Drawing the Line: Sex Education and Homosexuality in South Australia, 1985

By Jose, Jim | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Drawing the Line: Sex Education and Homosexuality in South Australia, 1985


Jose, Jim, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


This paper examines a specific controversy over the control and content of sex education in South Australia in 1985 that was triggered by concerns about homosexuality. Drawing on Foucault's idea of the "deployment of sexuality", the paper examines the way in which the issue of homosexuality became the focal point for a concerted struggle over sex education in state schools. It is argued that the idea of homosexuality, or more accurately male homosexual sexuality, served as a boundary marker that both defined and revealed the content and scope of school-based sex education. It is shown that this controversy was an instance of the "deployment of sexuality" through which public opinion was concentrated and mobilised to ensure that prevailing heterosexual norms remained the defining parameters for sex education. Thus it is also demonstrated that sex education is deeply implicated in both the construction and maintenance of prevailing (gendered) sexual norms.

Sex education has been and remains one of the most contentious of social issues. Debates over the place of sex education within the school curriculum have revolved around a number of core questions: who should teach it, how it should be taught, what information should be imparted, and what moral and social values should inform it. Embedded within these debates, however, have been deeper concerns about the relationship between sex education and ideas about sex, sexuality and gender. For many people, sex education has been seen as a means of subverting or reinforcing long accepted gendered sexual values, of reshaping or reaffirming particular sexed subjectivities.(2) This is because the teaching of sexual relations and sexuality is organised around the idea of sexual difference, a key idea that forms the lens through which sexual knowledge is refracted.(3) This lens involves a gendered understanding of sexual difference and hence a particular approach to sexual knowledge that is central for maintaining what Rich has described as "compulsory heterosexuality" and Connell as "obligatory heterosexuality".(4) When controversies arise, this lens, or control of it, both quickens the politics of sex education debates and constitutes the political prize for which the various protagonists struggle.

In his History of Sexuality, Foucault coined the phrase "deployment of sexuality" to describe the way in which ideas about sexuality were organised to shape our understanding of sex. Sexual knowledge was not a truth waiting to be discovered. Rather, it was the product of specific discourses. The idea of "deployment of sexuality" referred to the discursive means by which particular sexualities come to be identified and systematised within the social body and subsequently particularised and tied to specific individual bodies.(5) In this way, these individualised bodies receive their sexual identities. However, such sexual identities were not reducible to the bodies to which they were anchored. For Foucault, sexuality could not be reduced to some essential pre-discursive entity, biological or otherwise. Sexuality was not an effect or consequence of sex. It was an "object of knowledge" and an "element in relations of power", and as such it was an "historical construct", not a biological given.(6) Indeed, in Foucault's analysis, sex too was a matter of discursive construction, a consequence of a specific deployment of sexuality.(7)

Drawing on Foucault's basic approach, this paper examines a specific controversy over the control and content of sex education in South Australia. A draft industrial policy proposal of the South Australian Institute of Teachers (SAIT) in 1985 triggered a brief but vociferous questioning of control over the content of sex education in state schools. The teachers' union aimed to address discrimination against teachers based on sexuality or perceived sexual preference. One section of the draft policy discussed sex education and suggested that any teacher-directed discussion of homosexuality in the classroom should be free from prejudice. …

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