Respectful relationships education and countering violence against women

Teacher with students in classroom

May 2024
By Janice Atkin, Professional Learning Officer, ACHPER NSW

Violence against women is a national crisis. Among the national discussion is the rise in misogynistic ideology. What can schools do to combat the influence? Here are 4 important suggestions.

Violence against women has been in the national spotlight recently, with many tragic cases of violence and abuse towards women and girls.

National debate has opened on causes and solutions, including the role of social attitudes and norms. Schools are drawn into the discussion on several fronts.

Questions have been raised as to whether there is a pervasive issue of sexism, sexual harassment, and misogyny within Australian schools, being exacerbated by online influencers. This has been highlighted by isolated incidents such as male students from a Melbourne school producing a spreadsheet rating female students, using offensive terms and referencing sexual violence.

Attention has also been drawn to the critical role schools play in prevention through respectful relationships education.

The growing influence of the ‘manosphere’

The ‘manosphere’ refers to online communities that promote misogynistic views and assert that men’s rights are threatened by feminism. Certain high profile social figures have become particularly influential online, spreading messages of male supremacy. Their content, which often goes viral, normalises misogyny and profoundly impacts boys’ behaviour and attitudes toward women.

Recent research highlights the tangible effects of these ideologies on boys in schools, including the heightened use of misogynistic language.

Qualitative interviews with women teachers across Australia reveal a significant increase in sexist and misogynistic behaviours among boys post-COVID lockdown, correlating with their consumption of social media content. These behaviours manifest as aggression towards male peers, intimidation of female peers and teachers, and the assertion of male dominance more broadly.

Teacher experiences

Teachers face heightened challenges due to the influence of misogynistic content. Reports indicate that boys now view themselves as victims of feminism, leading to more confrontational and disrespectful interactions with female teachers and peers. This environment contributes to increased stress and anxiety among educators, with some contemplating leaving the profession.

A community approach

Schools are critical in shaping attitudes towards gender and must implement comprehensive measures to counteract harmful narratives. Schools need to work in partnership with their local communities, parents and community organisations to reinforce common messages that promote equality, respect and inclusion.

However, effectively addressing the influence of the manosphere on young minds requires a broad approach. Among the many measures, a national campaign promoting zero-tolerance for violence against women and girls, along with mandatory respectful relationships education. Without a whole of community response, the messages taught in PDHPE lessons will be lost in the noise of messaging young people are bombarded with through the media.

Recommendations for schools

In recent years, there has been progress in teaching consent as part of sexuality and relationships education from the first year of school to Year 10. However, there are still significant gaps in the curriculum and the approach schools take to these issues.

Here are four crucial steps that schools, teachers, and education authorities should implement to combat the growing influence of misogynistic ideologies:

1. Mandatory teaching of pornography literacy

Many young people encounter pornography online before the age of ten, with some as young as six or seven. Freely available pornography often portrays high levels of aggression towards women and rarely includes safe sexual practices or consent. In the recent update of the Australian Curriculum: Health and Physical Education age-appropriate pornography literacy was included in the curriculum from Year 7. This is a move in the right direction and ACHPER NSW recommended in the recent consultation on the draft 7-10 PDHPE syllabus that this content should be included. However, experts suggest that this learning needs to begin in the primary years to help young people critically analyse and deconstruct harmful messages about sexual interactions, abuse of power and consent that are contained in pornography.

2. Continued sexuality education in senior years of schooling

Mandatory sexuality education in NSW currently stops in Year 10. During the crucial years when many students are likely to become sexually active they lack the exposure to regular health education which research shows is a crucial information source used by young people to make decisions about their health behaviours.

In NSW government schools the Life Ready course provides limited opportunities for this learning in Year 11 and 12. Delivery of this course tends to be in one-off sessions that prevents ongoing conversations about this topic with students. Implementing regular relationship and sexuality lessons in Years 11 and 12, including expert-led sessions and peer discussions are crucial to exposing and challenging the misogynistic discourse and harmful messaging that many young people are being exposed to online during this time.

3. Teaching young people to be ‘Upstanders’

At times, respectful relationships messaging can portrays boys and men as wrongdoers rather than part of the solution. Effective education about gender equality should involve all young people in standing up against harmful attitudes and behaviours. For many years, women have been leading the response to this issue without any great successes. The only way as a society we will make inroads on this issue is if men and boys are active participants in the conversations and solutions. Schools must encourage all students to become upstanders and resolve conflicts non-violently, ensuring support is available for victims of all genders.

4. Professional learning for teachers delivering respectful relationships and consent education content

It is crucial to integrate respectful relationships education into all aspects of school life. PDHPE teachers often report feeling unprepared and lacking in the confidence to deliver this sensitive content to their classes. There is reluctance amongst teachers to delve into the deep conversations required to recognise attitudes and challenge beliefs that lead to disrespect and violence. Instead, lessons focus on the legalities of consent and avoid discussions of the nuances of intimate situations where consent must be sought and gained by young people.

To adequately prepare our teachers to deliver this content effectively we must ensure specific units on sexuality and relationships education are included in all teaching degrees and teachers already in-service should be provided with ongoing professional development opportunities that are mandated and funded by the government.

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