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Sexting, abusive relationships and mental health: What needs to change in Aussie sex education.

When I was studying to be a high school teacher, I remember having a heated debate with a classmate over when an educator should intervene and contest a student’s sexist remark.

At the time, we were sitting in a tutorial with a large cohort of other student teachers. Thinking that we were all on the same page, I said anytime a student said something derogatory was the right time to address it (with care, of course).

My (male) classmate scoffed, saying, “I’m there to teach maths and I’ve got a curriculum to get through, so it’s not my responsibility to pick kids up on every little thing they say.” My eyes widened. The rest of the student teachers stayed silent, and the tutorial moved on.

After I graduated from teaching, I began working at the Dugdale Trust for Women & Girls, where I co-created Rosie with Georgie Proud. Rosie is a digital resource made specifically for teenagers to help them navigate their adolescence with resilience, providing readers with information about their right to respect in every aspect of their lives.

We primarily focus on teenage girls but our hundreds of articles, videos, blogs and links to support services would be useful for any young person looking for answers.

When it comes to sex and relationships, young people in Australia have a lot of questions that go unanswered. For teenagers, the most likely source of info on these important topics is through a sex education program at their school.

But not all sex education is created equal in Australia, and our kids are getting mixed messages.

female school student high school girl uniform HSC
"Teachers have a pivotal role to play in shaping teenager’s understanding of respect." Image: Getty.
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What students want to know about—love, starting a relationship, gender diversity, breaking up, violence in relationships, sexual pleasure—in a lot of cases, differs from what they are actually taught in the classroom.

Even now, too many sex education programs are inconsistent or place too much of a focus on the biological systems of reproduction, forgetting that the foundation of every positive human interaction is mutual respect.

I’m not saying that putting a condom on a banana isn’t a worthwhile exercise but students want to understand the concepts that underpin healthy, respectful relationships as well.

Teachers have a pivotal role to play in shaping teenager’s understanding of respect but in a hectic and demanding classroom, it can be hard to know how to best navigate these tricky topics.

To support teachers in discussing tough issues like sexting, abusive relationships and mental health, we’ve created Rosie in the Classroom, a series of free education modules for years 7-10, complete with lesson plans, activities and curriculum links. Written by leading educator Briony O’Keeffe, it supports teachers to embed a culture of respect.

As we know, sexist remarks, however seemingly innocuous, do not exist in a vacuum. When a student says something that demeans others on the basis of gender or sexuality, what they’re actually doing is reflecting our culture back at us, testing the boundaries of what’s okay and what’s not.

These statements feed into a culture of misogyny. What starts as a “joke” or just “locker room talk”, goes a long way to legitimise violence against women and girls.

In recent weeks, two young women Qi Yu and Eurydice Dixon, died at the hands of violent men. And these are just the women we hear about; every week in Australia one woman is killed by a current or former partner. This is how bad things can get when sexist attitudes go unchecked. The little things do add up.

Eurydice Dixon
Eurydice Dixon. Image: Facebook.
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It might seem easier in the short term to ignore a student’s off-colour remark but silence to a young person, who is still finding their way, can sound a lot like tacit approval. We need to be asking ourselves, where does a sexist comment lead?

Is our school adequately addressing these issues in the curriculum? And if not, how we can utilise those teachable moments for good? Educators have enormous power in shaping respectful and inclusive young people. With the right tools, the classroom is the perfect setting to make that happen.

Do you think teacher's should have a responsibility to combat sexism in the classroom? Tell us in the comments. 

Ally Oliver-Perham is the Strategic Communications Manager at the Victorian Women’s Trust and co-founder of Rosie, a feminist website for young people. Rosie recently launched free teaching materials for educators, titled Rosie in the Classroom.

Written by secondary teacher, Briony O’Keeffe, Rosie in the Classroom is here to help students in years 7-10 get a better understanding of respectful relationships, themselves, and the world around them.

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