Toggle navigation

Violence against young women in Australia: Podcast with Dr Sue Dyson

Dr Sue Dyson talks to ACYS about violence against young women, and programs in schools and sporting clubs that are trying to reduce it.

Dr Sue Dyson works at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society. Her research interests are sexuality and gender, and the various ways they can contribute to violence against women.



1:40 – 3:07
From their very early years girls learn – they’re often told, “Don’t trust men. Men might hurt you.” And that affects the way women and girls behave from very early years. We’ve kind of been told, “Well it’s your fault, you might become the victim of violence so you have to use all kinds of protective behaviours.”

Now having half the population not trust the other half of the population is pretty significant. So it does hurt us all. It hurts men in that we relate to each other with a beginning point of distrust and it’s normalised to the point where we don’t even notice it. So you talk to any woman about going out at night – there are a lot of women who just won’t go out on the street alone at night. And you hear of cases where a woman’s attacked and suddenly she becomes responsible because she was out alone late at night. And we should all be able to walk the streets whenever we want to and we should all be able to trust those people who are closest to us. And the vast majority of violence against women happens in the home, at the hands of the person closest to us. So this is something that’s got to stop.


3:15 – 4:15
For a long time people looked at what was thought to be the causes of violence against women, which were in part put down to something that was the woman’s fault. The way she dressed was asking for her to be attacked, she didn’t prepare the meal properly, she didn’t clean the house properly, the children made too much noise. Everything suddenly was put on the woman and the poor man was just driven to violence. But increasingly what we’ve come to understand is that there is something much deeper going on. And we know that there’s a really strong association between sexist peer norms, the low status of women and violence against women. And UNESCO research has demonstrated that this is a global problem that happens in every country where there’s gender inequality. The higher the levels of gender inequality the greater the incidence of violence against women.

4:18 – 4:29
To change the cultures that support violence against women the prevention efforts focus on gender inequality and promoting gender equity and on eliminating sexism.


6:24 – 8:35
In settings where there is a great deal of sexism combined with use of pornography, with alcohol and a general sense of women being inferior violence supportive attitudes tend to thrive. Which is why some settings have been identified as places where prevention efforts should be focussed. So, for example, sport is one of those areas. There’s been research going back several decades now in the USA in particular on violence against women in college settings. Most of that was at the hands of men who were participating in team sports and men who belonged to fraternities. Now, it’s not the same in Australia but the evidence is there that in some settings where those kinds of behaviours thrive people tend to have attitudes that support violence against women. And so it’s trying to change those attitudes and change the behaviours that some men—So holding violence supportive attitudes doesn’t mean that all men are violent. Some men take those attitudes as permission to become violent against women in their lives. And also, often they do that in secret. So it’s not something they’re talking about with their mates. They’re just making sexist jokes, making comments about the way women look. I think one of the things that happens with young women is a girl might have sex with a boy and he goes and whispers to his mates and suddenly she becomes the target of a bullying campaign saying she’s a slut. And nobody would do that to a young man. It’s only something that happens to girls and young women. And yet that’s a form of gendered violence. And it’s not only perpetrated not only by young men but by young women as well.


9:12 – 11:37
When they go into adolescence, a lot of young men have very sexist attitudes and they’re still trying out their masculinity and trying to sort out what kind of man they want to be. And it’s not at a conscious level but we know in schools and groups of young men there’s the young men who go to the hyper-masculine sporty type who’s all about the body and being the real man and then there’s a hierarchy underneath that. And we know that type of hyper-masculinity is one that tends to be associated with violence supportive attitudes at least, and also with things like dating violence. So it tends to be something that does play out in adolescents and young people quite seriously. So increasingly there have been efforts in school programs to start to address relationships, not just sexuality. So in the past sexuality education tended to focus on reproduction – if you were lucky they might talk about contraception – but not on relationships, not on what consent is, not on how to say no, how to say yes, how to have safe sex, how to develop a trusting relationship. Those kinds of things have become increasingly significant in sexuality education programs, and I think that’s a really important place for it to start – with young people in their teens and still at school. And that can be also reinforced in programs that happen in community sport. And so we’re seeing in school settings and sporting settings, that being a great place to start working with young people around these issues, and the notion of ethical sexuality, or responsible sexuality always being linked with relationships, and taking care of yourself and other people in relationships, not just about what you can notch on your belt, for example, if you’re a young man.



18:18 – 19:14
The program I think you’re interested in is the one that became known as Fair Game: Respect Matters in the community football clubs in Victoria, which was one that aimed to introduce cultural change. And because there hadn’t been any prevention programs like this before, the first thing we did was go out into community football clubs and do some research with women about what it’s like for them now in clubs. And women told us that they often didn’t feel safe, that there were no change rooms for women, that there was a lack of lighting in the car parks – and this is a winter game – so they’re often going out to get their car at the other end of the ground in the dark and that felt unsafe. And also that socialisation and alcohol were very heavily connected with each other.

19:28 – 19:59
And so it was an environment where women just didn’t feel safe or comfortable and so stayed away. And so the AFL set about trying to change that. And we developed a program that had a kit for community clubs to do an audit of the culture of their club, to look at sexism, to look at values, to look at how it used policies and procedures to ensure women’s safety and inclusion.

20:57 – 21:54
One of the things we kept hearing was, “The coach is really sexist, he tells the boys that they’re playing like girls. They use all kinds of ploys that are incredibly sexist and they have to change.” And so the AFL set about making a lot of changes in that area. So it was one of those programs that kind of grew like Topsy and different programs got added on to the side of it.  And after the pilot program was up the program has basically become mainstream in the organisation. So it doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect but it does mean that throughout Victoria now they attempt to ensure that their clubs are family friendly and inclusive and take on the values of respect and responsibility by being safe and inclusive for women and girls.


22:10 – 23:37
Another part of that the AFL did in 2012-2013, nationally they ran some training programs just for players and the people who work with them like coaches, trainers, the various on-field roles. And they developed a program where they trained elite players and former players and partnered them with a female co-presenter. And they went out to clubs and they ran what was essentially a brief 90-minute program that was focussed on respectful relationships, alcohol and illicit drugs. And they took a facilitated approach, it was very interactive, and one of the things that was hugely successful was having the elite former players there – people who were well known to them as role models – saying consent’s really important, and this is what consent is. And not using drugs and not getting drunk is really important. It’s a part of looking after your body but it’s also part of maintaining respectful relationships and practising ethical sex.   

24:03 – 25:19
All the evidence has said that programs need to be long term and sustained, that it’s not enough to just go in and do a one-off program. That’s all the initial evidence from the USA mainly, and I did a review of that back in 2006 and so going on that evidence I was very sceptical that a 90-minute program might not work. I just thought really maybe they should be thinking about something bigger. But it evaluated really well and the key was having these role models.  So it wasn’t just some bloke coming in and talking at them. They were trained people and they were role models and they demonstrated a respectful relationship with another woman. The women who ran the program were often health promotion workers, youth workers, policewomen – people who had experience working with young people and understood prevention of violence against women, and often were the experts, whereas the men were the famous ones. And that combination of them working together collaboratively together seems to have been a really important part of it.  


31:54 – 33:19

Lyn: Finally Sue, do you see a role for the youth sector in the prevention of violence against women?

Sue: Absolutely. I think it’s one of those sectors where a lot of – particularly disaffected – young people find refuge. In local government youth centres, on the streets, there’s all kinds of young people who are outside of the reach of some of the more traditional sectors that I’ve been talking about.  And I think the more the people in the youth sector – both in the formal settings where you’ve got young people in groups and clubs, and on the streets – the more that youth workers can engage in this work of prevention on a one to one and a group basis. It just adds to all the other work that’s going on.  And I’d love to see the youth sector contributing. And I’m sure they are. My experience in the past in the youth sector is that often they’d be at the forefront of understanding gender dynamics and trying to address them. But maybe we need to empower them to do that more, and make that more valid.