Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Culture Wars in South Australia: The Sex Education Debates

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Culture Wars in South Australia: The Sex Education Debates

Article excerpt

Introduction

Much has been written about the rise of the Christian Right in United States and its influence on domestic and international policies over the past two decades (Baltimore, 2004; Blackburn, 2004; Delameter 2004; Chavkin, 2004; Irvine, 2004; Buss and Herman, 2003; Committee on Government Reform, 2003; McGee and Novotny, 2003; Berlet and Lyons, 2000; Moen, 1994; Diamond, S, 1992). More recently social commentators in Australia have drawn attention to a similar phenomenon in this country, pointing to an increase in political activism by Christian Right groups and the alliances they are forming with state and federal politicians from mainstream political parties (Lohrey, 2006; Maddox, 2005). Opposition to the piloting of a new sex education program in South Australia in 2003 is a case in point. In form and content it had all the hallmarks of the Christian Right grass roots activism that has typified the opposition to comprehensive sex education in the United States since the 1960s. In this paper I am using the term 'Christian Right' as defined by Berlet: a United States-based social movement that 'uses a pious and traditionalist constituency as its mass base to pursue the political goal of imposing a narrow theological agenda on secular society' (Berlet, 1994:22).

The battles between Christian Right and affiliated groups and those with a more secular humanist vision for society have been described as 'culture wars' (Collins, 2006; Maddox, 2005; McKnight 2003; Zimmerman, 2002; Shor, 1986). First coined in Germany in 1879 to describe conflicts between Protestants and Catholics over religion in schools, the term is now used more broadly to designate a clash of values between progressive and orthodox stakeholders on a range of social issues, from gay rights to 'radical feminism', abortion, prayer in public schools and sex education (Collins, 2006: 342; Zimmerman, 2002; Shor, 1986). Ultimately culture wars are battles to determine who defines cultural and political values from their ideological position, whether their position is supported by evidence or not. Schools continue to be an arena for the culture wars, spaces where an agenda that is 'national in its origins and goals ... privileges the local as a scale of action and authority.' (Mattingly, 1998: 65).

Sex education in Australia

Australia is a more secular society than the United States (Maddox, 2005; Black, 1983; Bouma, 1983) and, as Maddox points out, 'raised on larrikin anticlericalism', the Australian electorate does not like its leaders 'to look religiously fanatical or excessive' (Maddox, 2005:4). In the past a person seeking political office has not been disadvantaged if they are known to be agnostic or atheist and, although groups affiliated with the Christian Right have been active in Australia and mounted opposition to school sex education in the 1970s and early 1980s (Preston, 2007; Mendelsohn, 1983), their political clout on this issue has been limited since the advent of HIV/AIDS (Jose, 1995). The diagnosis of AIDS in Australia in 1983 provided an impetus for a national approach to sex education. From the outset young people were identified as a priority and school sexuality education was seen as a way of reaching them (Commonwealth of Australia, 1988). In 1988 the federal government called for education that was 'honest, explicit and comprehensive' and 'realistic in its assumptions about the attitudes, skills and behaviour of young people' (Commonwealth of Australia, 1988: 143). School sex education became a component of the first and subsequent HIV/MDS Strategies (Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care, c2000; National HIV/AIDS Strategy, 1993-94 to 1995-96, 1995) and, as education is a state responsibility in Australia, the implementation of HIV/AIDS education in schools was facilitated by federal-state funding agreements.

The Australian federal government renewed its commitment to sex education in 1999, publishing a national framework to consolidate and progress earlier efforts. …

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