Sitting on a desk at the front of the classroom, Kate Cooper starts off with a bang.
“What is sex?” she fires out.
“Male, female or other,” calls a tall boy in the first row.
“Excellent,” Cooper says, continuing her rapid-fire recap of the previous lesson. “And what’s it determined by?”
“Body parts,” says the boy immediately.
“Yes,” says Cooper, charging ahead. “And what is gender?”
“How you’ve been brought up to be a girl or a boy,” comes the response from the next row.
“And what’s the ‘C’ word I’ve been using a lot to talk about that?”
“Conditioned,” responds the tall boy again.
“Yes!” answers Cooper through a beaming smile.
It’s another pivotal moment in the gender education program at the Southern Teaching Unit, a small school in Moorabbin in Melbourne’s south where students who have been expelled or are at risk of expulsion come to gain life skills that can help them succeed back in mainstream school.
For these teens, gathered in a nondescript portable classroom on an early summer’s morning, the penny has dropped — gender is constructed by surroundings and stereotypical messages that are constantly telling men and women how to act.
This is respectful relationships education, one of many such programs developed by the family violence sector and education leaders, that aim to set people on a course to better gender relations in life and which could provide a key to ending the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women — domestic violence.
For their two terms at the Southern Teaching Unit, the students study numeracy, literacy and physical education, as well as health, which now consists of a newly-written respectful relationships curriculum that runs over 12 weeks — sessions of 90 minutes a day, for four days a week.
Respectful relationships programs have long been a focus of what is called primary prevention and are grounded in evidence that says the more gender-equitable a society, the less prevalent is domestic violence.
The curriculum being taught at Moorabbin was put together by the STU teachers in conjunction with Debbie Ollis, a senior lecturer at Deakin University, who first developed the program for the Department of Education.
Ollis’s program is also being trialed at two mainstream schools, and she expects it to be available online to others later this year.
Family violence organisations have for years been trialing these kinds of programs but the drive to start it at the Southern Teaching Unit came from the teachers themselves.
Kate Cooper, who has worked at the unit for almost a decade, says the program started taking shape five years ago when teachers saw how some students were behaving.
“We noticed at recess, lunchtime and in class discussion boys were dominating girls and being quite aggressive, and girls were using their sexuality to get boys to do things for them.”
They also noticed sexist language. “Boys would call their mums ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ and were saying things like, ‘Get me that, bitch!’ ”
Another issue was the number of girls disclosing that they had suffered sexual abuse or rape.
The teachers realised sex education “wasn’t even getting close” to the issues that were confronting students.
The goal at the school had always been to modify behavior and give students the social skills necessary to perform – and survive – back in mainstream school. But teachers were seeing that problematic gender attitudes were acting as a barrier to all aspects of the students’ learning.
As a result, they started searching for resources and activities to teach the concepts they wanted to get across. They noticed that many boys were using pornography as sex education while girls talked about being pressured into doing things they’d seen in porn.
So the teachers constructed their curriculum to look first at the way in which pornography was feeding into society.
They started collaborating with Ollis on lesson plans and are now trialing the curriculum on their students.
Ollis, who has been working in the field for more than two decades and resides within Deakin's School of Education, says her curriculum does not simply teach students about explicit sexism, but helps them understand gender more broadly as something that is constructed by the world around them in ways that restrict both women and men.
It is about getting students to recognise powerful cultural messages telling them how men and women are supposed to behave, she says.
In particular, it is about getting them to see the power element within those messages with men being taught to be dominant and women to be submissive, and encouraging students themselves to challenge those stereotypes.
Covering the walls of the STU classroom are posters with the program’s message writ large. Hanging on one wall is a colourful poster, the result of a student project investigating the new craze of lingerie football. ‘Pornography or sport?’ asks a heading. Stacked on bookshelves are feminist texts; around the classroom are feminist quotes. Even in a bathroom, Maya Angelou’s face looks out from a poster pinned to a mirror: ‘I am a woman phenomenally! Phenomenal woman — that’s me!’
On this particular morning, Cooper charges ahead with the next part of her lesson.
“Let’s talk about the excursion we took to Southland [shopping centre] to look at boys’ and girls’ toys. What did people notice about the toys they saw?”
A freckle-faced redhead in a black singlet raises his hand. “I noticed a lot of the girls’ toys had mirrors on them.”
“Good observation,” says Cooper. “And why is that? In society, what are girls taught to be?”
“Sexy and slutty and focused on their appearance,” comes an answer from a brown-haired girl at the back of the room whose wrists are adorned with colored elastic bands.
“Absolutely! Good! And what about the boys’ toys?” prompts Cooper.
A softly-spoken student in a brown beanie chimes in. “The boys toys I saw were all muddy and dirty and they were all muscly [figures] with guns and knives and stuff.”
“Great,” the teacher responds, clearly pleased with the level of engagement. “And when talking about how boys are learning to be, what was the word we learnt?”
“Dominant!” sings out the tall boy once more.
Cooper says these activities show students how stereotypical ideas about gender trickle down into society and teaches them to challenge such notions.
The class turns its attention to today’s lesson, for which teachers have pinned around the room copies of advertisements taken from magazines. Pictured in one are two women smothered in oil. In another a tongue slides suggestively over bright red lips.
The students are asked to guess what the advertisements are selling, jotting their guesses onto post-it notes and sticking them to the pictures.
The students jump into the exercise enthusiastically. The answers come quickly — perfume, bathing suits, makeup — but most are way off line because, as they find out in the next part of the exercise, these advertisements are selling things completely absent in the frames — GPS machines, gardening tools, cameras.
Cooper holds up one exhibit featuring a woman in a bikini pouting at the camera seductively and reveals that it is an ad for a watering can.
A boy in the front row shakes his head. “But is it advertising a woman or a watering can?” he asks.
Another interjects: “What does a watering can have to do with a woman’s body parts and why does she have to be half-naked?”
“You tell me,” prompts Cooper. “What message is this sending to women and men?”
The exercise shows the students how women are being sexualised and objectified through these advertisements and shows them how ideas about gender restrict both men and women, explains Cooper after the class.
“It sells the guys completely short and for the females — it just shows them one side of who they’re meant to be.”
Evidence says this teaching approach delivers results and since the subject’s introduction at the Southern Teaching Unit, Cooper says, teachers have witnessed a turnaround in student behaviour.
“At recess, I’ve heard them pick each other up and say, ‘Don’t talk to her like that’ or ‘Don’t say that! That’s sexist!” or ‘That’s victim-blaming!’ As soon as you start opening their eyes to the concepts they start noticing stuff everywhere.”
Parents are “blown away” by the results, she adds. “They are really amazed at language the kids are using and what they’re pointing out while watching TV.”
The school’s teachers are also seeing changes in students’ whole manner of learning.
“Our kids become more inclusive and less judgmental. They are a tighter group after the program and we get rid of a lot of bullying that happens. The stuff you teach about this opens up to lots of other areas of life.”
Cooper thinks respectful relationships programs should be mandatory in schools and teachers from the Southern Teaching Unit have travelled around Melbourne with Deakin’s Debbie Ollis to deliver shortened training to a handful of mainstream schools.
Although a lot of schools respond positively, the visitors also meet a lot of resistance during such visits, says Cooper.
The material involves concepts that may not have been spoken about by teachers in school before — oral sex, pleasure, pornography, sexual abuse — and often schools will try to sanitise the material.
Cooper recalls returning to a classroom after lunch to find all their posters having been taken down. The principal explained that the room was to be used later for meetings with parents. “Hope you don’t mind,” he told Cooper. “We had to take them down. We thought they were a bit out there!”
Cooper believes the resistance comes from the idea that “talking about rape and pornography and sexual assault is just ‘a bit out there’ when in reality we’re totally immersed in it in our society”.
She says principals often justify their caution by saying that sexism, sexual assault and pornography are not problems at their school so they don’t want to expose children to these concepts through uncensored respectful relationships material.
But, she says, the experience of students is the same in every class they’ve visited: students are watching pornography, using sexist language and exhibiting the kind of behavior that these programs target.
Because the Southern Teaching Unit is an alternative setting where students are proven to be “at high-risk”, the teachers are given the autonomy to teach concepts and use resource materials that may be considered too sexually explicit for mainstream schools. But, Cooper says, in mainstream schools it’s about working out how to teach these concepts to a range of students.
The other thing the teachers encountered during their visits to other schools was staffroom resistance to the feminist ideology that underpins this teaching.
At some presentations, Cooper and her colleagues were labeled by staff and parents as “man-haters” or told they were pushing “feminist propaganda”. Others acknowledged that violence against women was a problem, but claimed other societal problems such as poverty were more pressing.
Debbie Ollis says it is exactly these kinds of attitudes that respectful relationships training addresses. But she says for this to happen on a whole-of-state level, the government needs to take it on, make it part of the schools’ curriculum and offer the necessary funding support for schools and teachers.
Cooper agrees and believes these programs have the potential to get to the heart of gender inequity and “get rid of these horrible [domestic violence] statistics that we’ve got in Australia”. She says she’s seen first-hand the ability for these programs to shift attitudes and invites others to visit her class to see the results in action.
For their final class exercise of the day, the students of the Southern Teaching Unit sit together on a couch and watch a slideshow of advertisements.
One shows a man standing on a bear rug, whose head and outstretched arms are that of a woman. His foot presses on the woman’s head, with a caption reading: “It’s nice to have a girl around the house.” It’s an ad from the 1950s for Dacron fabric.
Another ad is a picture of a piece of meat with all its parts labeled — rump, breast, ribs and so forth — but the piece of “meat” is actually a woman — actor and model Pamela Anderson, in fact. The slogan reads: “All animals have the same parts.” It’s part of a recent campaign for PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals).
“Oh, that’s sexist!” one of the boys calls out. “Yeah, that’s pretty bad,” says another.
Everyone nods in agreement.
The next image is taken from a five-metre high billboard on Chapel Street, South Yarra, recently promoting American Apparel’s new store. It’s of a woman with her legs wide apart with the accompanying text ‘Now Open’.
“These ads are incredible!” one student protests to his friend. From these images, students get to see the way violence and sexism is normalised and how this contributes to a culture where violence against women exists, says Cooper.
At end of class they reflect. A blonde-haired boy with a surfer fringe covering his eyes calls out excitedly. “I just noticed in Manga cartoons the men come in different sizes and the women are all the same size. Now I see that’s sexist and it kind of ruined it for me.”
Next to him, his friend raises his hand: “I was playing Grand Theft Auto and now I see that the violence in it is really confronting.”
Asks Cooper: “What’s it called when they make it look like it’s normal to have that sort of violence in real life?”
“Normalise,” the tall boy shoots back.
“Peter, you’re on fire,” his friend calls out. The two “high five”. It’s time for lunch.
* * *
What the students said about the course . . .
‘Why hasn’t anybody else taught us about this before?’ – Adam, 16
‘I didn’t see hyper-sexualisation in the media before. Now I see it everywhere!’ – Jordan, 14
‘After learning about respectful relationships, I know that [pornography] is a very degrading one-sided portrayal of sex.’ – Alex, 14
‘Respectful relationships is such an interesting subject, I wish they taught this in mainstream school.’ – Darcie, 15
‘The media tries to box men and masculinity into one type and girls and femininity into just being sexy – [but] they can be a mixture of both, or they can be anything they want.’ – Dan, 15
‘I never knew how much pressure girls put on themselves to look good and look sexy … The media teaches them they have to be a certain way. It’s really sad.’ – Jordan, 14
‘I didn’t realise how degrading music lyrics actually were – I really don’t like rap anymore!’ – Zaiden, 13
‘I now feel more confident in sharing my knowledge. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about this stuff before. ’ – Charlie, 15
* * *
► If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.
► See also on Crikey: We already know how to stop domestic violence: close the inequity gap