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Shame effects: the risks from public debates and bigotry about the Safe Schools program

By Rob Cover - posted Thursday, 3 March 2016


Even the Prime Minister's willingness to conduct a review of the Safe Schools Coalition has not put an end to several weeks of heated media commentary opposed to its education programs that provide resources, support and training for teachers and counsellors to help make schools safe, non-bullying and well-informed about non-heterosexual issues, identities and sexualities.

A range of reasons for criticising the Safe Schools coalition have occurred in public media in recent weeks, all of them wrong. These include: (1) That the Safe Schools Coalition programs are pushing a radical LGBTI ideological agenda disguised as anti-bullying training; (2) That, according to Liberal party backbencher Cory Bernardi, the Safe Schools coalition "indoctrinates kids with Marxist cultural relativism"; (3) That teaching young children about a range of (perfectly legal and legitimate) sexualities and genders, including same-sex attracted, intersex and gender-diverse people denies parents the right to choose the time to inform their kids of the existence of non-heterosexual and non-cisgendered persons; (4) That teaching children and young adults about alternative sexualities and genders is grooming them into a non-heterosexual lifestyle; (5) that the program is "anti parent", as stated by Family First Senator Bob Day; (6) That the program "deconstructs general norms that reflect society", as stated by Queensland senator Barry O'Sullivan.

These vitriolic accusations ignore a number of facts, including (1) That the Safe School program has legitimately played a role in supporting young people and helping prevent suicide attempts and self-harm; (2) That Australia's sex education system is broadly outdated and needs to be expanded by teaching more about sexual consent, the range of sexuality and sexual behaviours in the context of the misinformation produced by copious online pornography; (3) That there is a research-led need for sexual education including training on diversity, respect and valuing different sexualities and genders, as early as the Third Grade; (4) That the program actually does not teach sexual technique of any kind or configuration; (5) That the general norms of what counts among young people as normal sexuality has changed drastically over the past four decades, including a widespread acceptance of diverse sexualities and genders, and that correct, authoritative information on these can only make a better society < >.

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While there is some value in having a healthy debate on sexuality, gender and the kinds of sexual and gender diversity and acceptance training that should occur in schools, the attacks on the Safe Schools program are neither healthy debate, nor are they useful in helping children and young people deal with and address their own sexualities and genders.

Indeed, the very presence of a debate has led to a poorly-motivated review of the Safe Schools program. Reviews and inquiries into both public and privately-funded programs in education settings are fine-indeed desirable. While government reviews are often centred on value-for-money in the context of departmental and whole-of-government budgets, many reviews are important for working out if a program is truly implementing the objectives it has already agreed.

Prime Minister Turnbull's backing of a review is not, however, an opportunity to critique a program's effectiveness to achieve an end but is a clear bending to the will and whim of those who question the very objective of seeking a more diverse society. And an anti-diversity position is one which is directly implicated in the production of shame for diverse persons themselves.

Sexual Shaming

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has responded to conservative politicians and writers' public call for an inquiry into the Safe Schools Coalition program with a Facebook post which stated that "I don't think these extreme Liberals are actually offended by the structure of the program, or the teachers who lead it. I just think they're offended by the kids who need it." While this statement might be read as just part of the back-and-forth politician banter in which one major party takes heart at the embarrassment of the other, we might also see this as rightly pointing to the absent figure in the public debate: the young students themselves.

While sexual identity is neither fully-formed at school age, nor is it simply divided into 'heterosexuals' and 'homosexuals plus others', there are two (at least) groups of students who can be affected by the kinds of 'shaming' statements made by conservative backbenchers, News Ltd opinion writers, the Australian Christian Lobby, and others who feel that heterosexuality is the only allowable, natural, teach-able, speakable sexuality (and, in many cases, only a very narrow and conservative view of how heterosexuals should express their sexualities, desires and feelings). Disseminating notions such as that the Safe Schools program is spreading an insidious agenda, or that it is wrong for young people to be informed at an early age about the real, full range of genders and sexualities out there, reinforces a culture of sexual shame for all young people. It is important to remember that young people may not be the audience of opinion writing and parliamentary debate, but that does not mean that these debates are not overheard, nor that they do not filter into everyday speech. Both overheard commentary and schoolyard or family chatter can have remarkable effects on how young people perceive themselves, others and the world around them, and the wrong way of putting a concept out there can be the cause of bullying, the cause of self-hatred, the cause of self-harm or the cause of long-term anxieties, all of which are closely connected to shame.

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Sexual shame is indeed a continuing, palatable effect of certain kinds of statements and ways of thinking: sexual shame circulates among everyone and has different effects at different times, but we are broadly raised in a culture in which many of us have been taught at any early age that sexuality, naked bodies, genitalia and gender-diverse behaviours are wrong, naughty, evil or topics for mirth or hushed voices.

This sexual shame continues to be reinforced by much dominant media, including broadcast television. A very young child can sense the potency of sexual shame the moment a television episode of, for example, Home and Away, cuts to another scene the moment a couple look to be getting a bit heated with each other. (This is just one example of the complex multitude of everyday incidents that frame sex as shameful). More than this, certain sexualities and sexual behaviours are deemed even more shameful than others, and that includes non-heterosexual sexualities and non-cisgendered identities, and the continuing relative absence on television, in children's books, in adult talk etc., does not hide them from existence (they are stumbled upon) but makes them seem taboo, wrongful or dirty.

Through its diversity education training, the Safe Schools Coalition program makes some small headway into trying to make a broader range of sexualities and genders seem normal, acceptable through exercises that ask students to think and to critique their everyday knowledge picked up from television, families, name-calling in the playground, homophobic jokes, anti-trans abuse witnessed on the bus, etc.

However, by raising its validity-and the validity of non-heterosexual sexualities and diverse genders-Bernardi and his fellow arch-conservatives do more than just display their ignorance or enact a 'right' to speak their opinion: Rather they do real damage to those people who might be struggling with shame over an emergent or questioned identity; and they do real damage to people who would otherwise relate well to diverse identities but become bullies because they mirror the behaviour of conservative politicians.

At the same time, the entire public of Australia-including young people who will end up leading unquestioned heterosexual lives-benefit enormously from school-based training that helps people to see how complex and diverse and sometimes surprising people and their dispositions and attributes and desires and behaviours can be. Learning about diverse sexualities can, if nothing else, help others to see the legitimacy of many kinds of diversity: ethnic, racial, people with a disability, distinctions in socio-economic background and affluence, distinctions in 'cultural capital' such as schools.

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About the Author

Dr Rob Cover is Associate Professor in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia where he researches and publishes on digital media theory, youth suicide and cultural studies. His recent book is Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity (Ashgate 2012) and his work on GLBTIQ youth suicide and self-harm has appeared in a number of scholarly journals, including Reconstruction.

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