This paper explores the complex relationship between childhood and sexuality by identifying prevailing discourses underpinning the repression and regulation of children’s knowledge of sexuality in Australia since the 1950’s. Examining several primary schooling Health Curricula, and Professional Development, Health and Physical Education Syllabi from the 1950’s to the turn of the new century, we trace the construction of the child and children’s knowledge of sexuality in early childhood (K-6). We believe that teaching sexual knowledge within schooling culture needs to be better aligned with the changing lives of children so as to adequately address different and diverse family experiences.
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Debates about sex education in Australia cover a broad range of issues including children having access to knowledge when they are perceived to be too young; the perceived need by some for a greater focus on heteronormative nuclear family values, such as fidelity, responsibility, abstinence, parenthood; information being perceived to be too explicit; that providing children with such knowledge will actually lead to premature sexual activity; concerns by moral entrepreneurs around teaching non-heterosexuality.
New South Wales, located on the South East coast, has the largest concentration of the Australian population. It is a state covering a vast range of geographical landscapes, with most of its inhabitants living on a narrow coastal strip, concentrating around Sydney, Australia’s largest city. NSW is the most ethnically diverse Australian state, which historically stems from a rigorous immigration program beginning in the 1950’s to fulfil the needs of an emerging post-war manufacturing economy. Each State government in Australia manages its own schooling systems, which vary across the country. Government schools educate the majority (about two-thirds) of children in Australia, with the remainder attending Independent schools. In NSW children in primary schooling are generally aged between 8 and 12 years old. The Department of Education and Training (DET) is the government body that manages schooling in NSW, and is one of the biggest schooling systems in the world. The NSW Board of Studies is responsible for the development of the curriculum, including the PD/H/PE syllabi.
Due to the extensive time period addressed, we have limited our discussion largely to four specific syllabi—the 1952, 1965, 1992 and 1999 documents. We have chosen to highlight the educational discourses of childhood and sexuality in the post-war II period, which saw major challenges to hegemonic social and moral values, marriage breakdown, and an increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Discourses in the 1952 Health Curriculum exemplify the fervour of official policies operating in broader post-war Australia around the perceived need to return to traditional white, Christian, heteronormative nuclear family values. The liberal socio-cultural shifts of the 1960’s were not generally reflected within the 1965 Health Curriculum, which tended to perpetuate conservative approaches to childhood and sex education. Despite the absence of any content on sexual knowledge in the 1952 and 1965 documents, these syllabi still operate to construct and regulate children as heteronormative subjects. A focus on the 1992 and 1999 PD/H/PE syllabi provides some insight into the constructions of childhood and sexuality and discourses of sex education leading into the twenty-first century. This was a period when child sexual abuse impacted significantly on understandings of the relationship between childhood and sexuality; the fears of the incurability of AIDS had somewhat subsided; and the discourse of celibacy found greater prominence. These latter syllabi are different from the previous two chosen in that they do address human sexuality, providing interesting examples of the official representation and regulation of childhood and children’s knowledge within Australian schooling.
Australia is part of the Commonwealth of Nations, formerly known as the British Commonwealth, a loose confederation of nations formerly members of the British Empire. Australian nationalism has traditionally been linked to its colonial British past. This was especially so in the 1950’s in post World War II Australia. Much of Anglo White Australian culture has been steeped in British values and traditions and much of its governance has arisen from British influence.
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Robinson, K., Davies, C. Docile Bodies and Heteronormative Moral Subjects: Constructing the Child and Sexual Knowledge in Schooling. Sexuality & Culture 12, 221–239 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12119-008-9037-7
- Sexual knowledge