Late last week, I was fortunate to attend a Sex Ed class at our Maribyrnong Campus, delivered by Parkville College teachers, Em Baker and Ali Eales.
The Parkville College Maribyrnong Campus operates within a Secure Welfare Service facility that houses vulnerable girls in the protection of the state, aged between 10 and 17 years old.
Unlike some of our other campuses, the children placed in Secure Welfare are not detained for committing a crime. Instead, placement occurs where there is imminent and substantial risk of a child harming themselves or being harmed by others.
These young girls are commonly placed in secure settings as a result of sexual exploitation, physical assault, self-harm, absconding, substance abuse, placement breakdown or mental health. Most, if not all, are victims of childhood trauma, abuse and neglect.
“Before coming in, the majority of our students lived in residential units rather than with their parents, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation by older men who prey on young girls in these units and ply them with drugs, alcohol and other gifts. Domestic violence, self-harm, sexual exploitation and substance abuse are common experiences for our students.” Em said.
“Kids are often taken directly out of their point of crisis and delivered straight to our door.” Ali explained.
As Secure Welfare Maribyrnong is a maximum-security facility and involves the restriction of a child’s liberty, protection placement is only employed when all other options have been considered. Predominantly, the purpose is to keep children safe while a suitable case plan is established to safely return them to the community in a structured and thoughtful way.
The exigency for a sex and health education program at the Maribyrnong Campus came from the unified desire from both teachers, to empower their students by educating them about their bodies, their rights and the resources available to them.
“When I first started teaching at the Maribyrnong Campus, there were many occasions where students would openly share their experiences of sexual assault or rape during a Literacy class. Most kids learn about sex, relationships, personal safety, hygiene etc. from their parents or at school. Our kids are often in contact with neither.” Em explained.
“Because of the nature of these girls lives and the traumatic things they’ve been through, there was no question that sex education was one, if not the most imperative thing we should teach them.” Ali explained.
Many forms of sexual education in schools across our country have limited effectiveness and relevance in promoting the wellbeing of young people with histories of trauma. School sex education curricula that ties getting pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted disease to shame, is especially harmful for youths who have been sexually abused.
“Laying the groundwork for this subject, we were very aware of further distressing our students by speaking about topics that may trigger really negative emotions for them. We don’t focus on students’ individual circumstances, but rather talk about hypothetical situations and encourage the students to explore their thoughts and ideas. However, students often link the topics back to their own lives, and it’s great that they feel safe enough to do that.” Em said.
With this in mind, Em and Ali developed a trauma-informed sex and health education program, with the aim of helping the vulnerable girls in their class gain access to information, without making them feel humiliated or ashamed about past experiences.
“We started by creating a calm space. We hold the class in a light filled classroom, with chocolates and colouring books on the table. We tell our students if they feel uncomfortable they can leave and come back at any time. We encourage colouring in during all classes, as it gives the girls the ability to passively listen if they don’t feel comfortable contributing to class discussion. We ensure that we follow up with girls who have opted out of classes in case they have felt triggered, or distressed by what was presented in that class.” Ali said.
Throughout the Sex Ed class, we discussed the characteristics of a healthy relationship, including areas of trust, dependency, support, acceptance, communication, values and affection.
Studies show that childhood trauma and maltreatment significantly impacts brain development, including those areas pertaining to building healthy relationships, and non-consensual sexual experiences during childhood often cause distorted views about choice, consent and desire.
This was overwhelmingly apparent during Sex Ed class at the Maribyrnong Campus.
When asked how they would react if a partner was to physically hurt them, one student responded;
“You never know. If they hit you once, they might not hit you again. They might feel too bad.”
When asked the question: Your partner hates using condoms. He says he’s definitely clean, even though he’s never been tested. What do you do?
One student ticked: Put the condom on him that you brought yourself. She then added;
“Because you don’t know if he’s pricked the condom.”
When asked what they would do if their partner felt insecure or if there were trust issues in their relationship, another student responded;
“Sometimes my boyfriend doesn’t let me wear makeup. Other days he only lets me wear foundation. When we go out he doesn’t like it if I get too dressed up, because he’s insecure that I’ll leave him.”
“It’s so hard not jump in and tell them that their partner is controlling or manipulating. It’s hard not to tell them to get out of their relationship and walk away from their partner. But you don’t want to be another person telling them what to do. Instead, we try and explain to them what a healthy relationship and healthy sexual experiences look like. It’s an ongoing process.” Em explained.
Recently the girls were asked what they have learned so far and whether Sex Ed has been beneficial to them: