• #MeToo has a place in school discussions. (Digital Vision)Source: Digital Vision
The #MeToo movement is a teachable moment and I am so glad we will not be passing it over or putting it in the ‘too hard’ basket. It's an opportunity for them to think critically about the rapidly changing ideas around consent, from ‘no means no’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes’.
By
Polly Dunning

23 Jan 2018 - 4:25 PM  UPDATED 2 Nov 2018 - 9:31 AM

When I joined an international movement of women and shared my experiences of sexual harassment and abuse on social media under the #MeToo hashtag, what I didn’t mention is that one of the experiences at the forefront of my mind while writing happened when I was in Year 8 with a boy who was my peer.

Another when I was in Year 9 with another boy who was my peer. In fact, the majority of my experiences of sexual harassment and abuse happened before I was 18. 

And I am not unusual. In fact, research by Fiona Vera-Gray from Durham University found that over a third of girls experienced sexual harassment before age 12, most commonly from their peers, and almost two thirds had experienced it through their teenage years. 

Schools are dealing with this all the time. We teachers love our students and, like their parents, want them to grow into caring, compassionate adults whose agency is respected and who are valued for their personal qualities rather than their physical ones. 

So it was a real ‘punch the air’ hooray moment for me as a parent, teacher, and woman on Monday when the NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes said that schools should discuss and deal with the #MeToo movement with their students “openly, frankly and objectively”, and when the Premier Gladys Berejiklian echoed those comments.

As the minister points out, it is entirely appropriate that schools, which help to teach our children to be contributing members of our society, should be part of this world-wide discussion and help our students to navigate it.

It is our job, after all, to give children the skills they need to adapt in our ever-changing world, and who would’ve thought just six months ago that the landscape around sexual consent, harassment and relationships would’ve changed so profoundly?

It must be acknowledged that teachers already do this every day in classrooms everywhere. In my own classroom, I have taught Nick Enright’s wonderful play A Property of the Clan at every appropriate opportunity.

The conversations in my Year 10 and 11 classes that followed about consent, teenage sexuality, and sexual violence and its consequences were invaluable to both their understanding of the play and to their developing understanding of their world, their peers and, arguably most importantly, their romantic relationships.

And students are absolutely capable of having this discussion in a mature and respectful way.

The #MeToo movement is a teachable moment and I am so glad we will not be passing it over or putting it in the ‘too hard’ basket.

In my experience, teenagers want to be engaged with the world. They want to be treated like mature young adults who can have respectful discussions.

The #MeToo movement is a teachable moment and I am so glad we will not be passing it over or putting it in the ‘too hard’ basket.

It's an opportunity for them to think critically about the rapidly changing ideas around consent, from ‘no means no’ to an enthusiastic ‘yes’.

In a recent article Lisa Damour, a psychologist and author who works with teens, discussed the need for us to shift the way we view the sexting issue in schools: from putting the onus on girls not to send them, to telling boys not to solicit them.

That captures exactly the way the conversation around sexuality and consent is changing: it’s not just up to the girls to police the boys’ sexuality, to have to constantly decline and rebuff advances, it is also about changing the way boys view sex and the way they view girls so they are not making these inappropriate advances because they see their female peers as human beings with complex feelings to consider.

Ironically, #MeToo is not ‘me’ centred, it’s about thinking about other people’s wants and desires.    

Consent and respectful relationships and sexual health are all covered by our curriculum in NSW, but the #MeToo movement provides a further opportunity to broaden our conversation here.

The focus shouldn’t just be on protecting oneself and one’s own sexual health and wellbeing, but on really thinking about the protection, sexual health and wellbeing of others. Ironically, #MeToo is not ‘me’ centred, it’s about thinking about other people’s wants and desires.    

And I don’t think the conversation needs to be isolated to high school either. If a third of 12-year olds are reporting sexual harassment from their peers, it’s already happened by high school.

This is a whole society responsibility.

It is important, of course, that we don’t go from making this a great opportunity for schools to making it another responsibility of schools. This is a whole society responsibility.

And while schools and teachers have a role to play here, I would not advocate a formalised program to be implemented. Students may see this as inauthentic and just another thing that we, the adults (who have really screwed it up, by the way) are pushing on them, rather than letting them take the ownership and participate actively, which is what the #MeToo movement is all about.

I think this needs to focus on teachers knowing their students well and tailoring their pedagogy to fit their kids, communities and classrooms, and helping students find their voice in talking about these issues.

Teachers are really good at that. We know how to sensitively deal with difficult topics, how to include content warnings for our students, and, importantly in this context, deal with disclosures.

The #MeToo movement gives school communities an opportunity to unify our discussions around relationships and sex and gender and consent and social media and respect and agency.

Just imagine the generation of young people that could emerge if schools, parents, communities, and our broader society commit to a post #MeToo world.

Thanks for these. The CTA I’m using is: Is Australia Sexist? premieres on SBS Australia, 4 December, 8.40pm, and will be available to stream at SBS On Demand.