Respectful relationships education: A conversation with Professor Sue Dyson

Content type
Short article

March 2016


Professor Sue Dyson, Monica Campo

Monica Campo: Sue, could you tell us what “respectful relationships” is and the context for respectful relationships education in schools?

Sue Dyson: Well, I think to start off with “respectful relationships” is just what it sounds like. It’s not anything special – it’s treating each with respect and everything that that encompasses. Why do we need to do it in schools? Well, partly because I think “respectful relationships” is a bit of a euphemism for the broader term, which is “equal and respectful relationships” or “gender equity and respect” – there are different ways of saying it. But what we know about violence against women is probably not enough.

It’s not a well researched area even though it’s something that’s existed forever, but the latest research tells us that there’s a very strong association between violence against women and lack of gender equity. So, in – and this is global evidence including from Australia – where we have higher levels of gender equity we have lower levels of violence against women, and the reverse is true. So, even though there are a lot of other things associated with violence against women, like anger management and alcohol - drinking too much, drugs - and a whole range of other things, it’s really about power and gender.

The important thing is to start that early. We know that, particularly when they get to adolescence, a lot of young people have extreme views about gender. So, trying to change that, trying to start very early, and you have to start that with children before they even get to school because once they get to school, they learn from each other and they often make up stories to fill in the gaps that parents don’t give them. So, if we can start in schools, teaching and modeling equal, respectful relationships, we hope that young people will grow up to practice those relationships with each other. Rather than growing up and having some relationships being violent.

Monica: Thank you. And can you tell us about your involvement in the recent Victorian pilot with Our Watch and the Victorian Government?

Sue: Yes. So, it’s a curriculum that was designed by Debbie Ollis from Deakin University that incorporates sexuality and relationships education, and has a very strong component of respectful relationships – that we don’t wait until young people start thinking about or being in sexual relationships to teach them about respect. They enter those seeing each as equal, being able to say "yes" or "no", without fearing being judged or coerced or anything like that. Start much earlier, run that program in schools and hopefully young people in schools will start to see their teachers and staff members and parents behaving in ways that demonstrate respect and demonstrate equity.

So this program has approached the school as a workplace. Teachers have had specific training sessions and there’s been a sort of encouragement of discussions in the staff room about what it means to be in a school that takes a whole-school approach to equal, respectful relationships, and not just teaching them to young people and behaving in ways that might not be demonstrating equality and respect.

You know, when you have an environment in schools where you don’t have a whole lot of disciplinary problems, where you don’t have a whole lot of conflict, everybody does better – surprise, surprise! A lot of schools have been running a program that’s called "Positive Behaviours". It’s a terrific program. It gives teachers a framework for running these kinds of programs. What was lacking from Positive Behaviours was gender. So, this program and particularly the curriculum introduces an understanding of gender and power that perhaps hasn’t been there before. But not in ways that marginalises or puts people down, it’s very inclusive. It’s not only inclusive of males and females – boys and girls – it’s inclusive of same-sex attracted people, it’s inclusive of people who are gender diverse – all of the differences that we experience in day-to-day life.

If you are experiencing family or domestic violence or sexual assault, or know someone who is, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or visit the 1800RESPECT website.

Further reading and resources

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The feature image is by Michael SarverCC BY-NC-SA 2.0