It was difficult to learn that Australian writer, filmmaker and national treasure Anne Deveson died this week.
I had never met Anne; but I feel that I owe her a debt of gratitude. It was only through my research had I come across her name; a young academic digging into the history of queerness in Australia. As I studied (what passed as) sex education through the ages, my trawling eventually led to the somewhat obscure Royal Commission on Human Relationships.
Anne Deveson AO, 19 June 1930 – 12 December 2016. Image from Sydney Morning Herald
In 1974, Gough Whitlam established the Royal Commission on Human Relationships, following a failure to implement reform on abortion. The Commission sought to explore how well Australian relationships are working with the law – and with contemporary society. The broad terms of reference investigated a variety of issues such as marriage, cohabitation, divorce, pregnancy and termination, gender equity, sexuality, homophobia, sex education and more.
Some of the findings of the Royal Commission were alarming, and vindicated hard-fought campaigns by feminists and gay activists in the preceding decades. The Commission found that there was a high rate of sexual illiteracy among the population. Submissions and testimony from professionals such as gynecologists and obstetricians demonstrated the extent of this problem; apparently, a large number of women at the time were unable to correctly name or identify parts of their sexual and reproductive systems.
Sex education was demonstrated to be sub-par and was not consistently offered around Australia. Young people were leaving school with little to no knowledge about their bodies, their sexual development or of sex more broadly.
For context, sex education in Australia prior to the 70s was bleak. If a child was not lucky enough to have well-informed parents or a progressive school environment, a child may get their sex education through trial-and-error, or perhaps by encountering a booklet from an organisation such as the Father and Son Welfare Movement of Australia (I know).
These booklets appear to have been distributed to kids through schools and churches, and preached a very hard line about abstinence, godliness and gender conformity.
Yes, this is real. The Guide to Virile Manhood was published in 1957 by the Father and Son Welfare Movement of Australia. Thank you to Sharyn Pearce, who shared this book with me during my Honours research in 2014. Image recoloured in Photoshop by yours truly.
Pervasive themes in these booklets centered around imbuing young people with the knowledge they needed to cultivate a strong persona and “excel at manly sports” – or, if you happen to be a woman – to cook, clean and raise the children.
By today’s standards, the guidance these booklets offered in relation to sexuality, desire and pleasure would be considered extremely conservative. Below are some excerpts from the Guide to Virile Manhood:
On having gay experiences:
The Royal Commission on Human Relationships found that this kind of thinking around relationships, sexuality, division of labour and gender expectations had been uprooted by the Sexual Revolution. However, the functions of government had not quite caught up to the social progress that had been made.
Gay men and lesbians provided submissions to the Commission, painting a portrait of a deeply discriminatory Australia. Opportunities for work, leisure and social fulfillment were not extended to openly same-sex attracted people. Queer people were putting pressure on the Government to facilitate their social citizenship in a country whose sexual hangups and discrimination seemed to be tapering off.
In 1977, after the fall of the Whitlam Government, Anne Deveson, alongside Elizabeth Evatt and Felix Arnott, published the findings.
The Final Report of the Royal Commission on Human Relationships is widely considered to be far ahead of its time. The Report passed down more than 500 recommendations – some of which are still progressive by today’s standards. Among many other areas, the Report recommended that reform take place in abortion, sex education, access to contraception, divorce, domestic violence, child protection, sexual assault prevention and survivor care, women’s labour and discrimination against gay men and lesbians.
The recommendations were not met with universal fanfare, however. The Report was considered to be extremely controversial, and many of the recommendations were not acted upon. But this Royal Commission had a lasting impact on Australian society, whether we give it this credit or not.
Issues such as women’s roles and rights and sexuality in particular were thrust into public discourse in such a way that would not have otherwise happened. Though it was the blood, sweat and tears of 60s and 70s feminists and gay activists that have given us so much, Anne Deveson’s Royal Commission helped pave the way for public discussions about how we can better relate to one another.
Anne Deveson has been lauded for her long career in writing and broadcasting, and especially for her focus on socially progressive issues and mental health. She and the other Commissioners have my eternal queer gratitude. Vale.