submissive.

“The best dominants often start as subs and then find their way up to being a top or a dom,” says Rogue. “In fact, this was how I became a dominatrix. I was introduced to BDSM by a dominant, and I learned and built skills knowing what I wanted as a bottom, so I could become a better dom.”

In addition to honing your skills, switching can also be majorly liberating in a mental sense. You can explore different head spaces and free yourself from playing the role you think you have to play during sex, says Akins. This can aid in communication, decrease boredom, and stimulate creativity.

Are there any downsides or risks?

The major concern with switching—other than becoming addicted to it, lol— is making sure everyone is continuously onboard and you’re practicing safely. “Being a switch means learning double safety information for BDSM practices. Keeping everything SSC (safe, sane and consensual) is vital,” she explains.

Any BDSM play can involve risks, which is why things like constant consent and safe words are integral. Partner communication is vital in any sexual situation, but especially if you’re adding some new kinks to the mix.

Finally, just like with any sort of sexual activity, reducing the risk of STI transmission is always essential. “You should be tested whenever you have a new partner, and if you’re in a monogamous relationship, I recommend testing at least once a year,” advises Akins. Utilizing barrier methods is a smart idea for some forms of BDSM play where penetration or fluid exchange is involved.

Now, here’s how to try switching for the first time

If you think you might like to switch up the power dynamics in the bedroom, don’t be afraid to explore those desires, even if they seem like a curveball in your relationship.

“The first step is being interested in it, so don’t feel like you have to be the BDSM king or queen the very first time,” says Akins. “Do your research and ask questions.”

Both experts agree: Educating yourself is key to a successful switch. And luckily, there are tons of resources out there to get you started—just don’t reach for Christan and Ana’s story as a guidebook.

And if your research leads you to believe switching might be for you, let your partner know. While it might seem hot to spring it on them mid-session, it’s actually important to talk things out ahead of time so you’re both on the same page.

Plus, you will need consent to test out a new dynamic. You never know what triggers someone might have, or what emotions might be stirred up within yourself, so communicating throughout (and checking in with yourself) is vital.

Then when it comes time to go at it, take things extra slow.

“If you’re a newbie, feel free to ease into it. You can start with a simple blindfold to heat things up. As you get more comfortable with the idea, you can expand your play options with yourself and with your partner,” suggests Akins.

“The [desire] may develop [or deteriorate] over time, and since this will probably be a pretty different experience for both of you, don’t expect to know right away whether you like the dynamic or not. “It’s okay to try new things, and it’s okay to absolutely adore them or hate them,” Akins says. “It’s your body, and you have the final say. Always.”

OPINION: The BDSM Test can be a helpful tool for college students, and not just those in relationships

VIA Alestlelive

Lifestyles Editor Madison Lammert, Apr 8, 2021

OPINION: The BDSM Test can be a helpful tool for college students, and not just those in relationships
Via UnSplash.

Sex is a huge part of the human experience, so much so that we devoted a full 16 pages to the topic while still not covering everything. Given this, it seems reasonable that we should make the most of it, right? 

Enter the BDSM Test from bdsmtest.org. This whole website is devoted to “test[ing] the kink out of you!” The questions are daunting, and nothing is off limits. While initially taking the test can be a bit uncomfortable for some, it can actually provide valuable insight into one’s turn ons, boundaries and more. And no, it’s not just for those looking to explore everything. 

According to the website, BDSM is a multi-versatile acronym that puts together some common kinks: Bondage and discipline, dominance and submission and sadism and masochism. If these are new terms for you, don’t worry — the site does an awesome job breaking them down in an understandable manner. If they sound daunting, that’s OK, you might not be into those things. Or you might take the test and be a little surprised by your results. 

First and foremost, like discussed earlier in this special edition, kinks are — and should be — limited to consensual activity with other adults and require before-and-after care. Experimentation is welcome and encouraged, but only if done safely. Understanding this, the BDSM tool can be a valuable tool for everybody, whether they are currently sexually active with one or more partners or enjoying their own company. 

The test is set up to provide individual results, with specific scores (in percentages) that represent how much the test-taker is into — or is totally not interested in — each kink. It does not ask about one’s experiences with current partners or past partners, but focuses on what they would like or would not like, making it not exclusive to only people who are actively in sexual relationships. Since the test is quite literally all about you and your desires, it is the perfect way to explore oneself for the sole purpose of pleasing oneself. Once one familiarizes themselves with the meaning assigned to different kinks, they can reflect back on the questions asked on the test to see how they factored into their results. For example, one kink that may pop up in one’s results is “daddy/mommy.” One may think, “Oh my gosh, this means I’m into young children.” Actually, when considering how one answered the questions, it is most likely attributable to wanting to take on a nurturing role in sexual relationships. Knowing this, one can think of new ways to make their partner feel safe and loved during sexual activity, therefore increasing their own pleasure. 

As myself and many of my friends have noticed, our test results often change depending on our partners’ wishes. Taking the test while not engaging sexually with others can really provide a window into your desires without worrying you are marking things because you got accustomed to compromising with somebody else. When choosing sexual partners in the future, you will know if you want to hook up with the self-proclaimed sadist. If not being in control is a huge turn off, maybe you’ll stay away from the prospective partner whose prized possession is their furry pink handcuffs bought at the local sex shop. 

Yet taking the BDSM test while in a committed relationship or while repeatedly visiting the same hook up brings its own long list of benefits. The key to any good sexual experience is mutual understanding. We have all been in situations where our partner(s) does or says something and it just ruins the whole mood, sometimes past the point of recovery. Knowing what you like and what your partner(s) like greatly decreases the chances of these awkward encounters happening. The BDSM test is a good starting point to learn how to describe what you want or don’t want. 

Of course, all sexual activity — kinky or not — requires consent, and we must remember consent can be taken away at any time, so just handing over your test scores to your partner(s) does not constitute consent to sexual activity. You still need to communicate, and for some people, being upfront about their desires is hard. Not only does the test help you identify what you like and don’t like, it is also a great way to let others in on that internal conversation. It opens the door to discussing how to safely try out new things (if all parties agree and understand they can withdraw consent at any time). And if your partner(s) judges you for what you’re into? Well, I guess the test helped you dodge a bullet there. 

Many of us were socialized to not talk about sexual activity from a young age, so of course it’s no wonder many struggle with bringing up the topic. The BDSM test provides a way to talk about sex in a more lighthearted way, breaking away from the all-too-familiar stigmatizing rhetoric we were taught in sex ed. My first exposure to the BDSM test was through friends, and honestly, I do think it helped create a more of an open atmosphere in that group. I would even go so far as to say the BDSM Test is part of the college experience. 

The first step to enhancing your pleasure, and that of others, is to know what you’re into, and isn’t that the hallmark of good sex of any kind? It’s time for you to take the test.

Disclaimer: Certain questions on the BDSM test referenced in this opinion ask about donating money / becoming part of a BDSM community. I have no knowledge — or affiliation — with this organization and am not by any means making claims of its refutability. There is also an option to make an “account.” I have not made an account, and so I am making no claims about how the website operates within membership. There is an option to take a free, detailed test without an account. 

SEX ON THURSDAY | I’m a Brat, and You Might be Too

VIA Cornellsun

Not unlike a miserably small man maintaining a Napoleon complex to counter his stunted stature, I, a small Asian girl, have always harbored a tendency to offset the likely impression of myself as quietly obedient and accommodating with behavior indicating the total opposite.

I possessed early on a somewhat cheeky attitude and slight irreverence for all things “other people,” fostered by the potent synthesis of single childhood and the influence of a father maybe definitely suffering from short man syndrome himself. At five years old, I’d rehearse eye-rolls in the girls’ bathroom mirror so that I could slide them into the sassy conflicts and condescension I planned to levy on fellow kindergarteners at recess. As I grew in age and understanding of matters beyond me, myself, and I, some of which were matters surrounding race, sex and the intersection thereof, I was only motivated to persist in my saucy ways, terrified that if I let up on the sass and misconduct for just one second I would appease the biased and repressive stereotyping I felt I was constantly sprinting away from. Consider the resting bitch face steadily instituted by the third grade, a reputation for being “nice but kinda mean sometimes” widely endorsed among friends and acquaintances by my tweens, and an overly strong impulse to express disagreement and criticism at the slightest opportunity among my key personality traits by the start of high school. As unsettled as I feel about extending this relatively immature series into the realm of my sex life, there’s no doubt that’s exactly where it’s headed.

I’ve almost always taken on the role of the submissive in sexual encounters, but the essence of that submission has changed as I’ve grown more familiar with what I like and want. More recently, I’ve begun to “brat.” Truly a sort of culmination of my insolent tendencies thus far, “brat” is defined by Urban Dictionary as the following: “A type of bdsm label, in which a sub (in most cases) enjoys misbehaving to the (dom, caregiver, etc.) for attention and punishments.” I’d say that I now shift between submissive and bratty depending on the partner and time, my behavior oftentimes landing somewhere in between the two.

Rather counterintuitive, I know, to my lifelong goal of avoiding any perception as a docile mute, are the countless instances in my more distant past of obedient submission to boys hauntingly enthusiastic about fucking my unmoving body, only convincing me of the hidden prevalence of necrophilia. You see, in the same way that I’ve long wished not to be viewed as a sub person in whole, I’ve never necessarily wished to view myself as a sub by only ever taking on that role in bed. I certainly sensed during my more submissive era that I yearned for something other, something that granted me more control but, importantly, not at all at the expense of the other party’s dominance. The truth of the matter is that I am most attracted to sexually dominant men but still want to be in some form of slight command. I soon identified that desire as my wanting a hold of that psychological playing field on which women have always overpowered the irrationally emotional creatures that compose much of mankind. Bratting gifts me a particular strain of control, control on a more emotional plane, that the other person can entirely lack without it hindering the physical upper hand they still hold. This constructs a sphere in which there are two power gradients at play running antiparallel to one another. And as I stimulate one with teasing, taunting, giggling and resisting, I provoke him to further vitalize the other, ultimately inspiring even more physical dominance from him. His side of activity essentially a series of physical responses to my snarky comments and small acts of defiance, I watch my influence colonize his psyche and, in turn, unfold itself over the entire encounter, determining the honest course of events.

It’s important to note that this is my approach to bratting, both in what I do and how I think about it, and is not in any way the only or official way to go about the activity. In my personal pursuit of the seemingly impossible scenario in which I get to fuck a guy exuding dominance uncompromisingly without my picking up the part of a traditional s-type, these are the attitudes with which I regard brat play. Many others approach it with entirely different methods motivated by entirely different thought processes and personal aims. And so, I send out a gentle suggestion to try it out for yourself not only to those who identify with my own attitudes and preferences, but also to anyone who thinks they might in any way benefit from giving brat play a chance.

Anime Brat is a student at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to opinion@cornellsun.comSex on Thursday runs every Thursday this semester.

Starter Guide to BDSM: Rules, Core Values, and Words You Should Know

VIA Greatist

Illustration by Brittany England

It’s safe to say BDSM has entered the mainstream. But while the “Fifty Shades” craze revealed the not-terribly-surprising fact that a lot of folks (read: your mom and most of her friends) have a sexually deviant streak, the book and movie did not do a great job at educating the world about how to (safely) practice BDSM.

There’s still quite a bit of problematic misconceptions — especially regarding consent — to the wade through to get to the heart of what BDSM is all about.

But, as we all know, when battling stigma and personal bias, wading through misconceptions to find the truth is worth it. At the other end lies the potential for improved self-confidence, deeper self-knowledge, and intimacy on another level.

“Through kink I learned to own my power and found my voice. This helped me build my self-esteem and confidence in the boardroom and the bedroom,” Kenneth Play, 39, co-founder of International Sex Hacker and Educator, & Co-Founder of Hacienda Villa, an intentional sex-positive community.

You may want to jump right in, but, for the safety of everyone involved, it’s important to get some basics down first. Below we go over important rules, tips for getting started, and how to bring it up with a partner.

What is BDSM?

BDSM stands for bondage/discipline, submission/dominance, and sadism/masochism. These categories refer to a wide array of kinks and erotic practices.

Practicing BDSM is about a lot more than the act of having sex. In fact, “a scene” may not involve sex or, even touching, at all. You’ll find that many of the common themes — power dynamics, pain, humiliation, the taboo — are psychological in nature.

If you’re thinking that sounds intense, don’t worry! It’s completely up to you how deep you want to get and how far you want to go with something. In BDSM, enthusiastic consent is paramount: you and only you decide how you want things to go.

BDSM, defined

This is a very basic description of what the BDSM subcategories mean. And remember, every aspect of these types of play is consensual and talked about beforehand.

  • Bondage/discipline. Bondage refers to someone being physically restrained. Discipline refers to a set of rules and punishment, usually enforced by the dominant partner onto the submissive.
  • Submission/dominance. Sub/dom play is when one person, the sub (or bottom) permits the dom (or top) to essentially be in charge. This may be an agreement you make for one night of play or it may be a 24/7 arrangement.
  • Sadism/masochism. Sadism is the enjoyment of doling out pain. Masochism is the enjoyment of receiving pain. If you like both? Well, that’s what we call a sadomasochist.

The BDSM dictionary

With all distinctive cultures come an expansive vocabulary! This is by no means an exhaustive list but it’ll give you a start.

Aftercarea post-scene ritual intended to help the dominant and submissive wind down and check in
Breath control playrestriction of oxygen to increase pleasure (i.e. choking, asphyxiation)
Chastitydenial of a partner to have sex and/or masturbate — sometimes devices are used to ensure chastity (cock cages or chastity belts)
Collared/collaringworn to indicate someone’s status as a submissive (collaring can indicate belonging to a dominant, and to some is seen as the ultimate level of commitment)
Cuckolda man/masc person who enjoys watching their femme partner have sex with someone in front of them
Dom/domme/dominantthe partner who leads the power dynamic in a dominant/submissive scene
Edgeplaybringing a partner to the brink of orgasm, but not letting them orgasm
Fetishintense sexualization of an act, object or scenario
Golden showersthe act of a partner urinating on another
Hard limitslimits that never will be negotiable
Leathersubset of BDSM culture dictated by leather-wearing practices
Peggingrefers to a woman/femme identifying person having anal sex with a man/masc identifying person, typically with a strap-on
Playspacean area designated for a scene or BDSM play
Risk aware consensual kinkan alternative to SSC (below), as the term is disliked in the community for it’s ableist language (RACK also argues that kink isn’t ever safe, but that those that participate acknowledge the risks)
Safe, sane, consensual (SSC)a BDSM philosophy dictating the pillars of BDSM play
Safeworda word or physical cue meant to end play
Subspacea mental space submissive’s can go through in the middle of a scene; it’s often considered “dreamy” or “floaty” like a high
Switcha partner who can be dominant or submissive
Topping from the bottoma bottom/submissive telling their top/dominant what to do to them
Vanillanon-kink/BDSM activity

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Rules and practices for BDSM

1. Leave alcohol and drugs out of it

Drugs and alcohol and BDSM don’t mix. It’s a safety risk for everyone involved. Intoxication can make it harder — or impossible — to give consent and muddy your ability to make decisions.

And if you also feel the need to get high or drunk to participate in these activities, that’s good indication you have inner work to do before you’re ready to jump in. Consider chatting with a a therapist — or even a trusted friend — to untangle your feelings around BDSM.

2. Talk about how it will go beforehand

In BDSM, this is called the negotiation and it’s a requirement for any type of play. This is where you state what you’re comfortable with and what’s off-limits. Because these activities leave us open for physical or emotional harm, getting specific about your boundaries is essential.

“Start out slow and talk to your sexual partner before you jump into things. The chat in itself can often be a turn-on,” says journalist and sex expert Almara Abgarian. “Discuss the various aspects you want to try, which role you want to hold and then try your way forward. You might find that what you like is something completely unexpected.”

Don’t know where to start? This negotiation cheat sheet is a good place to start (and printable!).

3. Give and get consent throughout

It goes without saying that consent is the most important aspect of BDSM. Because of the intensity of BDSM play and the real mental and physical risks involved in many types of play, you absolutely need to make sure every act is consensual.

A lot of this will happen in the negotiation but also check in with your partner throughout scenes. Just because something is okay once, doesn’t mean it always will be, so communicate throughout the entire interaction!

How to ask questions without ruining the mood

Asking for consent doesn’t have to be formal, it can be part of the dirty talk flow. Like this:

  • “Your ass looks so good. Is it OK if I spank you?”
  • “Do you like it when I hold your legs down like that?”
  • “Can I turn you over and touch you from from behind?”

4. Always have a safe word

This is a word that signals to your partner you want to stop. It needs to be different than “no” because depending on the type of play, begging or saying no may be part of the exchange.

Many folks choose the stoplight system to incorporate check-ins. Red means stop, yellow means proceed with caution and green means go.

Along with having a verbal safe word, it’s important to have a nonverbal safe word if you’re incorporating gags or breath play. Maybe this is a signals or stomps or tapping with your hand a la wrestling.

5. End play with aftercare

Aftercare is an essential part of BDSM, in which partners wind down together after the experience. Dom/sub interaction, impact play, and other aspects of BDSM can be intense. You get a ton of endorphins and even sometimes an adrenaline boost!

However, the come-down can be harsh. Aftercare is an attempt to mitigate that, often by cuddling, cleaning up, or just reflecting on the scene. Aftercare is different for everyone and should be discussed between partners before scenes begin.

Some other tips for getting started

  • Don’t get in over your head. Don’t head straight to dungeon activities. Maybe start with some spanking at home first.
  • Have the right tools to get out of sticky situations. Using handcuffs? Avoid ones where you can lose the key. Safety scissors are also an essential.
  • Watch porn to learn what you like. Try out websites like Royal Fetish FilmsDeeper or Kink.com. Also consider following dom(me)s, rope artists and other BDSM performers on OnlyFans.
  • Try taking this BDSM Test. It introduces you to important BDSM terminology and information and rates you in categories to give you an idea of what kind of play you might be most into.

Advice from folks who’ve been there

“If you’d like to dip a toe into BDSM, I suggest first masturbating on some fantasies and isolating why they’re so hot to you. Once you have a better idea of what you want to explore, start with recommended resources and educators to understand everything you need to do to practice BDSM safely, sanely, and consensually.” — Melissa A Vitale, 27, Publicist, NY

“Experiment as much with yourself as you do with partners. Only play with someone you feel to your core is completely safe and knowledgeable/willing to learn.” — Lexi, 29, OR

“My advice to people exploring BDSM would be just this: Don’t be afraid to ask if your partner would be interested in exploring a particular element of BDSM. They may say, ‘No,’ and that’s totally fine. But I bet there’s a decent chance they’re into the same thing(s) as you are — they were just too afraid to ask.” — Zachary Zane, 29, Writer and Promescent Brand Ambassador, NY

“It’s important for me to have critical conversations with my peers, playmates, and dynamics about not only the negotiated power exchange, but also those power dynamics that exist socially and systematically. When the world around us affects our kink, it’s inevitable for our kinks to affect how we show up in the world. And that is something to be conscious of.”—Morgan, 22, Vancouver

BDSM culture is about knowing yourself

BDSM can improve your life by teaching you to advocate for your needs, and communicate more clearly. “[BDSM has] given me grounding confidence that someone can find me at my most beautiful when I am feeling at my most vulnerable, exposed and self-conscious state of being,” says Lexi.

In the end, you’re the captain of your BDSM ship, and that’s what’s so powerful about it. You decide what it looks like and what you want to get out of it. Don’t let mainstream culture (ahem, “Fifty Shades”) lead you to believe otherwise.

“BDSM is rooted in consent; by being a submissive, you are willingly giving over your power because you want to and because it turns you on,” says Abgarian. There’s nothing more empowering than that!ADVERTISEMENT

Last medically reviewed on October 30, 2020

Medically reviewed by Jennifer Litner, LMFT, CST — Written by Gabrielle Smith on October 30, 2020

Ill-informed consent

VIA Themonthly

Artwork by Sarah Goffman

How piecemeal relationship and sexuality education is failing our schoolchildren

I start, as I always do, with a simple slide that says, “Here’s what you need to know about me, and here’s what I know about you.” It’s always a good icebreaker, but on this particular Wednesday in March I’m presenting to more than 200 students, so it’s critical I establish the right mix of authority and relatability immediately. “I’m 29, cisgender and in a long-term heterosexual relationship, sexually active, admitted to the legal profession and a researcher, and a survivor of a sex crime.” The survivor part usually delivers the intended “hush” effect before I make a few jokes: that it’s important they know I’m sexually active because I got my “sex ed” from a nun who, if we believe her, had no firsthand experience. That gets a laugh, and we’re off.

“Here’s what I know about you,” I say. Almost half of Year 10 to 12 students are sexually active. Of those, 28 per cent have experienced “unwanted” sexual activity. If they’re girls over 15, at least 20 per cent have been sexually assaulted, and if they’re boys over 15, it’s one in 25. Research suggests about a third of them are sexting or sending nudes, but I think it’s probably higher. At least 20 per cent are LGBTIQA+.

“What all this means is that in a room of 200 Year 11 and 12 students, statistically, I’m speaking to some survivors, some perpetrators, and some of you who may go on to become one or the other. I’m going to presume you all want what’s best for each other, and I’m going to respect you and presume you respect me.”

It was a state school about 15 kilometres north of Sydney’s centre, and I was there because I’d authored a book about sex crime and spent a few years advocating for consent law reform. For the first time, I was speaking about consent to a hall full of girls and boys together. Previously, I had only ever been invited to speak at girls-only schools, or to the girls only at co-educational schools. That’s how it had been earlier that week, when I spoke to this school’s senior girls, while at the same time the boys were hearing a talk from a male presenter about mental health and financial planning. The presentations were part of the school’s personal development week, during which seniors learn about drugs and alcohol, for example.

“Why aren’t the boys getting this talk?” one of the girls asked at the end of my earlier session with them.

“That’s a great question,” I replied. “Maybe your teachers can answer that.” They could and they did. Apparently, the teachers didn’t realise that the male presenter wouldn’t be talking to the boys about sex, and the deputy principal was disappointed by the disparity in presentations. I believed her, she apologised, and we made plans for my return on Wednesday to speak again with the whole senior student cohort present.

Requests for these consent talks come to me directly from teachers or school leaders, or occasionally through my speaking agents. Every single time I’ve gone to a new school – a handful in Queensland and now a couple in New South Wales – it has been abundantly clear that one or two of the staff have taken it upon themselves to get me in, and convinced the school to find the money to pay me. I am, by definition, extra-curricular. I meet teachers who feel their hands are tied and are delighted to parachute me in, avoiding larger headaches around curriculum, cranky parents and professional obligations. I always say some variation of “I wish the boys heard my talk”, and they always reply affirmatively, but never, until March 2021, had any person or school acted on it.

The systematic exclusion of boys from presentations about consent is the result of a powerful one-two punch: our society still tells girls they can and must prevent people from sexually assaulting them, and usually only private schools (overwhelmingly single-sex) can afford to bring in external speakers. I am keenly aware that delivering any kind of information (let alone sensitive material) to young people is a specialist skill – that highly trained experts should be doing it, and doing it multiple times a year, rather than it being a one-off by a writer and researcher like me. And it should be reinforced by teachers and parents, and there should be watertight mechanisms for students to report things they’re worried about after hearing the presentation, and, and, and… I say “yes” because a bandaid is better than an open wound. I say “yes” because every single time I stand in front of kids, in their desperate, fascinated faces I see that they are starving for clear and accessible information about sex and consent.

So, what made March 2021 different enough for me to finally get an audience with the boys? The confluence of factors now seems obvious: the allegations of rape and sexual assault in both federal and state governments, the March 4 Justice, and the campaign started by Chanel Contos that led to thousands of young women publicly sharing personal accounts of sexual assault by their peers during their school years. Contos, 23, spoke to me from where she now lives in London, studying a masters in gender and education at University College London.

“The first time I got told what consent was, I was 15,” she says, “and the first thing I did was go straight to the office of the head of senior school and say ‘that needs to be done earlier’ – and obviously they didn’t listen to me.” Contos hadn’t realised until hearing the presentation at school that she herself had been sexually assaulted. The catalyst for her starting the online campaign to get better consent education in schools was realising that she and her friends had strikingly similar experiences. At a sleepover last year, Contos named the boy who had assaulted her, and one of her friends revealed that she’d been assaulted by the same boy. “And then we realised that, like, he had done it to both of us, the exact same thing, and I was just so frustrated because he did it to my friend a year later … If I had known what sexual assault was, if I had known that I was sexually assaulted then, to be honest I don’t think I would have gone to the police, but I would have at least told him it wasn’t okay, or told his parents, or told the school or told my parents, or something. And that would have stopped [it] happening to her, I think.”

Contos collected survivor testimonies from young women she personally knew before moving to London, where another incident involving the sexual assault of a friend at a party reignited her determination to act. She and her friend were crying, discussing how the assaults continued to affect them and their ability to be intimate in future relationships, and Contos asked, “Do they even know that they’ve raped us? We’re sitting here realising we had a delayed realisation that we’ve been raped, but do they know that they did this?”

Though now abroad, her plan was to collect Australian testimonies to give to the private schools themselves. “And the reason it was private schools was because that was my context. And because they’re the ones who have the ability to work outside the curriculum, and I never thought I would have the influence to be able to change the actual curriculum.” Within 24 hours the portal for people to submit stories and sign the petition had gone viral. Contos’s goal was to get 500 signatures. It’s now at 40,000 and rising. She soon had virtual meetings with all the private-school principals in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and there was an immediate acknowledgement of the problem, but not necessarily a commitment to ongoing work.

“They were pretty shocked and didn’t really know how to handle it. They were just kind of like, ‘What can we do? What’s next?’ And then they all rushed and got in consent talks that missed the mark, because it’s the same speaker that I had, and all the schools have: Brent Sanders. He’s an ex-cop, and he’s really good at teaching what sexual assault is and the criminal punishments for it, but… it’s very victim-blaming. It’s telling the girls to not get sexually assaulted. It was enough for me to realise that I’d been sexually assaulted, but it didn’t address opportunistic rapists, because it didn’t address toxic masculinity. It didn’t address sexual coercion. It didn’t address all the societal pressures that create that environment. And I’m sure there’s still a lot of girls who had been sexually assaulted that probably couldn’t pinpoint it from that [talk].”

Not everyone has been receptive to Contos’s message. The principal of “one of the most prestigious boys’ schools” told her they couldn’t possibly teach any course or information that included the term “toxic masculinity” because that term was “a bit aggressive”. At a meeting with 24 representatives of an alumni network for independent schools in Sydney, only 12 would sign a pledge to do better, and one who signed later withdrew their endorsement.

Principals and school leaders started sending letters out to parents and guardians, but many were lacklustre, still placing the burden of preventing assault on the shoulders of their daughters, rather than taking the opportunity to work on educating their sons as well. Kincoppal-Rose Bay School of the Sacred Heart told parents to support their daughters by “having conversations regarding consent, the impact of alcohol, risk-taking behaviours and self-respect”. The head of Ascham School, Andrew Powell, wrote to their community: “We encourage our current parent body to continue to have regular conversations with their daughters about consent, about the effects of alcohol, about safe partying practices, and the importance of firm personal boundaries.” The principal of Loreto Normanhurst, Marina Ugonotti, wrote: “The support of Parents in having regular conversations with your daughters regarding consent, the impact of alcohol, risk-taking behaviours, and self-respect is critical.” Meanwhile at boys’ school Trinity Grammar, headmaster Tim Bowden wrote to parents asking them to stop hosting parties with alcohol and no supervision, saying: “These parties cause heart-breaking and life-breaking damage … In hosting a party of this sort, parents end up creating an environment that enables sexual assault. This is not a statement I make lightly, and I recognise that the statement will cause offence, but I believe the conclusion is inescapable.” King’s School headmaster Tony George asked in his missive to parents, “do we really think an intoxicated teenage boy is going to have the presence of mind to recall his sex education curriculum and restrain himself at a boozed-up party when given the opportunity to pursue his porn-filled imagination and desire? If footballers and parliamentary staffers can’t do it, I think not. Our children need our support and supervision.”

In one co-educational public school’s rush to be seen to be responding to the petition and testimonies, an assembly was held to speak about these issues. According to the Brauer College principal, Jane Boyle, “As part of this discussion, boys were asked to stand as a symbolic gesture of apology for the behaviours of their gender that have hurt or offended girls and women.” Parents were outraged that their innocent boys were being demonised. The internet exploded with shock and scorn. The school apologised.

The federal government launched its Respect Matters program in mid April, with resources for “respectful relationship education” made available to schools, including an online portal called The Good Society, which offers a range of videos tailored for different school years. The videos, with their inexplicable throwback to 1950s instructional style, have been much derided for being conceptually absurd, avoiding frank discussion of the issues, and seeming to be uncomfortable with directing too much attention on boys’ behaviour. The program has been developed within the government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022, yet one video explains consent by portraying a bullying girl rubbing a milkshake into a boy’s face. At the time of writing, that video had received so much ridicule it was taken offline, but among the many remaining is one that purports to teach kids about how to get what they want while maintaining respect for others, by contrasting the inability of a taco to consent to being eaten.

Contos has meanwhile conducted virtual meetings with state and federal MPs; some good, some not so good. Responses have been “a little bit defensive”. Federal Education Minister Alan Tudge admitted to her that she was “surprisingly more convincing” than he thought she’d be, telling Contos she had her “head screwed on right”. But their meeting didn’t result in any commitments apart from Tudge saying he would put her in contact with the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) and “stay in touch”.

A meeting with Queensland’s education minister, Grace Grace, proved more constructive, and in Victoria Contos has addressed a group of Liberal MPs and is scheduled to address representatives from Labor. She also has unconfirmed plans to brief federal and NSW MPs.

Katrina Marson is a criminal lawyer and a researcher at Rape & Sexual Assault Research & Advocacy. She travelled to Europe and North America on a Churchill Fellowship in 2019 to see how other countries implement relationships and sexuality education (RSE). I met with Marson to ask her what, beyond the biological reproduction conversation, Australian students are being told about sex and consent right now.

“We don’t know what everyone is getting,” she says. “It is vastly inconsistent between jurisdictions and within jurisdictions. There’s some guidance in the national curriculum, but schools are vested with a significant amount of autonomy in how they deliver it and what is in fact delivered … We need an audit, basically.”

At the end of February, ABC reporter Lauren Roberts put together an article attempting to outline the approaches of each state and territory, but the picture is far from clear. Spokespeople for governments and organisations conflate “stranger danger”–style awareness-raising with bodily autonomy and personal boundaries. There is also little inclination to distinguish between programs that are “available” and those actually being delivered. For example, as per one statement: “Many Tasmanian schools also engage with a range of support services, such as the Sexual Assault Support Service, which is currently working with a number of Tasmanian schools to deliver its Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention program.” I have travelled to Hobart and met people from that organisation who said the lack of funding has prevented them from rolling out this program in any kind of comprehensive way.

Nationwide it is a patchwork. The federal government’s new Good Society online resource is free but voluntary, and it is receiving damning criticism from RSE advocates, some principals and state government leaders. Marson describes its videos as “artificial and confusing”. “Young people have a right to accurate information about sexuality, consent and relationships,” she says. “There are legitimate questions about the extent of consultation with relevant experts that was undertaken in the development of these products … Quite apart from the quality of the resources, where is the focus on infrastructure? How are teachers being trained and parents being engaged? Without fixing the strategy and the infrastructure, even the best sex-ed curriculum will fall drastically short.”

Elsewhere, there is a little in the curriculum (depending on where you live and if your school is government or non-government), and then, for senior students, some police officers or, if your school can afford it, an external presenter here and there. Generally, Victoria and New South Wales have better programs than elsewhere, but the crossover between “religious education” and “health education” is often still nebulous and subject to limited oversight.

Marson doesn’t endorse any particular product, curriculum, module or company to deliver it. “I advocate for the structural reform necessary to make this happen at scale, and happen well. Because if we rush this – ‘great, we fixed the curriculum, that’s all we need to do’ – it’s not going to work … Teaching about consent cannot be an isolated module. Conversations around consent need to be part of a broader, more holistic relationships and sexuality education program.

“If you carve respectful relationships out from the topic of sexuality, you’re not going to have the targeted response that you want.”

Sexualised violence is a specialist issue, Marson says, and talking about respectful relationships and how to treat each other respectfully without talking about sexuality is artificial.

Marson has a valuable way of framing RSE: harm-prevention is a positive byproduct that flows from something that is actually a right. “How can we justify depriving young people of access to information that they need to lead healthy, fulfilling lives as they move into their sexual life? Sexual health, as we recognise it internationally, is a really important part of human wellbeing generally. It upsets me that we think they’re protecting their innocence, and that’s why I called my report ‘Ignorance is not Innocence’ – this information doesn’t corrupt them, it actually defends them.”

A recurring frustration for both Contos and Marson is the myth that talking to young people about sex and consent will encourage sexual behaviour, when all of the evidence shows the opposite is true. Marson’s report cites numerous studies from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands, and a body of research by Australian experts Moira Carmody and Anastasia Powell. The more information we give young people about sex, the later age they are likely to engage in sexual behaviours.

In Germany, RSE programs sit within the national health department. That’s a long way from Australian schools bringing in police officers. “Equating the issue of relationships and sex ed with law enforcement is a reflection of the fact that we don’t understand, or don’t recognise, that this is a specialist subject matter,” says Marson. “This is not just about risk mitigation.”

I’ve lost count of the number of teachers who’ve told me that the students just “switch off” when the police liaison officers arrive. Even worse is the contrast in the lessons boys and girls receive. On Brent Sanders’ website, the talk for boys is called “Life Choices for Young Men”, with a focus on delivering “a frank, open and down-to-earth presentation to the boys which examines critical issues such as peer pressure, decision making, self-discipline, respect, motivation and essential keys required for success”. The talk for the girls is called “Back Off”, and is described as “not a physical based martial arts type course”, but one “centred around knowledge, assertiveness and basic conflict psychology, with a focus on prevention”. The obvious disparity between the two courses is offensive – boys being taught about success and girls being taught how to keep themselves safe from predators – yet Sanders continues to be a popular guest in schools. He is the author of the self-published book How Dangerous Men ThinkAnd how to stay safe for life, and he sells this material as “a very practical guide that will change the way you think. No matter your age, this is a book no woman should be without.” The overall messaging is quite different to what students hear me say.

I don’t show schools my material to “check” beforehand, and if a school tried to control or censor my content I would refuse to attend. In this space it is possible to do more harm than good by allowing certain gaps or silences. The shape of my presentation is that we have to talk about “good sex” before we can talk about “bad sex”. What this means is asking why 25 to 30 per cent of women report sometimes feeling “pain or discomfort” during sex, but only 2 per cent of men. It means asking why 95 per cent of men having heterosexual sex have orgasms compared with 65 per cent of women. These problems arise in a world in which sex is considered something someone does to someone else, instead of something two people, as equals, do together. There are certain phrases and ideas I repeat throughout; for example, “Why do you want to be having sex with someone who doesn’t want to be having sex with you?”

The next phase of my presentation is about the legal definition of consent: when it does and doesn’t exist. Then we move quite quickly on to the ethical definition of consent. I tell them what I truly feel in my gut: that it sucks that these two things don’t always overlap. But because I’m there to give them information that might help them be happy and healthy, rather than legal advice, we focus on ethical, not legal, consent. I give examples of power imbalances that are obvious (the assistant manager at your work in the coolroom) and less obvious (the rich school captain who’s picked you up from the party in his dad’s Merc). The bottom line is, unless it’s an enthusiastic “yes”, it’s a “no”. I ask them again, because feedback from my previous session tells me it’s important: “Why would you want to be having sex with someone who doesn’t want to be having sex with you?” There are a few slides where we talk about examples where there’s no consent: drunk people, people swapping out (where sexual partners are switched without the other party’s knowledge), stealthing (the non-consensual removal of a condom during sex), and submission after relentless pressure. And then I give examples of easy ways to “check in” with a partner.

One of my favourite parts is talking to kids about “safe sexting”. We hear the term “safe sex” all the time, but what about sending safe nudes? If I can even help a dozen young people understand they can send nudes without showing their faces or identifying features, imagine how much future stress and anxiety might be prevented. Minds are blown when I point out that the rules of interpersonal consent extend to the sharing of digital media: you can withdraw consent (and ask for images to be deleted) at any time, you can slow down or speed up an exchange, and consenting to one person seeing your image never means consenting to others seeing it also.

The myth-busting part comes next and usually leads to some uncomfortable shifting in seats. I hit some key points here: parties don’t “cause” rape; short skirts and flirting don’t “cause” rape; sexual assault and abuse are most frequently perpetrated by someone known to the survivor, in a domestic setting and without the use of a weapon. The terrible truth is that if someone has decided to sexually assault you, there may be very little you can do about it. If you “freeze”, that’s normal. Do whatever you need to do to survive, and never blame yourself.

I know I still need to hit these basic, fundamental facts because of the questions students ask at the end of my sessions. I see the comments they leave on each other’s social media posts. I read research around best-practice in this area to make sure I’m up to date. Teachers and other young people tell me about conversations they overhear. Make no mistake: young people aren’t automatically more progressive about this stuff. Some of their mistakes and errors exhibit just how heartbreakingly, infuriatingly and comprehensively we are letting them down.

Contos says the two most common revelations among the thousands of sexual assault testimonies she has received are: oral sex can be rape; and a person who you know can rape you, it’s not just strangers. Some real questions I have received from students include: “If you say ‘I don’t know’, is that consent?”; “He can share around her nudes if she just sent them to him without him even asking for them, right? It’s different if she’s just volunteered them?”; and “What happens if the consent is influenced but is still given by a person? Like if someone is drunk or threatened?”

I am taking these questions from students who are, mostly, already sexually active. Contos’s epiphany probably happens all the time to students who are listening to me: they’re sitting there, coming to realise they’ve been sexually assaulted. Parents and teachers, in their eternally absurd desire to keep their heads in the sand, are preventing their children from living happy, healthy lives.

In March, the ABC’s Q&A did a show all about consent. One of the panellists was presenter and author Yumi Stynes, who had just co-authored a book called Welcome to Consent! with former “Dolly Doctor” advice columnist Dr Melissa Kang. Stynes raised a useful example of teaching very young children a safe word. Her children yell out “pineapple” or “eggplant” if they’re playing or being tickled and it gets too much. “It’s a muscle that you need to exercise,” Stynes said, about being able to say “no” or “stop”. Most adults would recognise the term “safe word” as something from bondage and sadomasochism communities, and it might make them feel awkward or uncomfortable, but it’s a useful tool for young people to lay foundations about how to withdraw consent long before sex even gets discussed. In Marson’s final Churchill report she writes: “At Coleham Primary School in Shropshire UK, I observed in a class of nine-year-olds that there was a bookshelf at the back of the room, with different shelves assigned to different genres. The top shelf was labelled ‘RSE’ and included books about bodies and reproduction; the teacher told me it was common for students to choose books from this shelf during silent reading time and nobody was ever teased for doing so.”

The problem with expecting RSE to improve via grassroots efforts is that it relies on the will and budgets of individual schools and individuals at schools. “You’ll never succeed without national government support,” Marson was told in Germany. That could come from national or state governments in Australia, but Marson says it is clear from everywhere she went overseas that “the role of government setting up the framework for this to actually flourish was integral to its success” because it’s such a huge task.

“You need government policy to provide the mandate and the means for this to happen. And so, when I say the mandate, I’m talking about things like legislation, putting it in the national curriculum to a greater extent, with more than just guidance. And then when I say the means, I mean actually assisting in the development of programs, contributing to the research around how you deliver such education, creating a broader sexual violence prevention strategy that this would form part of. And then actually funding the development of it as well as the training of teachers, for example, or experts to go into schools to deliver it.”

Marson’s report includes a diagram of six progressive stages consistent across all the countries that had been able to achieve laudable, comprehensive RSE. The first is “Advocate”. You need to advocate before you can move on to “Commit”, “Recognise”, “Equip”, “Engage” and “Evaluate”. Marson says Australia has only just reached stage one. “The [Contos] petition has been compelling because of the numbers and because of the fact that it’s coming from current and former students, and they are drawing the connection between the deficiency in their education and the sexual violence and harassment they’ve experienced. And gradually the community consciousness has grown and grown.” She says the momentum is promising. “In all of these countries I went to, the implementation was predicated by a kind of increase in community awareness and advocacy around the topic. The next thing is the government needs to take this on as a matter of public policy.”

In Queensland, the education minister, Grace Grace, made announcements in early March about plans to overhaul and improve the state’s consent education plan. When I ask her what the catalyst for this was, she says that the testimony from students on Contos’s site made for “very disturbing reading”.

“A lot of [those reports] came from the non-government sector in the first instance,” Grace says, “and I wasn’t naive enough to think that this wasn’t happening in the government sector as well.” She wrote to Alan Tudge requesting that the issue of consent education be put on the agenda for the April 30 meeting in Melbourne of all the state and territory education ministers. “Politics is all numbers and timing. We’ve got the numbers to prove there’s an issue here, the voices are loud, the stories are numerous and the timing is right. This is an opportunity… [Can we get] ACARA to work across all the states to get a national consistent approach? Is that something we can do, or not?”

Grace’s commitment in Queensland is, essentially, to start with an audit. “The plan is to really get the department working across all of the school sector … At the moment, we can control the government sector, but not the non-government sector. So, what we’ve been able to do is reach out to Independent Schools Queensland and the Catholic education system. And they will be working with us on … how adequate is the current curriculum and education – respectful relations, all of that kind of stuff – that we provide in schools? Is it age appropriate? And how do we improve it?” Grace also said her department intended to “marry up” their findings and goals with the new taskforce announced by the state’s attorney-general and minister for justice, women and the prevention of domestic and family violence, Shannon Fentiman.

When I speak with Grace she has just finished dealing with what I’d describe as a “manufactured controversy”. One school in Queensland decided to make pins that students could wear, displaying their preferred pronouns. “You should have seen the media,” she says, describing polls on Facebook encouraging people to vote on whether or not all students at all schools should have to wear pronoun badges. “Will they just leave these kids alone, you know? They’ve come up with a really good idea. They seem to want to trial it. They think that this is going to work in their school – no one is saying that it’s got to be everywhere.” Grace describes “a group of very conservative elements in our education system that almost believe that you shouldn’t be doing any sex education, or any kind of training”. She is prepared for some pushback, acknowledging that the most common concern is age-appropriateness.

Another common misconception is that by starting RSE in kindergarten, toddlers will be spoken to about sex, yet what early-years programs focus on is simply communication and bodily autonomy. It helps set a foundation and standard for respect that is built upon in later lessons that are explicitly about sex and sexuality. Early lessons for kids include teaching them ideas such as: “From my head to my toes, I say what goes.” These programs are also effective in encouraging children to report abuse and violence in the home, and establishing that conversations about bodies and wellbeing aren’t taboo. Grace is committed to hearing what young people themselves have to say about age-appropriate education. “I’ve got a student advisory council. We’re meeting in May, and I have written to them and asked them to think about these questions … When do they think they’re old enough to hear about this?”

Marson’s insights on the inevitable pushback are particularly illuminating. Every country that has comprehensive RSE has had to push past the vocal minority of conservative voices. This can, and must, be planned for and dealt with early. “We need to recognise that there is a public response,” she says, as well as a political risk. “[But] both of those things are overestimated. The extent to which the public will be concerned about that is overestimated. And as a result, the political risk is overestimated.”

The vocal minority in Germany used a specific word, frühsexualisierung – that translates to “early sexualisation” – to attempt to derail the government’s plans. “You see the same response in the Netherlands, the UK, Canada,” Marson says. “It’s to be expected everywhere: this concern that talking to young people about sex and sexuality will encourage them to behave in that way, when we know the opposite is true.” Marson is defiant, arguing that pushback doesn’t make progress impossible so long as government and enough of the public are sufficiently committed to young people’s wellbeing.

My lingering scepticism has been around Australia’s unusual divide between government and non-government schools, and how the vast majority of non-government schools in Australia are Catholic. “I would point to Ireland as a really good example,” Marson says to my concerns, “because they are a very Catholic country. Ninety per cent of their schools – even though they are state schools – are Catholic-run. And yet just before I got there on my Churchill fellowship in 2019, they had completed a national review of the relationships and sexuality education in Ireland. If Ireland can do it, we can do it.”

Contos says that in her experience the more conservative, religious schools – especially Catholic schools – were the ones that pushed back against her message or simply refused to engage with her at all, with some notable exceptions. Moriah College is an independent Modern Orthodox Jewish co-educational school in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, where Contos says she spoke to a rabbi and a group of teachers and leaders who were ready to commit to running multiple RSE sessions through the year. “It was the perfect example of religion not being an excuse, because I literally spoke to this rabbi about queer sex education and slut shaming and female pleasure.”

Marson reports that it was proven consistently important overseas to give parents and carers the right to withdraw young people from the classes. It proved critical for the process of legislating RSE and making the curriculum nationwide, so that people in opposition couldn’t argue their children were being forced into lessons of which they didn’t approve. “But what was observed in these places was that where you have this public policy, where you have the school leadership in support of it, and where you have most kids in the class going to these lessons, it becomes a little less attractive to have your child be the only one who’s not taking it.”

In terms of “how you sell it”, a key distinction is also an almost philosophical and moral one: is RSE “information” or is it “values”? The two are often conflated, and sometimes they must be. Parents and carers often voice concerns that RSE is the type of thing that should be taught in the home, because it’s about values. Academics and researchers insist that they are fighting for the rights of young people to access information. In England, Marson witnessed a conflation, for example “that talking to young people about homosexuality, as something that exists, was seen as taboo”, and similarly, “talking about the clitoris, and what that means about female pleasure, was seen as a matter of values and not of information”. But there’s the added requirement that for RSE to promote wellbeing and health, it also must include the core value of respect. “We have no issue with schools teaching children that violence is not acceptable. But to teach children that sexual harassment and sexual violence is not acceptable, you need to have conversations about gender power dynamics, about pleasure, about different sexualities … and you need to talk about sex as something that exists and that people do, to be able to have that conversation.” If adults do not want young people – half of whom are already sexually active – to know what a clitoris is, we have a long uphill battle ahead of us.

I ask Grace what her ideal outcome would be. “That we develop educational material,” she says, “and then we provide information, support, and mental and health wellbeing over the next four years in our term … so that if someone does what Chanel Contos does in four years’ time, there are no new stories.”

In turn, Grace asks me what my hope for the future is. My honest answer is that I’d love to be out of a job.


Bri Lee is an award-winning author, freelance writer and legal academic. Her books are Eggshell SkullBeauty and Who Gets to be Smart.