As a young girl growing up in Melburbia in the 1950s and 60s who attended government schools, I received no sex education bar a mother-daughter night at my local primary school where a stern, sexless and elderly (or so she seemed to me at the time) matron posted diagrams on a board outlining the physiology/biology of female parts; calling them by their Oxford English grammarisms and ignoring all reference to anything remotely sexual. It was a quasi-medical lecture; no information at all about pregnancy (except of course a sterile boring description of how it occurred) or contraception and certainly nothing about sexual gender diversity (it seemed assumed we were all ‘normal’ heterosexual pubescents), intimate relationships or even about how to go about having sex. Or not that I remember. My mother and I never talked about it either. At high school, co-ed too, sex education was still in the closet; and I gleaned my information, and much misinformation, from some trashy romance magazines I bought, along with a few novels I tried to hide from my mother. Peyton Place, a 1956 novel by Grace Metalious, sat on my mother’s bookshelf, and at about 12, I did read it with her permission. The novel featured much about sex, young girls and boys, and relationships with parents and a step-father, touching on male/female sexual attraction though for memory, it was never in such an obvious vernacular, more shrouded in ideas of love than lust. To say I was incredibly ignorant, befuddled and bewildered about all matters relating to sex is an understatement. Furthermore, the sexual mores at that time, not just in Melbourne, but pervasive in the West generally too (from other books I read in my later teens), disparaged and denigrated girls who did engage in sex outside marriage as loose, fallen, awful and more damning, as sluts. A wholesome welcome to the real world! Sex was a ‘dirty’ word (more so for girls than boys in an altogether different way) and as much as I was longing for it all (sometimes more consciously than at other times), I was also prey to the social milieu that celebrated purity and virginity as virtues to be cherished. I abandoned that puritanical, gender madness at 19 and never looked back, albeit with a couple of hiccups.
However, a couple of my female friends and my late sister taught ‘so-called’ sex education in secondary schools during the 80s, 90s and 2000s, unqualified and called in to teach it because it was deemed as what? Necessary? Important? Functional? An integral part of a more comprehensive education? My sister did have a post-graduate diploma in human relations, but was married to the same man for more than 30 years to whom she lost her virginity and never had sex with another man, or so she told me many times. I certainly believed her. The sex ed she taught which I’d always been interested in, was in some ways, not that different from my mother-daughter night years previously. She presented the so-called FACTS of LIFE (and there’s an interesting expression in itself!) and offered discussion issues such as contraception (there’s an advance) and some mention of homosexuality and difference, but there was little conversation with the class about the complexity and conundrums revolving around do you or don’t you? And why you do or don’t want to do or why with some girls or boys and not others? No exploration of sexual attraction, our wants, needs and the emotional aspects involved, or at times, not involved, in why we have sex or choose not to. The teaching she imparted was to reinforce the sadly, traditional social norm that sex was best within a loving relationship, and there was no discussion about lust per se and love per se and the intimate nexus between them or not? I’m not sure whether the notion of romance was ever discussed, but it should have been, an illusion we all adhere to at times, however fleeting and ephemeral. Masturbation was definitely not on the agenda. There was also no relevant discussion about enforced consent (should I call it rape?) and no advice really about how to handle it all. Moreover, the idea of sexual partners, even so-called infidelity and jealousy, was couched in terms of contracting STDs, not as an issue of ethics, morality and desire. My other female friends who taught it had similar stories to tell.
Over the past couple of years, there have been calls to greatly enhance the sex ed curriculum, particularly now when media attention focuses more and more on male rape and sexual assaults, increasing numbers of teenage girls getting pregnant, and the popularity of porn on the internet as well as the sexting between adolescents.
When I first discovered the sex education policy of the Sex Party, on its website before the state election in 2014, I was more than pleased to see it was about sex AND relationship education because the party believes that’s crucial to the development of healthy attitudes around relationships, and that this education should not wait until Year 10 or thereabouts in high school, but should be introduced from years prep through 10 (age-appropriate), focusing on accurate, non-judgemental, inclusive, comprehensive, universal and compulsory teaching. Furthermore, it believes in educating students and importantly, too, parents (how many adolescents really talk to their parents about sex?) about safe and respectful use of information and communication technologies focusing on internet literacy, social media, messaging and texting. It also supports early introduction to concepts like difference, respectful communication, consent and privacy, with later instruction around sex, sexuality, gender, consent and intimacy.
Hopefully, with Sex Party Fiona Patten now an MLC, maybe the push to reform the sex ed curriculum will become more of an important political focus. Why is it so important? Certainly, I can attest to being screwed up psychologically over sex throughout my adolescence; once masturbating in my early years only to stop when I was about 12 for reasons that were buried in my unconscious psyche. All I can say is that reading recent research for a survey conducted by academics in sexual health implied that not much has changed over the past five decades. The research found that 30 per cent of 16-19-year-old girls did NOT masturbate, and that only about 68 per cent of females had orgasms in sex. What the research did not ask was whether the sex was enjoyable and even whether having orgasms are, should be, the measure of pleasure. Is an orgasm the be all and end all of sex? The survey was Australia wide, so what is indeed happening out there? Maybe the reality is that while there seems to be more overt discussions about sex – so-called – too many females seem to be missing out on real pleasure and enjoyment; even self-administered. Moreover, a TV discussion program I saw in early 2013 alluded to the reality that for young girls, sex still equates with love; while boys might be “allowed” to sew their wild oats, girls are still tainted by derogatory name-calling dare they satisfy their desires (however unconsciously bidden) and seem to cherish old-fashioned attitudes that sex MUST be about love in a reciprocated, caring relationship. Sex for its enjoyment is not recognised as a healthy or desirable pursuit/outcome. One young girl on the program, no longer a virgin (losing her virginity to some guy previously) now had a boyfriend she loved, telling the viewers that she wished she had waited to have sex (intercourse? and is that what it’s only about?) with this current boyfriend. Moreover, the boyfriend lied to her initially about being a non-virgin; later telling her the truth. And yes, they both acknowledged that girls who indulged in sex were still labelled as ‘sluts!’ Moreover, losing your virginity, which was the focus of the program, included a lesbian female who had paid a guy to ‘deflower’ her, while a female gynaecologist reported that some Muslim girls were consulting her to have their hymen replaced as they were ‘supposed’ to be virgins when they married. I have also talked briefly with two 21-year-old females studying at university, one of whom is still a virgin, the other having lost her virginity while drunk and neither girl had a boyfriend. Why? According to them, the young men they had met were only interested in good-looking girls to fuck! Sex for its own sake on the boys’ agenda, while these two, young girls intimated they wanted more than that. Both girls were attractive, so what the hell is going on? And is that much different from a bygone era? Is it a problem and where does it all start? Is it still the bind of double-standards?
Of course, I can’t answer these questions, but undoubtedly, one of the first and critical steps in ensuring young and older men AND women aren’t psychologically screwed up over the issue is to start talking about the subject in schools with sensitivity, understanding and real information that truly reflects our individual uniqueness as human beings, whatever gender and whatever our preference. I could elaborate even more on what I’ve learned, experienced, read and been told over the years, but suffice to say there is an urgent need to inform and discuss honestly and openly the issues pertaining to sex in our society; particularly in a world where there’s not only personal angst over the issue, but a societal malaise that can cripple all of us in ways we need to make conscious. Sometimes I think sex is still perceived and regarded as a ‘dirty’ word in our world by too many people, especially for single and unattached girls and/or women, unless practised in the boudoirs of marriage. Yes, there are now increasing numbers of countries legally marrying gay and lesbian couples, but homophobia in Australia is still alive and well and thriving according to articles I have read in the newspapers. Moreover, young women are lamenting the reality that too many males are watching porn and expect their female partners to be like they see so some women are running off to cosmetic surgeons fiddling with their vaginas and labia to more closely resemble what? The perfection they imagine of porn? With all this attention to sex, it would be reassuring to think our attitudes to the issue have changed, but when I talk to real men (many married who don’t have sex with their wives much, if at all) and women of varying ages, it seems that underpinning our so-called more liberal, enlightened and permissive society the same old taboos and stigmas still abound, just more well-disguised and out of sight than decades ago.
It must be the realm of sex ed in schools to start the change in social attitudes and while experience, however fraught it can be at times when we’re young, can also help shift our ideas, thoughts, beliefs and of course, our feelings, it is time we had a real conversation and public discourse about sex and what better place to start than in the secure and safe environs of our schools?