How can schools improve our understanding of consent, sexuality and sex positivity?
How can schools improve our understanding of consent, sexuality and sex positivity?
In this episode, Amelia and Jessica are joined by sexology expert Dr Jacqueline Hendriks. The three discuss which topics feature in Australia’s sex education curriculum and what changes could be made to promote more respectful and meaningful sexual relationships.
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Dr Jacqueline Hendriks, School of Population Health, Curtin University
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You can read the full transcript for the episode at https://thefutureof.simplecast.com/episodes/sex-education/transcript.
Jessica Morrison (00:00):
This is The Future Of, where experts share their vision of the future and how they work is helping shape it for the better. I'm Jessica Morrison.
Amelia Searson (00:11):
I'm Amelia Searson. Sex education may vary drastically from school to school and generation to generation. It encompasses an array of topics like gender identities, intimacy, reproduction, and something of particular importance right now in our national debate: consent. With the ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of sex education in Australian schools, perhaps the most important question we should be asking right now is: how do schools influence our understanding of the concept of consent? To discuss the topic of sex education with us today is Dr. Jacqueline Hendriks from Curtin University, who researches in the areas of sexuality and sex education. Thanks for coming in today, Jackie.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (00:50):
Thank you for having me.
Amelia Searson (00:52):
So Jackie, just to get us started, which topics come under the umbrella of sex education?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (00:57):
So, in a school context we really think sex education needs to start in those very early foundational years, so in kindergarten and pre-primary. It's really basic concepts about understanding our bodies, being able to label our body parts, being able to use the correct phrasing without shame or embarrassment. Understanding our various emotions and feelings, how to be a good friend and how to engage in respectful relationships with each other. And that's just something that you then build on in an age appropriate way. So perhaps towards the later years of primary school we teach students around the process of puberty and what that actually involves. And then as we move into high school, really uncovering and unpacking sexual encounters and how to reduce the risk of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancies. And again, just how to engage in respectful relationships. All the way through it's teaching young people around media literacy as well. And just being very critical of all the images and media that we consume.
Jessica Morrison (02:03):
Sex education in schools has undoubtedly changed a lot over the decades. Does your research suggest that it needs to change more?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (02:11):
I think it's a lot broader than what it was when I first came into this space. I think I started off really wanting to work in sex education, because I felt it is important to reduce rates of sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies. But obviously there's a whole range of issues that young people need to navigate as they engage in various sexual encounters. So with the expansion of sexting and access to online materials, being able to navigate that space safely, being able to engage with each other respectfully is really important. But we also know that we've got very high levels of family domestic violence and intimate partner violence that happen in Australia. So being able to give young people skills to navigate that as well, because they might be experiencing that at home, might be something that's happening in their families, or giving them the skills to be able to navigate relationships for themselves so that they can be as respectful as possible.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (03:07):
And we also know that we've sadly got very high rates of child sexual abuse as well that happens. So it's a topic that we probably used to ignore and we need to spend more time focusing on as well.
Amelia Searson (03:19):
It's so important to equip students and young people with all of those skills. I know that I'm currently doing an intro to sexology unit here at Curtin, which I would definitely recommend, if anyone has the opportunity to do it, then definitely do it. And I'm learning things now about myself and about just humans and sexuality and everything that I really should have known when I was a lot younger. So as you say, it's so important to actually make sure that we're equipping young people with the skills that they need to function, really.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (03:46):
Yeah, and I think by teaching them about this is not necessarily going to encourage them to go off and do a whole range of diverse, different things. It's just giving young people an appreciation of the diversity that's out there, and giving them the full science and all of the evidence that they can make the safest decisions for themselves.
Amelia Searson (04:03):
And, Jackie, how do cultural differences and religious doctrine in schools impact sex education, do you think?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (04:10):
So they can make things a little bit difficult in certain aspects, but I wouldn't say that across the board schools from a cultural background or with a significant number of culturally diverse kids are doing a bad job. I think there's wide variability across the country about how this is done, and it's not due to a particular cultural ethos or religious background. It's just an extra facet that needs to be considered in the education. So again, it's giving the full evidence, but also being able to deliver it in a respectful way that acknowledges that cultural background or that religious background. And I think bringing that conversation into the lesson is really important. So saying to the students, "Here's all the full suite of contraceptive options that are available to you. But due to our religious beliefs or due to our cultural background, we feel students should be practising these particular methods", for example.
Jessica Morrison (05:14):
It's been suggested that single-sex schools may perpetrate sexism and gender stereotypes in children and then inhibit the development of their emotional intelligence. Do same-sex schools approach sex education in the same way as co-educational schools, or is that a pretty across the board? It's obviously a loaded question.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (05:33):
Again, I think it's a bit simplistic to say that–
Jessica Morrison (05:36):
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (05:36):
Single-sex schools do an inferior job. I think across the board we know in Australia there's wide variability, every state has different guidelines which to follow. And then at the school level, every classroom can do quite a varied job as well. It really does come down to the individual teacher, how confident they feel to teach this topic. And how much support they're getting from their school to deliver relationships and sexuality education. So I think if you come from a single sex school, there is this added pressure to ensure that you're bringing the conversation or the perspective of the other sex into that school. And some acknowledgement that perhaps if it's a boys-only school, some actual acknowledgement and interaction with females in various ways, and some single-sex schools do a fabulous job of that. So I think it's just widely variable. And it just depends on if a school sees this as a priority area and the way that they tackle it.
Jessica Morrison (06:42):
Obviously, Jackie, this is coming to the spotlight with a petition. There was a story earlier in the year, a petition for a school girl in Sydney, it was more centred around the single-sex schools there. Now I believe it's going nationwide. Do you think that that has highlighted the difficulties in children in maybe same-sex schools understanding consent? Because it's a very nuanced conversation. So, how do we go further with this?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (07:09):
So again, it comes down to the overall school culture and whether they see it as a priority or not. Sometimes if you go to a school where there is only one gender, or you go to a school where there's a lot of affluence, that can perpetuate some stereotypes, it can perpetuate some messaging around privilege and expectations. Sometimes young males for example, progressing through late adolescence, see sexual encounters as some sort of conquest. So really if a school can tackle that head on and have very open conversations with their young people about sex and how to engage in a healthy relationship, that it's a mutual experience where both people need to be fully enthusiastic about what they're doing. Sex is something that you should be doing with somebody, not to somebody. And yes, you're right, consent is a really nuanced conversation, it's not a one-off lesson that can be had.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (08:11):
Students really value not being spoken to, they really value conversations. And they really value working through case studies and coming up a little vignettes. And actually, "Hey, if this was to happen, how, how can we workshop this? What would be the appropriate way to work through this?" Yeah, consent, very tricky. It's just not a black and white topic unfortunately.
Amelia Searson (08:37):
And those perceptions of sexual encounters as a conquest, what do you think causes that?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (08:43):
I think if you come from a background of affluence or privilege and expectation, you feel like it's something that's owed to you, or it's a milestone that you must go off and achieve, without necessarily recognising that there's another person involved. A really healthy relationship is one that's equal and respectful where both partners are getting something out of this relationship and there needs to be equal give and take. And if we've grown up in an environment where a lot of things are handed to us quite easily, and we feel like it's something that we can take from other people, then that's obviously going to impact the way we may engage in a sexual encounter.
Amelia Searson (09:25):
Like a real sense of entitlement, sort of?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (09:26):
Amelia Searson (09:27):
And obviously in Australia at the moment in our parliament we've got allegations coming out left ... Allegations of sexual harassment and assault and lewd behaviour coming out left, right, and centre. Do you expect these allegations about sexual violence and lewd behaviour against women in parliament to spark any change in how we approach sex education in schools?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (09:50):
I would really hope so. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like they're very supportive of it. I really struggle to understand why. I think it's a very easy win for government really just to make a few simple changes. And we could have some really comprehensive change across the board. Our Australian curriculum ... So we have a national curriculum that every state and territory's supposed to abide by. We've had that in place for a number of years. It's actually under review at the current time. So they are currently looking at the health curriculum at a national level at the moment. And I do feel confident that we're going to see some stronger language in that document around consent education. Previously it's talked about respectful relationships, but the language has been quite vague. So it could just being respectful to each other without being specific in saying, "We need to teach students how to discuss consent in light of a sexual encounter."
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (10:51):
So I'm hoping that the language there will change and tighten up. And hopefully we'll see schools taking this as a bit more of a priority. What I feel is lacking at the current time, which I would love to see change, is actually making sure our teacher training organisations are really gearing teachers up to feel equipped to teach these lessons. I really don't think anyone should be teaching this sort of thing in a school if they don't feel confident. Our own auditing and reviews, my own research, has shown that the vast majority of teachers come through the pre-service stage without ever really been given any support to teach health, let alone the pointy area of sex education. So I really think that needs to change. I think every teacher, regardless of what specialty you go on to teach in a school need some basic understanding of relationships and sexuality education. They're going to be face-to-face with young people every day of their working career. So, some basic education for every teacher and then more specific training if you were to be a classroom teacher of relationships and sexuality education.
Jessica Morrison (11:58):
Does Australia's sex education curriculum need to include more on sex positivity, LGBTIQ+ relationships and intimacy?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (12:06):
So we routinely ask young people in Australia for their feedback around our sex education. And they've always told us that it's very heteronormative. So it's very much this expectation that there will only be a male and a female in the encounter, that it will involve a penis in a vagina. And any conversations outside that spectrum are very limited, or they're dealt in a very one-off cursory way. So yes, across the board our same-sex attracted and gender diverse young people tell us constantly that they don't feel represented or acknowledged. So we're not equipping them with the skills that they need to engage in safer sexual relationships. But it's also an acknowledgement that this diversity exists and that we need to be an ally to our same-sex attracted and gender diverse peers. There will also be school teachers who are same sex attracted and gender diverse, there'll be family members. So it's not just for the LGBTI students themselves, it's just for the wider community.
Amelia Searson (13:04):
I've definitely – sorry to plug this intro sexology unit again – but I definitely found, because I'm studying journalism and I want to be a journalist, and being able to use the supportive and celebratory language surrounding sexual diversity and gender diversity is so important and definitely should be taught in schools, as you say.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (13:26):
Yeah, we just need to learn to affirm diversity. That's the language that we use that there's this wide spectrum of practises and identities and experiences and all are valid and all can be safe and healthy. And yeah, just to affirm that this exists.
Amelia Searson (13:45):
So, Jackie, if the sky was the limit, how would you create change on a global scale?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (13:51):
I would really like to see Australia follow the lead of some other countries that have really led the way in relationships and sexuality education. So a lot of the Nordic countries have always had quite a progressive approach, which has been lovely, and has very clearly demonstrated positive sexual health outcomes. There young people delay the age at which they first engage in sexual activity and they go on to have much healthier sexual relationships, much lower rates of STIs, much lower unplanned pregnancies. Places like the Netherlands as well. England has recently enacted mandatory relationships in sexuality education. Their government has made it very clear that this is a priority area for them and that every school is responsible for teaching this sort of content. Doesn't matter if it's a primary school or a secondary school, it can be a religious or a non-religious school, every school has to address relationships and sexuality education.
Jessica Morrison (14:58):
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (14:59):
In addition to having relatively well-written curriculum, which I would love to see Australia follow, they've also made it mandatory for every school to develop a specific Relationship and Sexuality Education policy. So that each school has got to design their own policy in this space and each school has got to do that in consultation with their parents, which I think is really important. And it means that the content can be tweaked or amended in a way to be appropriate for each school setting, because we know that every school is quite different. So, and it involves the parents as well, which I think is really lovely. It also means lessons around same-sex attraction and gender diversity are not allowed to be treated as a one-off standalone topic. They have to be integrated in an age appropriate way across every year of schooling.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (15:49):
And the other thing I like about the model in England is that as part of the regular review process that a school goes through where some independent body will come in and have a look at how that school is functioning, one of the roles of that auditing body is to specifically look at their delivery of relationships and sexuality education. So we could have the most fabulously written curriculum here in Australia, but we don't necessarily have teachers who are trained to deliver it, and we don't actually have anyone looking at what's actually happening in the classroom. So I think those things need to change as well.
Jessica Morrison (16:23):
You've touched on this a couple of times now about teacher training.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (16:28):
Jessica Morrison (16:28):
So if we're looking at the future of sex education, it seems to me that your thoughts on this being an expert in this area is teacher training. So what are some of the research that you're doing to sort of further these? You've mentioned, or we spoke earlier about the RSE Project that you're doing?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (16:44):
So the RSE Project stands for Relationships and Sexuality Education Project. That is a group that is housed here at Curtin University. We're funded by the West Australian government. They recognise very early on that teachers are not well-trained and supported in this space. So our role at the RSE Project is to build the capacity of schools to deliver relationships and sexuality education. We offer a whole range of different training opportunities. We actually have a unit here at Curtin University for education students. So when you're training to be teachers, you can do a unit, one full semester that focuses on sex education. It's incredibly unique. There's only two others like it in the country. And as I said, most teachers don't get access to this sort of education before they hit schools. So we have that undergraduate unit. And then we also offer a range of workshops and seminars and after-school activities on a whole range of sexual health topics. Very practical hands-on programmes that teachers can come and learn about a topic and then go and apply some school straightaway into their classroom.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (17:52):
We also have a fabulous symposium that we do every two years, which sort of showcases the latest and greatest in relationships and sex education. And then we also provide a bit of an auditing process as well. So if a school really wants us to come in and have a look at what they're currently doing to consider what their classroom teaching is like, what their overall school ethos is like, and to also consider their engagement with their local community and parents. So, that whole process is quite a holistic whole school approach. So we're not just focused on the classroom teaching, we really want to look quite broadly at what that school is doing. We're very happy to come in and to assist that school to do an audit and then to provide them with some technical assistance if they want to adapt a few strategies or access some additional professional development and to improve their delivery.
Jessica Morrison (18:43):
Amelia Searson (18:43):
So what inspired you to become a researcher in this area?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (18:47):
I was studying health promotion at Curtin and right at the end of my course I was very fortunate to do a methods unit, which really focused on the pointy areas of health promotion. So we used to call it the drugs, sex, and rock and roll unit, because it was how to teach health promotion in those really tricky areas. And I just loved the sexual health side of it. I thought it was really fascinating and I thought, "Well, if there's a topic that I'm going to do all day every day, let's make it sex. Because it just sounds really fun and a little bit naughty." And I didn't come from a family that was very open around these topics. So like you, I think as soon as I had access to a little bit of information, I found it really fascinating, and I was really confused as to why the sort of information wasn't more readily accessible.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (19:32):
And then I heard that in addition to the health promotion course, little old Perth offered a sexology programme, which was incredibly unique, world recognised. And I thought, "Well, what's another degree? Will take that one on as well." So I went into some extra study in sexology, which I absolutely love. I often focus on the zero to 25-year-olds, and obviously the school space and supporting parents and other community groups to really help young people. But our whole sexology programme is really fascinating. We get people from a broad range of disciplines. They come with various skills, be it in physiotherapy or OT, psychology, education, journalism even. And we just say, "Come and study with us and we will be able to bring a sexual health element to your current expertise." So I just love it, and I'm always learning new things.
Amelia Searson (20:28):
Watch me graduate this semester and then come back and do a degree in sexology.
Jessica Morrison (20:32):
Jackie, just quickly, you mentioned family. Obviously we've focused a lot here about sex education, the future of that in schools, but is there a role for the home? So for parents, for carers, and what they can do to further this conversation with their young people?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (20:52):
Absolutely, it's a joint partnership between schools and parents. Neither group can do it alone, we really need to rely on each other. For parents I say it's really embracing those age appropriate conversations. Please don't think it needs to be a one-off birds and bees conversation. It needs to be lots of little conversations over your lifetime with your child. There's a fabulous resource that the health department has put out. It's a PDF booklet, which is freely accessible on the internet. It's called "Talk soon. Talk often.". And that is a document that really helps parents to understand what sort of topics they need to speak to their young people about and gives them some tips on how to do that in a really easy way. And also parents to recognise that even if they've got the best of intentions and want to have lots of conversations with their child, if for whatever reason their child's not receptive to having that conversation with mum or dad, just making sure your young person is geared up and understands that they've got a much broader support network as well.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (21:54):
So perhaps there's older siblings, aunties and uncles. You know: who are the reputable websites? Do you have a good family doctor? So just as that child gets older to recognise that there's other places that they can go to to seek support and to speak to people about these topics.
Jessica Morrison (22:10):
Thank you so much for that, Jackie, that's where we'll leave the discussion for today. But if any listeners would like to learn more about your work or even be involved in your research, how can they reach out to you?
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (22:20):
Please have a look at our website. So it's email@example.com (ERROR: you can visit rseproject.org.au and email firstname.lastname@example.org). That website is really geared up to support schoolteachers and West Australian schools, but we really welcome input and insight from anyone.
Jessica Morrison (22:35):
Wonderful. Well, we'll include those details in our show notes. Thanks again, Jackie for sharing your knowledge and discussing your research with us today.
Dr Jacqueline Hendriks (22:42):
Thank you very much.
Amelia Searson (22:44):
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