Breaking the bias around sex education

Dr Monique Mulholland


This International Women’s Day we are celebrating all the women out there who are breaking the bias – #BreakTheBias. Flinders University Senior Lecturer and alumni Dr Monique Mulholland is one of these inspirational women.  

“I’ve spent my entire life at Flinders – since 1994 – first studying, then teaching. I’ve taught Developmental Studies, Sociology, Education and Women’s and Gender Studies. I’d say my career highlight, in a nutshell, is finding ways of working with young people from schools and communities and giving them a chance to voice what they think and how they feel about issues.”  

Monique has always been interested in norms and how people’s views are shaped around sexuality, gender, race and identity – how do we define what is normal, how do we define otherness? 

As a feminist and interdisciplinary researcher, Monique doesn’t just see herself as a sociologist focussing solely on society and social patterns, but rather draws from several different fields such as history, philosophy, and women’s and gender studies. Cultural studies, feminist theory and critical race theory all inform her work. Having completed a second Bachelor degree in Primary Education, Monique’s work has also always been embedded in the sex and relationship education (SRE) space. 

“Initially, I was interested in the influence of pornography and pornified media culture. So not just pornography itself, but the fact that people were calling video clips, advertising and music increasingly more pornographic in aesthetic and nature. There was a lot of harm-based panic about the influence of pornography on young people. 

“I was interested in finding out from young people themselves how they thought about the influence of pornography and pornification on their lives and their developing sexuality and to which conclusions they came in terms of gender and gender norms. I was interested in giving them a voice in this panic-based environment. I started with my PhD which was followed by a book, both on the topic of ‘Is there a new normal to young people and pornography?’. I was interested in working with them rather than just talking about them.”  

Exploring this question, Monique has worked with several schools across South Australia, talking to both younger and older age groups. Not only focussing on the influence of porn on young people but also looking at how race and colonialism, our colonial history and our colonial and contemporary ideas about race shape young people’s views on sexuality and their identities.  

Is sex education in its current form still appropriate? 

Insights from her discussion-based activities soon led to Monique’s current research project ‘Sex Education and Cultural Diversity – How can sex education better account for multiple lives and experiences?’, examining cultural differences and whether or not SRE addresses the needs of the diverse range of young people in our classrooms. Which students are best served by this education, and which continue to be sidelined and marginalised? 

Current research has noted that young people from refugee and newly arrived migrant backgrounds do not access sexual health services as readily as their non-migrant counterparts. As such, SRE education that meets their needs becomes all the more important. Current literature also recognises that our populations are diverse and that therefore our curriculum needs to adjust to better account for cultural and religious differences.  

Generally, sex education topics can cover anything from pregnancy, contraception and STI information to consent, respectful relationships, gender norms, gender inequality and sexual diversity. However, in Australia, sex education often tends to just be about preventing pregnancy and STIs. LGBTIQ+ sexualities, masturbation, pornography, feelings, confusions and the tricky aspects of negotiating relationships are largely not discussed.    

In her small-scale pilot study, Monique spoke to young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who were born in different countries and cultures – Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Iran, India and Bangladesh – but went through secondary school and have spent around half their lives in Australia. As the team wasn’t able to conduct the research in an institutional context, it needs to be pointed out that the participants were self-selecting and therefore open to talking about sex and all things related. 

“The common theme was that they were aware that they were different in this space through their race. They were also aware that some of their experiences, their culture and community experiences and associated norms about sex and sexuality were not visible in the sex ed space in Australia. So, for example, no one would talk about arranged marriages or how you would negotiate a relationship that was outside of your cultural group. Religion wouldn’t often be brought up, things like religious rituals and practices around periods. Essentially, each student would have different issues, but the common thread was that they were not seeing their experiences in that space. 

“There were many assumptions that parents may have already covered basic knowledge, like why is hair growing? Or what are masturbation and wet dreams? Basic info about periods or the birds and the bees. Assumptions that every young person in the class is open to LGBTQI+ issues. But for some, this was confronting. Several participants stressed that in their home country talking about sex was taboo, not just with family but also with friends.” 

In Western society, things are often seen as binary – there are only two possible points of view, e.g., something is either good or bad. This binary can get in the way of how we think about sex education.  

“In schools in the West, the binary is that there’s secular, progressive education, which is all about choice and religion is not involved. We learn about sex and relationships through a choice-based model and that we in our society are free to choose. This model however sets up a binary, sending the message that different cultures are somehow not about choice, or a little bit backward, which is that colonial idea, that perhaps they haven’t realised that they’ve got all these free choices or they’re not allowed to take them up.  

“Our choices are constrained by our sex and gender norms all the time, and we tend to make choices based on our social constraints, which are cultural. So do we really choose freely in the West, I wonder? It is not always helpful when it can make people from other cultures feel like they are ‘others’. We say Western SRE is progressive and secular but our culture also constrains us.” 

Currently, Monique is analysing further interviews with students from Muslim backgrounds and delving into the role that religion plays in sexual education. The plan is to roll out the study to an even more diverse group and include communities from Latin-American or European countries to identify differences within the Western world as well, and hopefully reach younger participants. 

What does the sex education of the future look like? 

With identities being complex and constantly in flux, what is the best way of shaping the curriculum? Expecting teachers to simply be more culturally sensitive is somewhat problematic as this would imply capturing all needs and experiences of students is easily done.  

The interviewed students provided lots of ideas and while they didn’t expect every culture to be covered, they still expected more to be spoken about, moving away from uniform white imagery. “Suggestions included making or sourcing videos from experts from different cultural communities, so the information is culturally appropriate. Another idea was finding ways of getting the teachers to ask them more questions, potentially through online surveys, anonymous question boxes, small friendship-based workgroups or one-on-one sessions. They all stressed the need to shift from straightforward content delivery to finding out more via student-initiated questions without putting people on the spot or making them feel judged by others in the classroom.” 

Separating students into groups based on culture or religion is not an option for Monique, as there would then have to be a decision about who is Western and who isn’t – something that is impossible due to lack of a clear distinction.  

Including information from other cultures can also be problematic as this still centres the norm around the Western secular and supposedly progressive approach, making the other approaches seen as unusual.  

Drawing from her research, Monique suggests a third way, “We need to find ways to see everybody in the class, whether they were born here, are third-generation or have just arrived. This would require a curriculum that starts with asking the students what their questions are and what they would like to learn rather than delivering content or perceived ideas about what we think young people want or need. It will take work and a lot of thought to find a way to accommodate everyone’s differences that are in a classroom space, but it also means we wouldn’t set up distinctions between the West and the rest. 

“Different cultures have different definitions of terms. Rather than teaching, for example, what the Western definition of respect in a relationship is, we could involve the students and ask open-ended questions as to what respect means to them, in their culture? Making terms more open-ended lets people bring their varied experiences to the table. This of course requires a different way of teaching – a flipped way in which teachers tailor everything around their students that they’ve gotten to know. This may mean separating them into genders makes them feel safer, or it may not.” 

In terms of parental influence, Monique doesn’t agree guardians should have the end argument. “If a child identifies as queer but comes from a really Christian, conservative family and the parents always have the right to veto over what’s discussed, that child isn’t given a safe environment to explore issues for itself. We live in a society that is made up of schools, parents, friends, social institutions. So, I think there needs to be a point at which young people are able to explore issues without their parents having the final say.” 

Which steps are necessary to implement changes Australia wide? 

Monique’s work is still in a conceptual research phase which means actual plans to implement the idea haven’t been formulated yet. However, it is clear that this approach would require a lot more resourcing into SRE so teachers have materials – activities, scenarios, discussion points – at hand that serve a variety of students if the classroom is filled with different cultures, and provide them with safe ways to explore issues on their own terms.  

Another requirement is more training for teachers so they can dive deep into the issues that are affecting young people and create safe spaces for young people to express what they want to learn about and how best to discuss that with them. Rather than just deciding that people from other cultures have backward or outdated viewpoints, it is necessary to get excellent, critical and engaged cultural training that prompts teachers to think about their points of view around cultural differences. Many education degrees already include a topic on teaching Indigenous Australians and cover many of the above discussed points. A similar topic could be rolled out, especially for sex education.  

“I believe it’s important to find ways to involve young people, parents and cultural communities in designing the curriculum. A co-designed approach can lead to the best ways of delivering the content.  

“Just in general, schools need to be more open about talking about sex. While some teachers are across it, I’d say many are nervous about talking about sex, sexuality and gender, partly because the schools and institutions are nervous about talking about it, or they worry what parents will think.  

“Fundamentally, it really requires a different way of thinking altogether about young people and sexuality and our fears around closing down conversations with young people. It will likely take decades. There is such a long history of thinking about young people as innocent and in need of protection from sex and sexuality until they are adults.” 

The desired impact of this sex education research project 

Monique’s hope for this initial project is to raise awareness of the importance of the issue amongst researchers and communities. It has long been established that the current curriculum around sex education isn’t serving everyone.  

“What distinguishes my project from others is that I’m really passionate about translating our knowledge and theoretical ideas around how to think differently about difference into actually practical strategies, which is not easy. This project attempted to get some ideas from the young people themselves and I’m hoping that at least we will come up with some practical strategies that teachers, researchers and curriculum designers might be able to use to start rethinking their curriculum and their curriculum content.” 

Watch Monique Mulholland’s talk for Flinders’ Meet the Minds series for further insights into her research project.

Posted in
Sociology Women's & Gender Studies