Today, the former ‘Dolly Doctor’ is an Associate Professor of Public Health at UTS. Melissa and her daughter, Research Assistant Georgia Carr, are working together to develop an elective subject called Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health. The proud feminists reveal what it’s like working together and how they hope to change the way we talk about sexuality and sexual health.
When I think about it in retrospect, my whole purpose, from the very beginning, in wanting to take on Dolly Doctor came from a very feminist perspective. For girls and young women, even in a country like Australia, sexuality is highly taboo and highly stigmatised; we constantly ram negativity down their throats. But, I wanted to play at least a tiny part in changing the discourse. And I think Dolly Doctor allowed that.
Now, 25 years later, Georgia is coming at it from that same feminist perspective, and I think probably that’s what I’m most proud of. I've raised all my children, my three daughters and my son, to be feminists. But to have one of my own children want to pick up that mantel I carried with Dolly Doctor is really lovely. I think that’s probably what sums up the synergy between us so nicely – we both want to empower and create change.
For a long time I thought I would be a teacher, but I then discovered adolescent medicine could be, and was, so much more than looking after sick adolescents in hospital. It’s about health promotion, education, working with schools and understanding the importance of learning. The brain is developing so rapidly in adolescence it’s a really wonderful time to teach them life skills.
The Dolly Doctor position actually became available the year Georgia was born and I held that position until the end of 2016 when the magazine closed. Over the years though, that was really just a tiny part of my work. I also worked in general practice, I had a role in the department of adolescent medicine at the Children's Hospital Westmead, then I finally moved into academia.
I worked at Sydney University for 14 years, but have been at UTS for two years now, since August 2016. I felt that what was on offer here – a promotion to Associate Professor and the chance to be involved in creating a new course – was a really good fit and a nice opportunity to grow a new area of research.
As a medical academic, I have learned that adolescents as a patient group are not always the most popular. Health professionals often have trouble engaging with them, so focusing on that during university makes sense.
The subject Georgia and I have developed, which will be running in Autumn session 2019, is Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and that will be an elective in the Master of Public Health. It’s a very broad and multifaceted subject that looks at adolescent development, psychology, social determinants of adolescent sexual and reproductive health, health promotion and the evidence behind sex education.
I would like to see UTS become a real hub for adolescent health teaching, beginning with this subject.
It’s been great working with Georgia. She’s young and when I talk about the boring stuff – learning objectives, headlines, statistics et cetera – she'll go and find all this interesting content that young people will be able to relate to, things like YouTube videos and social media posts. That’s incredibly lucky for me.
I’m very, very, proud of her. She won the university medal at Sydney University last year, for her honours thesis where she linguistically analysed the Q and A’s to Dolly Doctor, in 12 months of issues that were 10 years apart.
Even though I take zero credit, because her thesis is something that’s completely above my head, there’s a little part of me that it just warms, and I think, 'Gosh this is about Dolly Doctor and that’s so cool!'
When I started university seven years ago, I became more and more interested in things like feminism and gender equality, and that ties in a lot with sex education. I mean, it’s not surprising considering my mum’s profession.
When I was growing up, sexual health and sexuality was a very open conversation, literally around the dinner table sometimes, so I definitely credit my mum for some of my interest in that.
My mum started as Dolly Doctor the year I was born – 1993. So, literally my entire life she has been the Dolly Doctor, but it was something I didn't notice until I was an older teenager.
There was never really an ‘ah ha’ moment like ‘Oh, mum knows about sexuality’ or having ‘the talk' as it was more of an ongoing open conversation. But, I do remember telling her I wanted to go on the pill when I was about 17.
She said, ‘Okay, when you go to the doctor, this is what they will ask …". She offered to drive me and told me, from a medical perspective, about the sorts of questions the doctor would ask. There was no feeling from her, like 'Oh my daughter’s having sex, I’m scared or concerned’, it was just not a big deal.
We have that same comfort working together, too. Even though Mum’s in health and I’m in linguistics, we have quite similar interests, as far as sex education, sexuality and academia. I've always liked studying and teaching, and academia combines the two. Although, I did want to be a doctor or a vet when I was very young. Pretty much the same as mum!
It’s great working with mum – she runs the course and I’m assisting in bringing it all together. She gives me an outline or overview of how the course will look, or what a certain week will look like and I find content to populate that topic. Sometimes the directions are more specific, so she’ll know what reading she wants and I’ll write questions to go with it. Other times, it’s more open ended and I can find and suggest things that are interesting or important.
I have to learn a lot, but that’s kind of the case anywhere. There are some bits of the course that I know a bit better, for instance, there's a week about gender and sexuality diversity. Then there are other weeks that are about STIs, epidemiology or things like the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child, things like that, which I have no idea about. But, Mum’s a total expert. This is her research area; she’s been looking at adolescent health and sexual health for 30 years, so she can tell me specifically “you’ve got to read X, Y and Z to know what’s required for that week”.
So much of the way we talk about young people and sex is framed around fear or danger, when really there’s so much more to sex and sexuality than risk and safety. Hopefully, the students that take this subject see that, and over time I can help the broader society to understand that as well.