The Victorian government has joined New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania in announcing plans to roll out “respectful relationship” education in primary and secondary schools in an effort to curb gender-based violence. How far can such classroom lessons go in ending violence against women?
Introducing classes for prep to year 10 students that challenge attitudes contributing to violence against women is a significant, much-needed and welcome initiative. In launching the program, the state government is not only bringing Victoria up to speed with other Australian states but also with countries such as the UK, where lessons on gender equality and the prevention of gendered violence have been a mandatory part of school curriculum nationwide for a number of years.
There is also a lot for the government to hang its hat on in announcing the initiative. Research from other countries indicates that when such programs are in-depth, ongoing and use a wide range of teaching methods, they have a positive and long-lasting influence on students, by creating attitudes and behaviours that are less accepting of gendered violence and more supportive of victims.
Studies from the US show that among high school and university students who have participated in anti-rape education classes, there is less adherence to rape myths, more empathy for victims and a reduction in rape-supportive attitudes.
Critics of the move have questioned if classrooms are the appropriate forum for the delivery of “respectful relationship” messages.
While unequivocally supporting both the sentiment and message behind the Victorian program, an op-ed expressed concern as to whether already over-worked teachers should be further burdened with “moral instruction” and “social engineering, even for the worthiest of causes”. The author said academic education itself – “[r]eading, writing and numeracy” – is the best way to combat gender-based violence.
The problem with this argument is that it relies on a “stay the course” approach. In Australia, women are already outperforming men academically, but this in itself hasn’t resulted in gender-based violence withering away; rather, it continues at endemic levels.
Educating students about the consequences of violence against women is also not merely a matter of correcting poor “moral” judgement, but an issue of health. Gender-based violence is the highest cause of premature death or ill-health for women in Victoria under the age of 45; more so than other risk factors including high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.
Why shouldn’t violence prevention be taught alongside human development, nutrition and physical exercise in schools?
In a state where one in three women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, in a country where a woman is killed almost every week by a current or former partner, it would seem that introducing gender equality classes for students – at an age when prevention education is likely to have the greatest impact – is the very least the state can do.
‘Respectful relationships’ not nearly enough
“Respectful relationship” classes aren’t nearly enough because we know that domestic violence and other forms of violence against women are the product of a broader culture in which women are constructed as unequal to men.
Violence prevention programs for school students are an important step in changing that culture, but are boys likely to take this message on board while growing up in a wider culture of everyday sexism and casual misogyny?
The widespread consumption of pornography that eroticises violence against women and the mainstreaming of this in a pornified pop culture certainly do not promote respectful relationships.
But it is not only pop culture providing mixed messages on women’s equality. The Victorian government could look to its own backyard, for a start. The state has one of the oldest systems of legalised brothel prostitution in the world, a policy that is at odds with the “respectful relationships” framework.
In the often-heated feminist debate on whether prostitution is a form of violence against women, there is a great deal of evidence to show the industry causes considerable harm to women, even when legalised, and despite some women expressing satisfaction at being involved in the industry.
Feminists critical of prostitution have long pointed out that the practice, and the sex industry more generally, relies on a vision of women as less than fully human; in the purchasing of sexual services, women are reduced to a commodity used for the purpose of male sexual gratification. By legalising prostitution, the state legitimises and effectively promotes this conception of women, which contributes to a broader culture in which we are defined by our inequality with men.
Prostitution and the larger sex industry are, of course, not the only areas the state could and should address. They are, however, key drivers of the idea that are women are not equal to men, especially in the context of sex and sexuality, and therefore can be treated accordingly.
If we are going to change attitudes to gendered violence and women’s equality, school is a good place to start before the wider lessons of life. But these are issues that require much broader cultural, social and political change. Respectful relationships are not just something to be learned by boys, they must also be lived by men.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.