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Violence against young women in Australia: Podcast with Professor Moira Carmody

Professor Moira Carmody talks to ACYS about the Sex & Ethics Program

Moira Carmody is a Professor at the University of Western Sydney, where she researches gender and sexuality, with a particular focus on the prevention of sexual and other forms of gender-based violence. Her new book Sex, Ethics, and Young People was published by Palgrave Macmillan in May 2015.



8:45 - 12:24
This is a program that was developed in 2005 with an Australian Research Council grant in partnership with Karen Willis from what was then New South Wales Rape Crisis Centre – they were the industry partners. And what we wanted to understand was something about what were the needs of young men and women 16 to 25 and how they negotiated issues around sex, about consent, what experiences they had of sexuality education and what were their concerns around beginning their sexual lives – what did that mean and what were the challenges they faced and what were the things they had learnt that were useful. And so we began by interviewing young people across New South Wales in country and city areas. Then out of that after listening to what they had to say we developed the Sex & Ethics Program, which is a six weeks, three hours a week program. And it’s designed specifically to help young people learn more about how to make ethical decisions. Now ethics is a big word that often people will get confused about. But what we’re interested in here is how people can learn something about how to take care of themselves when they’re making decisions around sex, but also the impact of their behaviours and desires on another person. And why I think this is important is that many approaches to sexuality and violence prevention have tended to focus much more on risk – have tended to focus on all the things that could go wrong and none of the things about what could be the pleasures and the joys of sexuality, which are many. So it’s tended to focus on the negative. Now young people are pretty cluey. They understand that that’s not the full story. But the official discourse – as my colleague Louisa Allen talks about in New Zealand – tells them one thing about sexuality and so forth, but they know their lived reality is something quite different. They might have questions and confusions and issues, but they know that there are many other things that are part of that picture. So one of the things I wanted to do in that program was to find a way that would help people learn something more about decision-making and something more about sexuality and something more about themselves, and put them into it so it became a much more embodied experience rather than a story about condoms, bananas, don’t get pregnant and stay away from bad people – that kind of model. And all the focus on plumbing. I mean everybody I spoke to talked about how their sexuality education was all about anatomy. It was very rarely about feelings. It was very rarely about relationships, except ones to avoid, or how to have a good one by a checklist. But it didn’t deal with the subtleties or the complexities of how you are in a moment and how you negotiate that in a way that in a way that is respectful and considerate not only of your needs but of the needs of another person, and how that could enhance sexual pleasure and also reduce coerces and pressured sex and also sexual assault.


16:46 – 17:15
Particularly for young heterosexual women, they often will put their needs secondary to the needs of their male partners. And male partners often ignore a lot of the signals they are being given, where young women are not able, because they haven’t got the knowledge, the language, or they’re fearful of being able to say what it is they want don’t want from their male partner.


0:47 - 3:32
The notion of multiple masculinities is a term that comes out of gender theory and it’s an idea which seeks to disrupt the concept that there’s just one way to be a man or one way to be masculine. And often people talk about masculinity as being one particular set of behaviours or practices. But what we know is that men are quite different, as are women, and there are different ways in which people perform their gender roles. And when people talk about multiple masculinities the whole purpose of that was to suggest that there were different ways to, if you like, do gender – that you aren’t just born with a particular sexual set of characteristics that automatically leads to certain kinds of ways that you behave in the world which are often see as being gendered. So the idea is to disrupt that and to actually say that there are many ways that you can be a man or many ways, for that matter, that you can be a woman. So you can have men that are what some people might think interested in things which have traditionally been seen as women’s areas. For example not so long ago in fact the idea that men might actually want to be involved in their partner’s pregnancy, being involved in the child being born was not only frowned on it was also prohibited by institutional practices.  But now it would be probably less common in many cultural groups if the partner was not present. So it’s that kind of territory of trying to say well there are many ways that you can be a man and that’s a good thing and we should celebrate that diversity rather than try to put people into a box labelled gender equals man equals certain kinds of behaviour, and that behaviour is often seen as highly competitive, aggressive and diminishing of other men who aren’t “real men”, as the term is often used, who don’t meet that kind of stereotype. Which of course is highly different depending on the culture in which men are behaving and performing gender. There’s quite a variation across the world about how that is played out.

4:09 – 5:07
It’s often been seen as a positive thing that men become very aggressive and play aggressive sports, compete in aggressive manners in business and so forth. And some people would argue that’s a choice, but I think that doesn’t really grasp the notion that we are affected by the social structures around us and the social practices which give people a lot of positive reinforcement for certain kinds of behaviour. I mean look at the way footballers are reified in the community and other sportspeople, particularly men, seen as: “That person’s a real man.” And then it gets terribly disrupted when it becomes clear that maybe one of those men might be gay, for example. That doesn’t usually fit with a particular kind of notion about how you’d be a real man.

5:20 – 7:08
I think why it’s useful to us is that if we only accepted an idea of gender as being one-dimensional as in you are born of a particular biology and that means that you then behave certain ways because of that biology and the social practices around that matched that, then you’ve got a kind of argument which is that people can’t change – that you can’t be nurturing or you can’t be considerate of other people’s needs – you can only be a certain kind of way, and that way has often of a particular kind of masculinity been aggressive, been hostile to women’s needs, has put women down and hasn’t accepted equality as a benefit in the community – it’s been seen as a threat. So in terms of violence it’s very important that people understand that just because you are born biologically male, for example, that doesn’t mean you are aggressive or you’re hostile or that you hate women or you’re violent to women. So it means that there are possibilities of ways of people being that are quite different rather than assuming that it will never change. Because if you follow that line of argument, prevention of violence is never possible. It would argue that all men are potentially violent and all women are likely to become victims. And that’s a very limited perception of gender. It gives us nowhere to go in terms of prevention. And it’s not the reality. Not all men are violent and not all women will be victims of violence.


12:36 – 14:14

Lyn: What are the most important factors to be aware of then when trying to encourage boys and young men to participate in programs like this? Is that difficult?

Moira: We didn’t find it that difficult if we were working closely with people in those men’s communities. By that I mean, if there was a youth worker or somebody else who was working in a local community who could vouch for the program that gave us a way to get the min the door. Often they were really keen to come in the door but they were a bit embarrassed about it. And in another situation where we worked with young footballers there was no question about because the code actually said, “We want you all to do this, and you’re going to do it.” So they were kind-of sent there, but they actually got very engaged once they were there. And I think why that was the case was because it was tapping into something they’d never had an opportunity to do before. They hadn’t had a chance to sit down and hold up those kinds of notions to any kind of discussion and to learn some other things. Given that their sexuality education generally was pretty poor, they were relying either on their 14 year old mate, who’s never a reliable source of information, or rarely, or pornography or some other version of reality they may have picked up. Rarely was it comprehensive sexuality education, provided by either a school or even by their parents. It was very rare to have parents discussing these issues with their children whether they were boys or girls.

14:14 – 15:39

Lyn: Were they willing to talk about their feelings?

Moira:  They were a bit but I find working with young men slightly different from working with young women, which isn’t a surprise. They listen very carefully I’ve found, but they often don’t want to go into great depth about feelings but they will talk about the implications of different things. So the way the program that I’ve developed works is there’s a lot of scenarios, a lot of case studies drawn from real life. So they can use those as a way into the conversation about feelings. So it’s not so much the focus on them. I think if you put the focus solidly on them and expect them to do that kind of work, it may come easier for some people than others. That would put them on the spot and I think they might feel defensive. So I never did that. I gave them a way to explore it through looking at other people’s stories and reacting to that, but also time for private reflection, and also talking one to one with somebody, where it was less threatening than say being in a group of 10 or 12 where everybody was listening.


16:06 – 16:46
We did surveys with people before they did the group, at the end of the group and then we followed them up six months later. And what we found was a really significant change in people’s understandings about caring for yourself and caring for the other. And understanding that, particularly for the young men, that they needed to think more about the impact of their desires on their partners. And for women it was about understanding more about how to look after themselves. So there was a balance there, and it really disrupted traditional ideas of gender.


17:16 - 17:42
The impact of the evaluations was very strong. The kind of changes that we saw from when people started in the group at the end of the group were then maintained six months later, and we found that people were using a lot of the ideas and skills at a very high level. So we were getting around eighty to ninety per cent of people were still using ideas that they’d learnt in the program, and that was very pleasing.


17:42 – 18:27
We then went on to do further training and running more and more groups across Australia and New Zealand and continued to evaluate, and those findings have remained consistent. And it hasn’t mattered whether they’ve been single gender groups, whether they’ve been very multicultural groups or whether they’ve been culturally specific groups, like in New Zealand we did programs with Maoris and Pacific Islander specific young people. We also did work with queer groups, young gay and lesbian groups, so we had kinds of different groups, and we still got the same results.


18:45 – 20:16
Absolutely there’s a role. I think one of the challenges the youth sector faces is the training of people to do it and the resourcing to support them to do it, and to learn how to do this.  This work is not simple. It’s quite complex, and it brings together a whole range of skills, many of which some youth workers would have to do with working with groups, being able to engage and connect with young people in the particular communities in which they live and work. But there are other issues to with understanding about gender and violence and how relationships play out and so forth, and those particular issues are maybe things that youth workers haven’t had so much exposure to. There are also, because of the high incidence of sexual and other forms of gendered violence in our communities, there’s quite often disclosures of these sorts of issues in groups, so people do need to have some skill and some support mechanisms in place to handle those kinds of disclosures and to refer people to the right people. You know, backup support. So I think there is an important role, but I think one of the things that we haven’t done so well is provide the necessary kind of training and support for youth workers to be more skilled in dealing with programs around preventing gender-based violence.


25:40 – 27:49
A bystander is somebody basically who just observes something. If you think about a car accident where you just see a car accident happen, or you’re walking down the street and you see somebody beating somebody else up, you’re a bystander when you just see that. The idea of an ethical bystander is somebody who actually seeks to try and intervene in that situation safely. Now that intervention may be as simple as ringing triple zero to get help for whoever is involved. Or it might be in another situation where you’re say in a bar or a club or something and you see a man, for example, being particularly aggressive sexually towards a woman who is not interested in his advances. And a man, for example, might intervene in that situation. He might distract the man. He might say, “Come on mate, that’s really not on.” Or in another situation you could see somebody taking somebody who’s very drunk like say a guy taking a very drunk woman out to a back area away from other people. Now intervening in that situation could be alerting a bouncer, could be going with a mate of yours or a friend and saying, “I think we need to check this out and see what’s going on.” It could be saying, “I don’t really think this is a good idea mate. You know this person’s really drunk and you know they can’t consent and that’s against the law.” So there are ways of intervening, emphasising that intervening has to be done safely. We don’t want a situation of the person just rushing in, which particularly some men who feel outraged about it feel like they should rush in and be able to protect. But they do need to think about their own safety, because men generally do experience a lot of violence from other men.


28:08 – 20:12
It is a book which picks up on the broader issues associated with running the Sex & Ethics Program over a number of years, since 2005, and reporting on the kinds of evaluations and impacts the program had, not only in the groups that we’ve run directly with young people, also about the training of educators to work to deliver that program and what are some of the issues that those educators have faced. Looking at the impact of the program on educators, on young people, looking at the broader issues associated with where we are at in terms of our understanding about sexuality education, about gendered violence prevention internationally, and how we move towards building much greater ethical communities in which non-violence is seen as something to be proud of and something that is achievable.

20:21 –
So it’s really a very positive book about the things that people are doing and the ways in which they’re engaged in building respectful and ethical relationships.