What does a 'respectful relationships' class actually look like?

"It's crucial that we reach young people if we're to reduce violence in all forms."

"It's crucial that we reach young people if we're to reduce violence in all forms." Photo: Quentin Jones

Despite a growing movement against the victim blaming culture, women are still being told they are responsible for their own assault on a depressingly regular basis. That the latest headline-making comments came not from some out-of-touch male cop but rock icon Chrissie Hynde, was disappointing to say the least.

Still, we dutifully trotted out our common refrain ("Don't teach women not to be raped – teach men and boys not to rape!") and people who already agree that gender-based violence is bad duked it out over the right way to discuss the issue.

But focussing discussions about assault and safety to an either/or debate about blame takes the focus away from solutions. (For example, what does it actually look like to 'teach boys not to rape'?) While much of our past approaches to gender-based violence have been about locking up offenders and equipping victims with knowledge and resources, experts agree that the key to ending gender-based violence lies in dismantling the rigid gender-roles and expectations that drive it.

"Law and order has its place, but it's a bit like locking the gate once the horse has bolted," says CEO of SEED Workshops Catherine Manning who has been delivering training on respectful relationships to students across Victoria since 2012. "But it's crucial that we reach young people if we're to reduce violence in all forms."

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Currently, schools have to identify a need and sign up for this style of training voluntarily. But earlier this month, the Victorian government announced that they will be removing religious education from the curriculum and replacing it with classes on domestic violence and respectful relationships across the board.

Our Watch have been driving the push to introduce respectful relationships training nationwide. "Gender inequality and rigid gender roles are the key drivers of violence against women," says Projects Manager, Cara Gleeson. For this reason, says Manning, "family violence is discussed after we've unpacked many of the gendered media and pop culture messages we're given. We review media and social commentary around high-profile cases of abuse, encouraging students to consider the impact of victim-blaming and shaming."

"Ideally, things like empathy, setting boundaries and the respectful resolution of conflict begins in early childhood and should be role-modelled at home. But of course for some this isn't the case. When their only source of information is the internet and sometimes ill-informed peers it's so important for schools to be part of that education process."

Sometimes, the training is in direct contradiction to what students are experiencing at home. "Without a doubt there have been students in our workshops whose home lives are diabolical," says Manning. She typically delivers workshops to kids in years eight and nine; however the earlier we can talk to children about gender roles and behaviour the better. "Many of the attitudes, beliefs and behaviours of perpetrators are instilled from a young age."

But how young is too young? Recently, a friend's 8-year-old child came home from a school camp with images of porn on her/his phone. "We can't dismiss the fact that kids are being exposed to these messages about gender," said his mother. "They're already talking about it amongst themselves – we need to give them a healthy context in which to relate to it and understand it."

Her older son's school recently sent her a letter saying they had decided to sign up for the training after recognising a need among students. "They said a lot of the boys had become so desensitised that they had no idea how to relate to girls and women as people and not objects," she said. "They recognise that they're missing out, but they don't know how to address it."

Manning says that they key to reaching boys in particular is not to shame them, but to engage.

"They want to have successful relationships, and they want to know when their own behaviour may be considered problematic. We empower students to be able to recognise early warning signs of a potentially abusive relationship, and to self-check that their own behaviour is respectful.

"There is nothing more rewarding than when the penny drops and some students reflect and recognise that something they've said or done could be considered 'creepy' or harmful. They're truly grateful to be given the heads up without shame or ridicule. In delivering these classes, it's really important to not inadvertently shame or victim-blame. They really do want to talk about and understand this stuff."

So far, Victoria and NSW are the only states to introduce (and fund) respectful relationships into the general curriculum. Violence against women and children is estimated to cost the Australian economy $13.6 billion a year. Funding prevention-based education is a no-brainer. It's time for the other states to follow suit.

 

Alice Williams is a Melbourne author and yoga teacher. Alice-williams.com