Now in my late 60s, I am still traversing new terrain and discovering new physical and psychological pleasures about love and sex. My adventurous life seems summed up brilliantly and appositely in a non-fiction book called “THE ETHICAL SLUT” by Janet W. Hardy and Dossie Easton I received as a present from my Spanish friend, Alexi. The authors wrote: “We are paving new roads across new territory. We have no culturally approved scripts for open sexual lifestyles; we need to write our own. To write your own script requires a lot of effort, and a lot of honesty, and is the kind of hard work that brings many rewards. You may find the right way for you and three years from now decide you want to live a different way-and that’s fine. You write the script, you get to make the choices, and you get to change your mind, too.” Additionally, my feelings, desires and needs also changed over the decades, with a continual re-working of my scripts, plural. The one constant was that it was MY life and MY responsibility in choosing how I lived.
I’ve written with as much honesty as I can and acknowledge that I not only wrote my own script and made my own choices but on many occasions in different times and in different contexts and for different reasons, changed my mind about love, sex and all issues pertaining. I still have an open mind about the years ahead, exploring new avenues and sources of pleasure as they present themselves.
Whoever has read my book will appreciate that my life wasn’t particularly straight-forward, simple and superficial, but living life to the full with all its unpredictable pitfalls and pleasures has enriched me with so many experiences that enlivened even the loneliest and lost times over the years.
Endeavouring to put these experiences into some sort of historical context, I have collected copious articles and consistently perused new books about sex and love for not just women my vintage, but current adolescents to understand if mores, attitudes and cultural expectations have changed about love and sex. Do we even think they should change? Must change? Furthermore, I am constantly learning about other people’s experiences and attitudes to enhance my understanding of 21st century reality for both genders of whatever sexual persuasion. It is up to the reader to make sense of it all, presenting only the information to absorb and think about.
50 YEARS ON-DO SOCIAL MORES STILL SHAME SEX?
A 2017 non-fiction publication called “The New Puberty” by writer, Amanda Dunn, relates the difficulty still extant of parent’s talking about sex with their teenage children. In an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper following the book’s release, she said it was one of the great paradoxes of our highly-sexualised culture that parents particularly were so “weirdly uptight” talking about sex and sexual development with their children. In her book, she asserts it is as if “talking about…burgeoning sexuality and reproductive capability…is shameful and a bit dirty.” Citing current scientific research highlighting young people now reach puberty earlier than previously, she says this new reality must recognise sex education as really important for both parents and children, stressing the need for quality training for teachers and for community acceptance of accurate, age-appropriate information on reproduction as fundamental to a good education. She writes: “sexuality education happens on an ad hoc basis, and flares into controversy more often than is necessary. Governments tread warily and so do schools. There is a strange cultural reticence behind this…and it’s high time we acknowledged how damaging that is and changed our approach.”
Earlier in 2017, a prominent female writer, Kerri Sackville, acknowledged in The Sunday Age newspaper, that as the mother of a teenage girl, talking sex to her is “a hard conversation” to have. “I can talk to my kids about condoms for hours, but bring up orgasms or pleasure and I start to stammer and blush. Still, I need to try. We all do. It is not enough for our girls to consent to sex. They need to actively seek rewarding sexual experiences.” Four year earlier in 2013, PhD researcher at the Queensland University of Technology, Anne-Frances Watson, and colleague, Professor Alan Mckee, studied 89 14-16 year-olds in Brisbane finding they learned sex is a “bad thing” and “nobody ever talks to them openly about sex” , with “a lack of conversations about sex and sexuality between young people and their parents and teachers…”
In 2006, a book titled “Sex Stuff They Don’t Teach You At School” by Josie Montano, who attended a Catholic school taught by nuns, wrote the nuns “basically thought sex was a dirty word for a dirty thing.” At 13, “Nonplussed about the mechanics of sex….in desperation…(she) asked (her) mother what sex was; she looked genuinely horrified and I quietly left the room.” A few weeks later, Josie found “a prim little book” on her bed, “that was usually left under lock and key at our local library.” While the book narrated the “ins and outs of sex…there was no context; no explanation for this hugely problematic issue that haunted our teenage lives.” With 21st century insight, in her book Josie refers to “sex with love” and “sex with fear”, embracing issues of self-esteem and discussing the emotional and moral aspects of sexuality.
In a recent UK survey of 800 parents, 44 per cent admitted they had never even talked in detail about sex with their child, and rather than talking to their teenagers about sex they were content to let schools take care of sex education. Seventy-four per cent did not know whether their kids were or not virgins.
So what else is new? In 50 years since my adolescence, with ignorance and a puritanical morality about sex for teenage girls in particular as my nurturing environment and sex being “a dirty word”, absorbed not from nuns or my parents especially but the pervasive social milieu I inhabited, it seems little has indeed changed in respect to parents feeling comfortable, relaxed and even interested in discussing sex with their children; honestly and openly. Indeed sadly, sex is still perceived as a “bad thing”.
In April 2018, an article in the Herald Sun by columnist Louise Roberts was headlined: “We fail our kids if we don’t tell them about sex”. Commenting on some parental outrage “The New Puritans, via their holier-than-thou keyboards” as Roberts labels them, about a book for sale in Kmart called “The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made“, she argues “In our era of increasingly sexualised teenagers, surely it is more important than ever for our kids to be taught about relationships and sex in an age-appropriate but early stage of their lives.” What I find more concerning is she writes that having a daughter aged 10 and a son in high school, “(that) even thinking about (them) engaging in sexual activity in the future makes me uneasy. But the pragmatist in me says I might not have any say in it.” Why is she uneasy about thinking of them having sex as they age? What is that uneasiness based on? She presents some clues when she claims “All the stuff they can access via an iPad or YouTube on the living room TV presents far more risk than a book from Kmart.” Unsure what “stuff” she is actually referring to and pondering whether it includes porn, I can appreciate some of her unease as I have watched some porn online that I personally found “sickening” and a great turn-off. However, she articulates very lucidly that “I am passionately opposed to the sexualisation of our children in any form (and what exactly does that encompass and does it include denying sexuality per se for young kids, yet at the same time she acknowledges…) I fail to see how good early sex education falls even on the perimeter of that category. If we don’t equip them with reliable, simple, and age-appropriate information, we are failing them.” Sexualisation is a loaded term and I would have liked to read an explanation of that. I am left to assume she means portraying young kids as lusty, lascivious and lecherous, be it as to what they wear, how they pose and present themselves, and how of course, they behave, but I’m only guessing of course.
The author of the contentious book, Fiona Katauskas, believes that “many women in the 70s and 80s…were left to figure it all out for themselves, including how to manage their periods. They were traumatised.” As I’ve written, I did have to figure it out for myself, but never felt in the slightest bit traumatised and mostly managed my periods well. It is obviously tragic if many women were traumatised by sex and having periods. This reality leaves me pondering why that is and why there is still such reluctance or difficulty for conversations about sex between parents and their children. Are parents ignorant too, ashamed of not really enjoying sex with each other and feeling frustrated, unsatisfied and unable to tell their spouse? How can they then broach how pleasurable sex can be with their kids? How much do they know about their own bodies? How many partners have they had to understand, even appreciate, sex for its own sake and comparably, sex in love? Do they, can they distinguish between erotic and romantic love to a love that transcends physical attraction? My belief is they more than likely have had scant experience of really great sex, men and women both, marrying, even partnering without the wedding ring, for reasons more significant than mutually good sex. The good provider syndrome is oft the inspiration for women’s choice of a partner while the male has the good wife and mother embedded in his psyche, and that belief is based on other literature and research I’ve perused over my life. I also contend parents still feel embarrassed about sex, that they are uncomfortable and uneasy about their own sexuality resulting in them placing it in “the too hard basket”, abrogating their personal responsibility and leaving it to schools. Furthermore, perhaps they think it’s just not that important in life more generally. Too difficult? Problematic? Fraught? Traumatic?
Additionally, recalling that I met very few people, men or women, that I could openly and honestly discuss sex with during my life, I don’t find it at all surprising that parents can’t discuss sex with their kids. Given social media, selfies, Tinder and other sex websites as well as porn, their kids probably know far more about sex with all its computations, confusions and complexity than they do.
A new book “The Secret Life of the Cheating Wife” by Dr Alicia Walker, 47, discussed in the popular tabloid, Herald Sun, on February 11, 2018, seems to validate my beliefs, experience and understanding about parents and their ignorance and limited enjoyment of good sex. The book, based on interviews with wives consulting the online “affair-matching” Ashley Maddison website for men to have sex with, detailed “years in sexless marriages or marriages where the sex was without pleasure for them. They told stories of wandering in sexual deserts for years, sometimes decades,” according to the book’s author. So if women haven’t enjoyed good sex in their marriages, it is not at all surprising they cannot converse with their daughters or sons about sex. But what then of their husbands? What are they doing about sex and where are they getting it? Do they, can they, talk to their kids if their wives do not?
It is pertinent that these women went online to “cheat”–how I loathe that word and what it implies-which presupposes they were unable to converse openly and honestly with their husbands to try and improve their sexual relations. Why were they unable to discuss it together; I can only wonder? Dr Walker details that the women she interviewed felt enhanced by “unburdening themselves of their secrets,” later referring to their sexual reality as “suffering”. So if they could not talk to their husbands, and I’m also assuming their female friends, what hope for talking to their children? Moreover, Walker writes that apparently these women married men they loved and adored yet this didn’t translate into satisfying sexual expression, supporting my contention that sex was not important when they married and continued to be insignificant in their marriages until the suffering became intolerable and online alternatives presented themselves as a convenient way out. These women later acknowledged how having sex with other men enabled them “to be the kind of wife they hoped to be because they were getting their needs met through infidelity. They were kinder, more patient and tolerant.” Clearly, being the kind of wife they hoped to be didn’t include sex. Furthermore my Spanish friend, Alexi, imparted that with more than 100 lovers over his life, he only talked about sex and its pleasures with just a couple, excluding the woman he married. Their conversations focused more on being sexually liberated to indulge with others rather than enhancing the pleasure between them. What else is new, I keep reiterating?
An article in the Chicago Tribune just a couple of years ago, written by Heidi Stevens, quotes a US Pew Research report of more than 35,000 married adults in 2015 focusing on what makes for a successful marriage. Sixty-one per cent said “a satisfying sexual relationship” with shared interests only marginally more significant at 64 per cent. Stevens posed the question about adolescence and youth: “how many trusted, competent role models taught you how to have a satisfying sex life?” She suggests “comprehensive sex education, with an emphasis on more than just avoiding pregnancy and disease would be a good start. As author and sex educator Al Vernacchio says, it’s time to stop teaching our kids sex will either ruin their lives or kill them…The secret to success is connection. And we shouldn’t keep that such a secret.”
As the QUT research found there was a not just a “lack of conversations about sex and sexuality” with parents, but with teachers too, highlights just how inadequate and irrelevant sex education in schools currently and seemingly is. In The Age in May, 2017, psychologist Steve Biddulph wrote that “sadly, for today’s teenagers, sex has become a source of much misery, and those who work with teens say it’s a disaster area.” He continues that the proliferation of porn “has miseducated a generation of boys about how sex works…And girls get the message from popular culture from a very young age that they need to be sexy to be liked; that this is their role in life. It’s as if feminism never happened.” He stresses “it’s crucial we teach our kids that porn and real-life love-making (why not sex?) are very different. Happy sex is connected, vulnerable, trusting and goes best when you feel safe and cared about by the other person…Girls (he articulates) need to hear from their mothers that sex is really great, when it’s right.”
What Dr Alicia Walker uncovered in her research makes Biddulph’s hope for mothers telling their daughters sex is really great highly unlikely and improbable; moreover, his concluding assertion that “A happy sexuality is one of the 10 things girls need most; and it is important to ensure they have it” seems nothing more than idealistic. This seems substantiated by another article in The Sunday Age on February 11, 2018, when relationship and sex columnist, Maureen Matthews, was asked a question by a mid-20s female about clitoris information, revealing that while her girl-friends and her “can talk about anything”, she was “surprised, in this post-porn world, how little many of them know about women’s sexuality, especially when it comes to the clitoris.” This is yet more evidence that sex education is failing to inform students and equip them with the knowledge and understanding they need for pleasurable sex. Indeed, Matthews’ reply was that it wasn’t until the 1990s that the pleasure power and physiology of the clitoris was comprehensively identified, adding that “female sexuality was, for the first time in history, seen to be important.” She continued that “Unfortunately, a certain level of medical misogyny persists…”
In 2017, an Age article revealed “a new progressive sex education resource for secondary students created by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at LaTrobe University called Practical Guide to Love, Sex and Relationships which is reshaping the way sex, gender and relationships will be discussed in Australian schools. Research reveals one-quarter of all young people have “unwanted sex” because of pressure, fear or being drunk.”
This new resource includes discussing sexual desire to empower young people to know what they want out of sex and relationships, said sex education expert, Jenny Walsh. For young people to make happier choices, they need “to acknowledge that enjoying sex is a lovely part of being human…” Through a mix of guided class discussions, activities and short quizzes, the resource, funded by the Australian Department of Health, covers sexual experimentation, consent, gender identity, sexual rights, sexual health and porn, issues teachers are seldom trained or equipped to talk about. “Young women still fear that if they say what they want, that they will be judged as a slut, or will be called frigid. Research also shows that young men often think that they need to have sex in order to be an accepted male,” Ms Walsh added.
Another Age article in 2017 by CEO & Program Director of SEED workshops, Catherine Manning, stressed that it’s not intrinsically porn and viewing people having sex that is harmful, rather “What is potentially harmful is (parents) never having conversations about sex, pornography and relationships at all…” She suggests parents need to “acknowledge that it’s completely normal and natural for people to be curious about sex and sexuality…It’s important to foster healthy attitudes to be sure to not inadvertently paint sex or nudity as shameful or wrong.” Further, she warns parents: “Be prepared to be shocked. You may be surprised at what your innocent darling may have been exposed to…If you want your children to engage in healthy and respectful relationships, don’t leave the conversation too late”. Contrarily, an Age senior male writer, Karl Quinn, wrote an article on February 22, 2018, about the reality TV show, Married At First Sight, admitting that his daughters, aged 12 and 14, “occasionally watch the show,” as he does, but added “Rarely do we watch it together. And frankly, I’d like to keep it that way. The alternative is just too horrendous to contemplate”. He also acknowledged that this season has “more and more time…devoted to matters sexual,” asking “…do I want to be watching this with my kids at 7.30pm? Hello no.” While he acknowledges (Channel) Nine “could claim it is helping to guide our parenting by forcing us to discuss with our kids topics that might otherwise be difficult to address…I’d rather not do the birds and bees thing over tacos on the couch…,” he concludes the programs “are at least providing my girls with some great examples of what not to do.”
Quinn’s reluctance to watch the show with his daughters or discuss its content with them flies in the face of Manning’s view that never having conversations “is potentially harmful…” and I can only surmise he may feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about matters sexual too. The assumption he makes that his daughters will know what not to do is incredibly naïve and ignorant, even disturbing and illogical, unless his daughters are of course so knowledgeable, mature and able at their young age to distinguish what makes for good sexual relationships and compatibility. He is of course entitled to his perspective, but all the research I have just quoted highlights how important it is for parents to talk to their kids about sex. Maybe the unpalatable truth is Quinn himself has problems in matters sexual, possibly watching the show to know what not to do as well, projecting this as educational entertainment for his daughters too.
Given the age of consent is 12-years-old with a partner that’s no more than two years older- and providing that person is not in a position of responsibility or authority such as a Scout/Guides leader, babysitter or sports coach et al, it is worrying that Quinn does not deem it relevant or important to watch the program with his daughters to discuss it with them. During my adolescence, never having conversations about sex with my parents, sisters or my peers, gender irrelevant, I was certainly ignorant, though very cognisant that good, mutually consenting sex could deliver great pleasure, both for me and my partner. Gleaned from an assortment of books, fiction and non-fiction, as well as movies and TV shows, mostly romantic comedies back in the 60s, sex was subsumed as love with the males always the commanding captain. Certainly, there was no information about biology or the human body and how it worked, female or male, and even into my 60s my knowledge about physiology and biology was limited, particularly about the pervasive structure of the clitoris into the vagina which was unknown to me until I met Alexi. It seems today’s young girls and boys are no better informed than I was, although porn seems one avenue where boys are garnering some valuable information.
An article in The Age in December 2015, headlined “Teenagers confuse porn with real sex education” subsumes that sex education as its implemented is relevant and realistic, but with porn “forming the new reality…the traditional sex education taught in schools seems archaic and irrelevant.” A 17-year-old girl is quoted saying: “(Sex ed is) pretty unrealistic and kids mainly don’t listen”, while a 23-year-old male who watched porn online for the first time at 15, said it was often the only reference point when they started having sex “because school sex ed gave so little information about what to expect.” He added “…we need to educate young people about what they’re seeing.”
Researcher Maree Crabbe, who has interviewed more than 70 teenagers as well as doctors, researchers and others in the field, said porn has become “the most prominent form of sex education for many teenagers” and “is shaping young people’s sexual understanding.” Latest figures reveal 93 per cent of boys and 61 per cent of girls aged 13-16 are exposed to porn online, with young men describing porn as “their sex ed.” In 2016, a Herald Sun report detailed children as young as nine are regularly exposed to pornography and even watch sex online. An Australian Institute of Family Studies research survey found nearly half of all children aged nine to 16 watch porn, with boys more likely than girls to see it out. The institute consequently warned that “not only does it distress younger children, it can lead to relationships that condone violence against women.” Interesting that the research’ lead author, Antonia Quadara, also said: “There is evidence of an association between consuming pornography and perpetrating sexual harassment for boys…Adolescents who consumed violent pornography were six times more likely to be sexually aggressive compared to those who viewed non-violent porn or no porn.” The report also showed “porn…(as) a major source of sex education.”
What I find distressing is that sexual harassment is firstly NOT defined and secondly, it’s perceived as violence, a subject I will discuss later in far more detail. The institute’s director, Anne Hollonds, acknowledged however, that attitudes and responses to porn varied, though she distinguished a gender divide saying: “Females were more likely to be shocked or distressed; males were more likely to find porn amusing or exciting.” All I may say is that Richard, my ex-boyfriend in the 70s, and other violent men I met during those years, were violent nonetheless. It’s a facile, simplistic and altogether fatuous argument to attribute violence to watching porn. Violence per se, perpetrated by both males and females, is part of human history, albeit unfortunately. What watching porn may stimulate is an already innate predisposition to violence similarly as alcohol can do too. Blaming porn is no more than a convenient cop-out from addressing violence as a serious social issue in families, factories and the favoured clubs in society. Furthermore, do girls still adhere to beliefs that sex must be gentle, tender and loving to be enjoyed? Do they think they’re delicate, porcelain dolls to be handled so softly that any hint of strong male physicality is perceived as violent aggression?
Alongside the concern about nine-year-olds watching porn, cyber experts warned similarly in a Herald Sun article in 2016 that children can get unchecked access to mature movies filled with gratuitous violence and sex scenes via TV networks’ digital libraries. Any child with an email address can view SBS On Demand and ABC-TV Iview content, including a movie called Lila Says which portrays a 16-year-old girl who is addicted to sex. (And what exactly does that mean, never having seen it or heard of it?) Australia’s top cyber safety expert, Sharon McLean said catch-up TV meant restricted classifications could be viewed by kids at any time.
So what is going amiss with sex ed in schools? During my adolescence, it was not even included on the curriculum and if the previous research I’ve detailed is valid, sex ed teachers are not adequately trained and informed to comprehensively and pleasurably educate about sex. An editorial in The Age in April 2016 stressed how important quality sex ed is, pointing out that relationships and sexuality is one of 12 points of focus for the health and physical education unit under the Victorian curriculum. This will “affect the way (people) go about their lives,” emphasising that “informative, insightful and properly managed discussions about premarital sex, homosexuality, gender identification, intimate relationships and a host of similarly sensitive issues must…(be) in the general curriculum.”
What I find pertinent, if not somewhat disturbing, is that my late sister taught sex education in the 1990s and early 2000s in a government secondary school after achieving a post-graduate diploma in human relations. Yet her personal credentials and experience amounted to sex with one man, her husband, uninterested and/or unable to watch even soft-core porn, chastising me regularly for my bed hopping and what she termed my “promiscuity.” She was also obese and while I cared about her in my own way, I was aghast at her teaching sex ed when her sexual attitudes were conservative and conventional and experience extremely limited. Sex and love were inextricably linked for her so how could she even begin to discuss the pleasures of sex without love? She had only disdain for me daring to live as I did, so what messages was she imparting to her students, however unconscious? She did admit to me she told her students that sex should take place in a loving and caring relationship when I asked her once what exactly she taught her students. It was more than 20 years ago before the onslaught of internet porn, but even so, I found her moral imperative concerning.
Moreover, a female friend of mine, also grossly obese, who had attempted suicide at 19 and had a backyard abortion having fallen pregnant in her late teens, was seconded to teach sex education without ANY qualification at a country Victorian secondary school because no other teacher was available to take the class in the late 1990s. Horrified at both of them as sex ed teachers, I am left pondering exactly who currently teaches it and exactly what they are discussing and on what basis do they, can they, impart knowledgeable and realistic information? Furthermore, I have started reflecting whether anyone, even those with all the “right” academic qualifications, can actually teach another about having pleasurable and mutually consensual sex. Certainly, they can teach about biology, physiology, contraception, safe sex and diversity, but can you ever teach anyone, adolescents or those older, to “feel” good, confident and secure about themselves to enable them to enjoy consensual sex? Ensuring mutual respect for each other of course is critical, as is allowing for a dignity of difference in what is pleasurable for each partner and there must also be no pressure or coercion by anyone. But responding with genuine feelings of joy cannot be faked or fabricated; indeed, it cannot be taught. What young people can learn to understand and appreciate is that sex with another, or others, if mutually consensual, respectful and responsible, can engender physical feelings of great pleasure. Feeling a friendly rapport or connection with another may be all that’s needed not disingenuous declarations of love.
It seems sex is such a difficult and complex issue for so many people apropos of what I’ve just written that it may just be beyond any classroom curriculum to convey with clarity and comprehension the beauty and joy of it all. Despite my reading of many books in my adolescence and even over ensuing years, experience was my “best teacher” and still is, discovering new sources of pleasure with Alexi and learning more about my physiology with him as well as watching some porn, playing with new sex toys and experimenting and exploring myself as well as him. (I’ll return to our friendship later on).
Despite efforts in Victoria to teach respect and responsibility in sex education, in 2016 a Catholic school, St Francis Xavier College in Berwick, ordered Year 9 students to destroy a certain page in their health and physical education workbooks being particularly concerned about three questions in the text relating to premarital sex. Commenting on this, The Age editorial wrote: “The way it was done risked fostering deep confusion; it could have spawned the unfortunate and wrong-headed notion in students’ impressionable minds that premarital sex and homosexuality are topics of perversion that should not be discussed.” Similarly the Safe Schools program, funded by the Federal Government, designed to help combat bullying about sexual diversity and educate it as a norm, has generated so much antagonism, angst and antipathy across the country. In 2017, the NSW Liberal government dropped the program from government schools. In Victoria, the Andrews’ Labor Government was stripped of federal funding for the program but has maintained it in schools, despite the furore of many. In 2016, a national review into the program was undertaken, finding that “a number of resources had lessons and content not necessarily appropriate for all children and has called for schools to seek parental consent for student participation in the program,” Education Minister, Simon Birmingham said. LaTrobe University senior lecturer in history, Timothy Jones, said one of the review’s critical findings was that some resources “may not be suitable for use in some faith-based schools…and as the hysterical tone of the controversy (over the program)…has shown the negotiation of religious, sexual and gender difference is difficult.”
It has been claimed the program will engender gay and lesbian sex in young people, encouraging behaviours others still deem dangerous and disturbed. How long the program lasts in Victoria remains to be seen, but it has generated similar hostility as the same-sex marriage issue which fortunately became legal late last year. Senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University, Dr Kevin Donnelly, wrote in The Age in 2016, headlined “Save school kids from radical views on sexuality” that the Safe Schools Coalition material endorses “gender and sexuality… (as) fluid concepts and that all forms of sexuality are acceptable…While those students who identify as LGBTI should not be unfairly discriminated against, it is clear (is it?) that the Safe Schools Coalition is more about advocacy that simply making schools safer places.” Donnelly claims that “it is obvious (really?) (that) under the guise of anti-bullying, (students) are being subjected to a well- resourced campaign enforcing an LGBTI sexuality and gender agenda.” Referring to the Coalition’s program as having “a cultural-left agenda” he regards it as “controversial and far from settled in terms of the broader community”.
Following the yes vote for legislating same-sex marriage late in 2017, an outcry from concerned conservatives about the potential abuse of religious freedoms resulted in the Federal Liberal Government establishing a review into religious freedom in Australia. In May 2018, former PM, John Howard, submitted a contribution to the review, urging the government to cut all funding to public and private schools that don’t allow parents to pull their children out of sex or gender-related classes, citing respect for parental preference. The classes could include programs similar to the controversial Safe Schools initiative or sex education that acknowledges the existence of homosexual sex or transgender people, according to an article The Age on May 15, 2018. Interestingly, the article mentioned Britain has moved to make sex ed compulsory in secondary schools, but with flexibility for faith-based schools to teach in line with their beliefs. Parents can withdraw their children from such lessons. It is difficult to ensure all young people receive good sex ed balanced with parental rights to not want their kids to “hear” anything about sexual diversity, and while I do believe parents must have that freedom of choice, I can only hope they realise keeping their kids ignorant, even frightened of anything other than heteronormative sex, can cause more damage and harm than sensible sex ed.
Sex and whom you do it with, how you do it and why you want to do it still raises rancour across our social milieu. But why is sexual diversity and discussing it perceived as culturally left and/or controversial? Is there lurking some latent homophobia in Donnelly and others’ criticism, as he is not the only one to denounce the schools’ program? Indeed, the media was inundated with criticism and plaudits alike at the time of its introduction. Why is sex still tainted by social mores as if nothing has changed in half a century? Furthermore, why is a human rights issue such as accepting sexual diversity perceived as a Left ideology? I can only ponder about the extrapolation of sexually conservative and conformist people to a non-libertarian and proscriptive ideology that sadly, resonates with fascist control of what they deem either harmful and too different to rationally deal with and accept.
Furthermore, in February 2018, Georgiana Molloy Anglican School in Western Australia has suggested in a letter to parents of Year 11 & 12 students that classic works by Shakespeare and renown Australian author Tim Winton could be withdrawn to “expunge sex and vulgar language” from classrooms according to an article in the Herald Sun. Principal Ted Kosicki said he found the curriculum “uncensored (and) crowded with inappropriate material”, adding he was “alarmed” at how “ubiquitous…such explicit sexual referencing” now was. A source said teachers would have to create a new English program within a fortnight. What next as my mind boggles at what seems a latent fear of any mention of sex in some religious schools, let alone that social mores still shame sex in this 21st century, including banning the Great Bard.
However in NSW, a Herald Sun report in February 2018, detailed that schools there are being told to prepare for “open and frank” discussions about the #MeToo sexual harassment revolution (interesting choice of a word by the journalist), with experts (who are they and what experience is their apparent expertise based on?), teenagers and a state government warning the issue is so topical it may need to be incorporated into the curriculum. The NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes, said schools should not be afraid to discuss #MeToo. “As the cornerstone of our communities, schools are not isolated from current events.” The irony of sex education being irrelevant and archaic while simultaneously appreciating teenagers know about the angst and anxiety of sexual harassment as expressed on #MeToo seems somewhat tragic, as how can teenagers even begin to grasp, let alone appreciate rationally and justly, what the issues involve and assume with all its potential for destroying careers, reputations and livelihoods. That’s not to say that sexual harassment should not be discussed; on the contrary, it’s heartening that it’s recognised as important and worthy of discussion. My concern is that the teachers leading the discussion may just see the issue too simplistically and ideologically without acknowledging the complexities enmeshed in it all. I think the focus may just be that females are inadvertent victims of a male patriarchal perfidy without any acknowledgement of how some males can also be victims of social conditioning that may lead them astray.
Recalling that I didn’t masturbate for probably a myriad of sexually repressive albeit unconscious reasons in my teens, in 2014 the second Australian Study of Health and Relationships, based on 20,000 telephone interviews, found less than half of all women aged between 16 and 69 masturbated in the past year and for girls aged between 16 and 19 only 30 per cent indulge. That 76 per cent of men responded affirmatively to masturbating highlights a similar reality to my own fifty years ago, if here say is reliable.
According to Age journalist, Julie Szego in an article about the study, “women remain out of touch with their bodies, deprived of self-awareness, mere passengers in their own sex drive, dependent on men to sate their desire (and) lacking the tools-and not just of the battery-operated kind-to carnal self-sufficiency.” She stresses: “wanking is deadly serious.” Szego continues by narrating that in 1994, Joycelyn Elders, surgeon-general of the US, was forced to resign after she endorsed a suggestion at a UN AIDS conference that masturbation be taught to young people to prevent them from engaging in riskier forms of sexual activity. Bill Clinton, then president and before the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, said that Elders’ views reflected “differences with administration policy and my own convictions.” Six months before the Australian study results were revealed, Szego documents another incident whereby a light-hearted app teaching women how to masturbate was rejected from the AppleiTunes store deeming it “too much like porn”.
What I find interesting is that women NEED to be taught how to masturbate, as if yet again, they are unable, reluctant or too repressed to explore their own cunts and vulvas by allowing physical sensation and feeling to guide them in best practice. What works for one female may not for another; it is personally specific and teaching HOW TO subsumes females are incapable of discovering the sources of their own pleasure. Writing about her own daughter approaching her teens, Szego admits to “warming to the idea of preaching abstinence as a response to the spectre of teenage sex. But logic suggests we need to offer a seductive alternative to the beery lad whose nascent fantasies are shaped by the kind of soulless, male-centred porn that has deep market penetration. Honestly, if we were really that liberated we’d be teaching teenage daughters how to enjoy their own company until they understand what respect and reciprocity in sex might entail. Until they’re ready to be actors in their own sex lives as opposed to slavishly following someone else’s script. Yes, this unbuttoned, sexually playful moment is worth celebrating. But as for a “feminist model” of sexuality, we haven’t come that far at all.”
So what is the current reality of teenage girls and sexual activity? The study found that girls were sexually active in their mid-teens and in 2006, the Australian Research Centre for Sex, Health and Society’s deputy-director said: “Young people are increasingly viewing sexual activity and relationships as commodities to be acquired and discarded. Clearly, people’s sexual cultures are changing and better and more effective sex education is required to keep up.” His comments ensue after the centre found young people are ignoring the safe-sex message with declining condom use and “high” numbers of teenage pregnancy and abortion rates.
The research revealed the proportion of Year 10 students reporting more than one partner a year rose by four per cent to 44 per cent. There were 2776 abortions by Victorian teenagers in 2002/03 with 1900 births to teenagers aged between 15-19 in 2002. One in four sexually active students said they were drunk or high in their most recent sexual encounter. Centre for Adolescent Health director, Professor Susan Sawyer, said there was little investment in sex education and teachers reported being inadequately trained. In my personal adolescent experience, I did not have intercourse nor did I know if any of my female friends were either, likewise, my male associates at school and at play. Clearly, the incidence of young students engaging in sexual activity has increased dramatically I can only surmise, but the nature of that activity is as a commodity, rather than pleasure, also involving copious amounts of alcohol and/or drugs to participate. Underlying this seems a perspective that the pleasures of sex seem out of reach and beyond teenage experience; maybe even vestiges of repression, shame and guilt are still extant, not just for girls but boys too. It is as if having sex is what they should do rather than something they want to do for pleasure and enjoyment. If better and more effective sex education is “required to keep up”, what is the real problem? Are young people having sex because it’s seen as “grown-up and adult” and needed because of an hormonal impetus rather than innately and naturally desired because of the mutual pleasure to be derived, I can only conjecture? The bottom line is more kids are sexually active since my teens but without seemingly enjoying the experience.
An article about mothers and teenage daughters in The Weekend Australian magazine in late 2017 by writer Amanda Foreman, who previously wrote a book about Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire who died in 1806 having had a “troubled childhood” and was bulimic, commented that “it’s depressing to realise that as mothers we seem to be no better at bringing up our daughters than our forebears.” As the mother of four girls and one boy, she wrote: “I find that to be the mother of a teenage daughter is to be thrust into a strange assortment of roles that have only one thing in common-a lack of control in life’s proceedings.” She insightfully acknowledges that the “emotional pain of adolescence” is an ‘eternal’ (how I relate to that one), adding “Teenage reactions to adolescence span a narrow spectrum of predictability. Our daughters either become rebels or conformists. They project their anxiety outwards, or turn it inwards; (and)…modernity didn’t invent teenage girls or their many issues; it doesn’t follow that the pressures affecting them are no different from those in the past.” With disturbing data about social media impact and smartphones, she says research reveals suicide rates for teenage girls in the US are at “an all-time high”, while in Australia, a report issued in early 2017 by The Longtituinal Study of Australian Children found that one in 10 kids aged 14-15 reported self-harming over the previous 12 months and five per cent had attempted suicide.
With understanding and common sense, Foreman says: “Becoming a success in life is a doddle compared with the challenges of becoming a woman. As for becoming “a successful woman”, the idea itself is fraught with internal contradictions- the biggest being motherhood versus a career. It’s not possible to be simultaneously in the office and at a school concert. A choice must be made and the consequences confronted. That’s a hard fact. I have come to believe that the criteria for judging female success are a misogynist fantasy wrapped inside a layer of fake language about women’s empowerment. The phrase “having it all” ought to be designated as a lethal weapon; or at the very least as “hate speech” since it makes so many women feel bad about themselves.”
These views by Foreman resonate with me loud and clear and while I only briefly felt “a failure” in my career when I returned to Melbourne from London, I had already recognised that “having it all” was mostly some idealistic clap-trap and an unrealistic aspiration. I never did feel “bad” but I had to confront my sense of failure and as I wrote in the 70s decade of Free Love, soon transcending those depressed emotions to resume life as I always lived it.
As Foreman wrote, pressures today on teenage girls are no different to those past, but she simultaneously reports that the change engendered by technology “is only beginning to be understood….researchers say it’s been disastrous; 24-hour connectivity has made teen girls more sensitive, more self-absorbed, more extreme and yet also less active, less happy, less confident and less sociable than they were 15 years ago.” Certainly, sexual activity for teenage girls is far more pervasive than 50 years ago, though I don’t know if the pleasure quotient for them is any more enhanced by increased activity. It may be, but surmising from my own conversations with young women over the past few years that sexual activity is more acceptable, even expected now compared to my adolescence, ipso facto this doesn’t translate into great pleasure. A 21-year-old female student I met who had lost her virginity in a drunken dalliance felt almost nothing, then deciding to wait to have sex again for a guy she really liked. Her friend, also 21 and a university student, told me she was still a virgin because the boys she met and knew just wanted a “fuck” without anything else. I’m unsure what she meant by “anything else” but it seemed that maybe she was hanging out for a guy to fall in love with and for it to be mutual. I didn’t push the conversation with her or the other girl, but contemplated that maybe they had the same stupid scenario in their heads as I had 50 years ago about sex, love and virginity.
Moreover, an Insight program on SBS-TV I watched in early 2013 interviewed a 20-year-old girl who had lost her virginity to a boy for the sake of just ‘losing it” only to a few months later “fall in love” with a guy and have sex with him, explaining she felt she should have waited to lose her virginity with him. Interestingly, as she imparted she wasn’t a virgin he initially responded he wasn’t either, only to retract his statement as a “lie” a short time later because he felt embarrassed to admit he was still a virgin on meeting her. So what intangible pressures are on young people to have sex and/or lie about having had it? Are social mores dictating sex for its own sake despite a lack of mutually rewarding pleasure? Me thinks so! Moreover, the young woman also affirmed that young girls indulging in sex with a few partners are still condemned as “sluts” by other girls unsurprisingly, and not of the “ethical variety”, connoting nothing in that perspective has seemingly changed since my youth.
Teenage boys and sex may be a slightly different issue than for girls, though ignorance is apparently as pervasive for them too. Given boys view porn as a more realistic education about sex, a male friend now in his early 60s remembered his sex education class in the 1960s at school in which masturbation was sniggered about but not embraced as normal and natural. Imparting anecdotes about boys’ hands being tied to bedposts to proscribe the indulgence at boarding schools, masturbation, he emphasised, was as frowned upon for boys as girls. A poem I found in my school Record annual magazine, 1965, by the boy I fancied at school who rejected me when I asked him to accompany me to a wedding, scribed a verse titled- REDEMPTION:
“I fought with strange desire, to overwhelm this Fire
And could feel my body burn with every blow…
I tried to gain redemption, by confessing all my sinning,
As they each and every one of them flashed by,…
Near the point of no return
The furnace ceased to burn,
I closed my eyes and felt a wind rush by,
When I opened them again
I was in a golden den, with an angel whispering softly by my side.”
Having not read or remembered this at 15, the young boy, possibly a year or two older than me as he was a year ahead, first regards sexual desire as “sin”, though at least comes to appreciate it is not. Certainly, this perspective is alarming as even I didn’t perceive sex as sin in my teens. In the 2015 Age article about teenagers confusing porn with real sex education, researcher Maree Crabbe said: “there is clear evidence of teenage boys demanding or expecting porn’s so-called signature practices including deep throating (pushing the penis far into the throat), anal sex and ejaculating onto faces and bodies.” One Melbourne doctor, Dr Anita Elias, a sex medicine specialist for 20 years, said young women are being pressured into trying the sexual activities that both sexes are watching on their screens. “What really worries me is I’m seeing a lot more young women having sexual pain due to unaroused sex and thinking there is something wrong with them because things like hard, aggressive sex, anal sex, do not appeal.” Crabbe also said that based on interviews with teenage boys, they frequently talked about initiating some of what they’d viewed in porn, adding many teenage girls “talked again and again about really struggling with this pressure.”
In the same article, Sydney University researcher, Dr Gomathi Sitharthan, said there is limited “meaningful dialogue” between boys and girls as presented in porn. Given parents and teachers cannot or do not talk about sex with their kids, or apparently even to each other too, is it at all surprising boys and girls do not or are unable to talk to each other either? Why is having a conversation about sex seemingly difficult, impossible and/or eschewed as uncomfortable, awkward or embarrassing? While I didn’t talk much about “doing it” with the few boys I dated, by 17 I could give voice to my agreement or not about heavy petting and intercourse, without feeling unable to say “No”. There was pressure of a kind in retrospect, but I never succumbed to intercourse when it was presumed to ensue. I don’t recall being directly verbally asked because my physical signals sufficed. Why aren’t the girls able to withstand what they’re describing as “pressure?” It seems a sorry state of affairs, evidenced even more by the #MeToo movement where young, but older women than teenagers, seem similarly entrapped by male pressure, albeit for different reasons and in different contexts. While the researchers I’ve just quoted seem to hold boys responsible for unwanted sexual practices, not one of them has raised why girls are unable to refuse consent. I do not believe boys are such unfeeling desperadoes they would “force” girls into sex if they voiced an adamant “No”. It takes two to tango even in adolescence. The blame game starts early apparently, with boys copping all culpability and girls absolved of any responsibility for their own behaviour.
Following the #MeToo allegations, in February 2018 a mandatory Sydney University course on sexual harassment will teach students they cannot kiss on campus unless they receive an “enthusiastic yes” from their friend. This year, every new student will have to pass an online course to complete their studies, needing to score a perfect 100 per cent, according to an article in the Herald Sun. The university’s website detailing the module called Consent Matters: Boundaries, Respect, and Positive Intervention, states permission is a must before making contact. Students and experts criticised the initiative as “a tick-the-box exercise that fails to address the culture that results in sexual harassment”.
With sex seemingly engendering endless conflicts for both boys and girls similarly to 50 years ago, albeit conflicts with a quasi-different manifestation, weight and appearance issues seem similarly problematic. A plethora of articles over recent years (see my website) detail how young girls feel liked or interested in by boys because of their good looks and attractiveness, their “brains” of little significance. Yet, not one of the articles I’ve read even raises the relevance about boys’ looks for these girls, implying by omission they’re irrelevant. Are these girls in denial about how they choose their boyfriends only to berate boys yet again for a focus on their looks? Is their attraction to boys so unconscious they’re not even aware of male appearance as an attraction? Or is their blooming sexuality so repressed, and/or covert in their unconscious (recall more than two-thirds of 16-19-year-old girls do not even masturbate compared to 76 per cent of males) it impedes any awareness, magnified by ignorance about how pleasurable sex can be?
I cannot answer that because the writers of all these articles and the female researchers do not apparently ask these questions or consider them important, I can only assume. I know the good looking girls I associated with in my teens dated good-looking boys but while I never discussed that with them, my awareness was that I wasn’t interested in boys who were “short, fat and ugly” as I wrote in my diary. And furthermore I realised in my teens that appearance and looks were relevant despite girls not wanting to admit it. I’m unsure as to whether boys actually admit it either but during adolescence, who cares about brains when hormones are running rampant? Certainly, I didn’t. Personality was pertinent, but having a high IQ to participate in deep and meaningful discussions just wasn’t on my radar.
Maybe young people regard appearance as mere superficiality and what’s more important is brains and intelligence. On one level our appearance can be perceived as superficial yet simultaneously we are holistic humans and our appearance is part of who we are, though the perspective changes as we become more familiar with another and as we get older. Maybe too, young women are already on the hunt for the “good provider”, sizing up boyfriends as potential husbands and good father material with good incomes to accommodate financial security and well-being. Boys I don’t believe are so preoccupied or fixated on the “good wife and mother” syndrome in their teens, more intent on sowing their wild oats and revelling in sexual pleasure. It is interesting that a couple of years ago, I bumped into a former boyfriend of one of my girlfriends at school, both of them then very stunning and sexy, or so I thought at the time. He was about 16 and she was 14. Over a latte, we discussed his “friendship” with this girl, asking him if she ever let him get to first base with her. He went mute. He then informed me her father had told her to end the relationship because although he wanted to study medicine and be a doctor, he wasn’t going to be rich enough. At 18, she married a man nearly 20 years older who was a millionaire with his own business. Who knows how pervasive that dictum still is for teenage girls?
A novel published in 2017 in Britain called “All The Dirty Parts” by Daniel Handler, details the sexual preoccupation of the main teenage boy, Cole. The first page sums up his one-track mind: “my own crackling need in this world lit only by girls…the delicious sex we would have if we weren’t in the idiotic marathon of going to class.” He adds a few pages later: “It doesn’t matter how many girls I’ve slept with…What matters is that, to me, it doesn’t feel like enough. Eleven, is the number.” One thing he writes that I relate to as a young girl even 50 years ago and certainly as I aged is “I’m on an adventure…Girl biting my shoulder with two fingers inside her and my thumb smooth-smooth-moving in a quiet pulse….if we could all come together always like this, we would chase no different joy.” What’s interesting is his awareness that as a male, he must initiate the sex, writing: “She won’t say, do you want to? This is something you have to say. I learned, trial and too many errors, the girls…need to be given the idea. They’re already thinking about it, but they need the idea advanced.”
Wondering what else is new decades post my adolescence, he opines: “I’ve never forced a girl. While we were having sex they all, definitely, wanted it to happen. Afterwards, though, they felt bad about it sometimes.” Disappointingly, he doesn’t analyse why they might feel “bad”. Is it the same shame trip for many girls in my era, I can only ponder? Further on, a male friend, Alec, discussing when a girl might want to have sex, tells Cole: “A girl making a choice about her own body, yes. That’s cool, Cole, I’m sooo glad you’re fine with that.” I can appreciate this is not how I understood some boys during my young years.
Talking about what boys like, Cole acknowledges: “We like our cocks sucked, ask anyone.” As for the female clitoris, he advances: “They always say guys can never find it, that it’s hard to find. The clitoris is not hard to find…porn helps…it’s educational.” Now 17-years-old and happily masturbating, he scribes: “I do it sitting up on my bed now usually. Leaning on pillows.” Then he and Alec play together too: “We’re both in boxers. He reaches in first. His hand on my cock is the exact right weight; the rhythm perfect like never with a girl, not without showing her a few times….I tough him too, it’s quick and it’s over like some other, any other, secret that slips into your life and then back out…with nobody knowing.” While Alec and he exchange some jealous banter about Cole being with girls too, Cole admits: “the word, I want to say, for me is mostly horny,” mincing no apology for his appreciation of appearance: “She looked so fucking fantastic agreeing to go out with me…Beautiful, breasty, like so warm to roll around in was my first impression. And, the next seventy thousand impressions.”
The girl he refers to, is Grisaille, a foreign import to his American town, and she says to him, somewhat interestingly rather than disparagingly, “They say, you fuck anything that moves.” Later, knowing him better by kissing him, she adds: “You have not been a gentleman with many girls,” to which he writes: “The word gentleman stands in the air like a time traveller-We don’t call it that, gentleman. Then he tells her:”I guess it’s true. I don’t think of it like that.” She retorts: “So how do you think of it, Cole?” He replies: “Um, that I’m practising?” Later, he raises another pertinent issue: “Do guys like it when the girl talks dirty?” She responds “You want me to talk like a whore?…150 for oral, 300 for a straight fuck.” They both laugh. A few minutes pass and she poses to him that he might just be a “Lord of lust?” He asks if she’s kidding? But what he really gets off on is “She speaks up for it, the sex. It’s not something she lets me do or enjoys. It’s something she wants and asks for…” That makes a change from my day and my adolescent repression too! He later refers to them both as “Lords of lust.” As for his playing with Alec too, he writes: “there’s a scale for it, gay to straight and you can be anywhere on it. I’m on it at the part of, if there’s a girl why not, and now there is, so let’s stop and be cool about it. He’s (Alec) at obviously some other part”.
This forthright, honest narrative contrasts greatly with the media articles implying, albeit with subtlety, that being up front and direct about wanting sex without an instant emotional connection is somehow to sully sex for girls and boys too. This book contradicts that moralistic tone, traversing sex as not always straightforward and simple but nonetheless brazen in its characters’ bravado in admitting sex is more than just a need, but a bold want. I wish it had been around during my adolescence and at least it was published and as reviewer Cameron Woodhead wrote in The Age: “this (is) the most authentic book about teen sex I’ve read.” My thoughts exactly and one can only wonder whether newspaper articles with interviews of teenagers are less than authentic, the kids opting for what the interviewer might want to hear rather than what the truth about their sexuality really is. Being up front about wanting, even needing sex and enjoying it, for boys and perhaps even more so for girls, is still something of a no-no in our current social milieu. While I have no idea whether today’s teens are rushing to read Handler’s novel, I can only hope they are. An interesting aspect is the title, which is great and catchy on one level, but at the same time suggests sex is “dirty” which was the pervasive social attitude of the 60s in my teens, leaving me wondering whether the author believes social mores still malign it as is, at least subliminally?
On the appearance front, there has been a myriad of media attention and angst about body image, weight and how females are publicly presented for adulation with skeletal models on the fashion catwalk as images of physical beauty girls may be duped into emulating. At the same time, the skinny, white Barbie dolls commercially consumed worldwide have been attacked as responsible in part for the increasing incidence of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia in girls. While focus was initially on young girls, over the past decade or so it has been reported that young boys are also prey to beauty propaganda as victims of a masculine myth that sexy and desirable demands being slim. Sadly, there has been scant discourse about health in the media as relevant to these issues; the bias more about the unrealistic body images of beautiful people rather than understanding these people as unhealthy and sick. Recently though health concerns are creeping into more civilised conversations with some countries legislating for more “healthy” model sizes.
Unaware of either anorexia or bulimia in my teens, I nonetheless recognised I was lucky to be thin as some girlfriends continually bemoaned their blooming bodies and swallowed the diet biscuit LIMIT as a meal replacement. Body image was certainly an issue 50 years ago, the difference now being that it is exposed as potentially a profound problem for young people. In the 60s, I don’t recall reading any negative details about the dangers of being skinny, let alone being too skinny; indeed, being skinny was subsumed as sexually beautiful, with no contrary views expressed in any of the women’s magazines I pored over from Australia, America or Britain.
The late Princess Diana probably projected eating disorders into the public spotlight more than anyone when she broadcast her battle being bulimic on British TV circa the early 90s. The appearance/weight issue was certainly around in Britain even in 1974 when BBC Radio 1 had a “Keep Young and Beautiful Spot” which engendered several letters to the feminist magazine “Spare Rib”. One letter by Ms Pat Scott opined “Adolescent girls and women are encouraged to spend time on their appearance, while adolescent boys and men spend time on jobs and careers. Excess importance then is placed for women on their appearance-the more attractive they are, the more acceptable they are. (The spot title, a song encourages) the already stressful state of so called unattractive women by emphasising that their acceptability is dependent on their ‘beauty’-they should do all they can to be ‘beautiful’ in order that they should be loved. ‘Attractive’ women find it easier, but having been encouraged to place importance on their physical appearance, they see their success in the world only in these terms. This causes…hurt and unhappiness, as women try to become what they are not, nor should be.”
In the same issue the magazine featured a lengthy article about the increasing prevalence of anorexia nervosa, quoting Dr Hilde Bruch, author of a book “Eating Disorders, Obesity, Anorexia and the person within,” who wrote all her patients “suffered from a paralysing sense of ineffectiveness, a sense of being controlled from outside and even of not owning their bodies.” The article noted that girls usually developed it between 14 and 23 years, boys more often between 10-12 years. “Puberty for a girl who had been struggling to make herself perfect and to fulfil other people’s demands, is catastrophic. It’s no longer enough to come top of the class or be good at games or riding horses. Success becomes synonomous with looking right and being popular.” In another letter to the magazine, Catherine Sherlock wrote: “(The adolescent girl) is encouraged to think of herself only as a body, to be narcissistic, to think of nothing but her appearance, to force her body to look identical to the slim, conformist figures she sees admired by others.”
As if nothing has changed in 40 years, the 2017 Miss Universe Australia pageant was staged with 32 women contestants, parading both in one-piece swimsuits and then “bikinis ranging from skimpy to practically non-existent” according to Age columnist, Melissa Singer, a 30yearssomething scribe I think. She asked “is it necessary to include not one but two segments where (the women)…are judged practically nude?” Concluding by posing the question how can girls have good mental health when physically beautiful ideals are promoted as a means to success, she does not seem to appreciate that the issue should also be about physical health, as it is inextricably linked to mental health. It is not the promotion of a physical ideal that is the problem, that’s too simplistic, but how girls and boys too, are absorbing, internalising and even sadder, falling for that propaganda without any appreciation of very pertinent health issues, physically and mentally. Are they so without any understanding about basic health and nutrition that they embark on starvation diets or vomiting excessively to be skinny. Eating disorders, as much as obesity and being overweight, are generally indicative of more profound psychological problems, however unconscious.
Contributing to the concern about displays of physical beauty as idealistic, adolescent psychologist, Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, penned a letter subsequently to The Age asking about the swimsuit segments: “Does this event not send a message to my female clients that they should be valued and prized only for their physical appearance? Isn’t it promoting an obsession with body shape and a physical ideal that 99 per cent of women can never achieve? It is time to say goodbye to this antediluvian throwback of an event.”
In 2006, the Herald Sun reported that models may have to be measured and weighed to ensure they have healthy figures before working in Victoria, designed to help reduce the pressure on teenagers to conform to unrealistic, unhealthy body shapes. The idea was discussed after a Bill was debated in Israel requiring fashion models to prove they were healthy before being allowed to work. The article detailed eating disorders were growing, with almost 70 per cent of young girls aged 15 on a diet and one in 200 teenage girls developing anorexia. Ironically, in 2017 the Herald Sun reported that supermodel Karlie Kloss informed a conference in Cannes she was told on the same day by a casting agent that she was “too fat and too skinny”. Recently in France, the government passed legislation mandating models be a size 8 before working professionally. I believe that even this could be too skinny, almost skeletal, as I am only 166cm and a size 8, but catwalk models are cms taller so how skinny will they still be at size 8?
However, while many berate the skeletal models, simultaneously a reaction has ensued of more momentous change in modelling celebrating curves on the catwalks and in photographic shoots. One Melbourne agency called Curves specialises in what they call “plus size models”, women with more flesh and less slimline statistics. According to one of these successful plus-size models, Ashley Graham: “You can’t just have one kind of beauty anymore”. Indeed, when former 60s model, then thin and beautiful Maggie Tabberer, put on excess poundage as she aged, she applauded her body image and established fashion apparel for the bigger woman. Other retail outlets also began specialising in wardrobe attire for women who were not size 8 but achieving success as a more rounded woman has only been recent. Graham, who set up the Live Boldly campaign, was interviewed in the Sunday Herald Sun colour magazine, Stellar, on March 4, 2018, in which she asserted: “Everybody has their own definition of beauty and they’re being vocal about it. I have been fighting for the concept that curves are not a trend. And skin colour is not a trend. And age is not a trend. Seeing someone, when I was a young girl, who looked like me in a beauty campaign would have changed my whole outlook on life. Maybe I wouldn’t have seen my cellulite as such a hideous thing or my stretch marks as the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
The interview with Graham details the influence her buxom beauty has had on other women, but one pertinent point that’s not raised at all is how healthy is she? Certainly, her face is stunning and extremely attractive, but outlining what her last meal on Earth would be: “Some kind of pasta-with truffles on it. And then I would get a whole pizza, a four-cheese pizza, and I’d eat them both at the same time with a whole bottle of red wine”. Hardly healthy of course and it would have been relevant and important for Graham to be asked about what she usually eats as well as knowing whether she has regular health checks for her blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels.
While some focus in the fashion industry is on having healthier models, albeit the thinner ones, why isn’t that same health factor applied to the plus-size models? In Australia, two out of three adults are overweight or obese and one in four young people, and while being skinny might no longer be a prerequisite for modelling, being healthy for all models should be in the fashion forefront. The health perspective seems underpinned by a double-standard in that curves are now applauded with no mention of whether the models are actually healthy while skinny style is deplored as unhealthy simply based on their appearance. Skinny does not always indicate digesting rabbit food and people’s metabolisms can be quite different.
Moreover, I have espied photos in various mainstream newspapers of bigger women parading new style swimwear designed for their plus-size bodies, with again, no mention of how healthy these women may be. No one in the media it seems is even picking up on it and apropos of the Miss Universe Australia pageant and the male psychologist’s response, there was no mention about health; the criticism and concern only about women feeling ‘pressured’ to conform to some unrealistic, “skinny” ideal. At the same time, the media now publishes report after report about healthy eating and regular exercise but it’s conveniently omitted in a fashion perspective for bigger women.
It’s not just the couture industry cultivating curves as Barbie dolls have also been transformed into bigger bodies, featuring on the cover of Time magazine in January 2016. According to RMIT University Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Design, Juliette Peers, Barbie’s “new body” reflected “Barbie was finally becoming part of the everyday world of imperfect women, who are not models or actresses… that now offered girls a realistic and recognisable image to identify with”. Moreover, the 2016 new line also includes multi-racial options. My issue is I had two dolls as a child, one white and one black, both of which were plump and curvy and did not consciously impact on me wanting to be any other body shape than what I was. I just wonder whether it’s not so much the original, thin Barbie that has caused apparent angst for so many young girls, but older females in their lives, unhappy with their big bodies, who project their sense of imperfection onto young girls by blaming their oversize not on personal self- indulgence but external targets such as “unrealistic” Barbie dolls, thus abrogating all responsibility for their misshapen torsos.
Struggling with a sense of imperfection, inadequacy and low self-esteem, teenage girls can consequently “bully” other females perceived as prettier and more popular, albeit surreptitiously for undermining a deluded sense of self. A covert cover-up for discomfort and disappointment about themselves, these girls, possibly absorbing learned behaviours from older females, project their shortcomings onto others considered weak, weird and worthless. This bullying behaviour is however usually a reflection of their own addled psyches rather than those they bully; sadistic playtime that can have truly tragic outcomes. This abuse, mostly verbal, is labelled bullying in the media, though I contend it is pernicious and perfidious psychological violence; once perpetrated in the schoolyard but now pervasive online. Bullying seems superficially, a far less disturbing appellation than violence, despite its consequences which often invoke violent behaviour against self of those bullied and affording its perpetrators some pleasurable insanity.
In early 2018, a 14-year-old very pretty girl, daughter of wealthy station owners in the Northern Territory and a boarding student at a posh co-ed school, committed suicide, allegedly according to her parents, because of consistent cyber-bullying. Hitting the headlines as a shock, horror tragedy, what wasn’t reported, at least what I read, was who that was responsible for the bullying. No doubt kids from her school who no doubt were also daughters and sons of wealthy parents too. In 2006, an article in the Herald Sun detailed a survey from the UK which revealed that “A new breed of middle-class bullies regarded as ‘little gods’ at home are making classmates’ lives a misery.
“Indulged at home and influential at school, they have the power to wreak havoc in the classroom,” according to director of children’s charity, Kidscape, Michele Elliott. “Parents” she added cannot believe “Little Miss Sunshine or Little Mr Wonderful”… their “perfect child”-could behave so badly. Calling them the “brat bullies” she said these children tended to come from nice homes where they were “given absolutely everything emotionally and materialistically.” She told the House of Commons’ education select committee her charity’s helpline received 16,000 calls a year, many from parents and children worried about bullies.
One can only assume about the situation at the school, Scots PGC College in the southeast Queensland town of Warwick, not just about the bullies but the 14-year-old girl who obviously had not developed sufficient resilience to withstand the abuse. Were the bullies indulged at home to then choose a ‘victim’ they perceived as unable to stand up for herself? And furthermore, was her suicide caused only by cyber bullying? Why had she not told her parents and why did she suffer in silence? What home environment did she herself live in? Why did she think suicide was the only way out? Six weeks after I wrote this, on May 2, 2018, an article in The Australian provided some answers at least, following an interview with her parents on A Current Affair on Channel 9. According to her parents, in her first term “she had been called ‘slut’ by male students and the bullying had escalated to the point (she) had felt pressured to send photographs of herself to a boy. Her life then spiralled, she was ‘suspended’ for “decking” one of her tormentors, her father said. She was suspended again for drinking, behaviour at odds with her usual, happy, outgoing nature.” Her father claimed the school failed to take action over the bullying.Her mother knew about the bullying, engaging a counsellor to help her daughter but obviously, to no avail. Tragic!
The Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, weighed into the issue establishing a Senate inquiry into cyber-bullying via a Constitutional and Legal Affairs References Committee. This committee is reviewing Australia’s cyber-bullying laws in a bid to tackle a troubling rise in teen suicides particularly after the Northern Territory 14-year-old girl tragedy. While this inquiry might offer some significant suggestions legally, no one has dared raise, maybe not even considered in private, what kind of family life the 14-year-old girl experienced, or other teen suicide victims; the focus being cyber bullying which I propose may be a convenient cop out for families accepting any responsibility for their children’s suicides. Why if they knew, did she remain at that school?
In 2003, another girl, 13, a student at Sandringham Secondary College, who it was reported on the front page of the Herald Sun “went through two years of hell at the hands of school bullies” was awarded $73,700 in damages after she sued the state as employers of the teachers who had a duty to protect her. Claiming she was “psychologically scarred” by the “cruelty” at school, her bullies, it was at least acknowledged, were other girls. “They called her names, wrote graffiti branding her a slut and a hooker, banged her head against a wall, threatened to kill her and even attacked her at a school dance. Teachers told her to ignore the bullying despite fears for her safety.” Bullying is rife.
As I wrote 50 years about about myself, I think I was somewhat “a private bully” keeping my disparaging thoughts about other girls secret, but was fortunately aware as I got older that I criticised and condemned others “for my own inadequacies.” Moreover, I also realised I’d been likewise criticised and condemned by other females, not just at school but at home by my sisters and sadly my mother too. Recognising the denunciations as bullying 50 years ago was not on my radar. I believe abuse of others symbolises a latent unhappiness with oneself and rather than face that reality, it is far easier, less painful and difficult to offload any personal self-loathing onto others.
In a personal article by a young female journalist in MX in 2007, the Herald Sun giveaway newspaper now defunct, Nadia Salemme wrote: “Everyone bitches about someone, no matter how much they swear they don’t. Sometimes it can turn into Automatic Bitching Syndrome, when it becomes so much a part of our personalities that we don’t even know we’re doing it.” She added: “Most of the time women are criticised for backstabbing and accused of getting their claws out.”
Spending six years at an all-girls high school, she wrote “slagging off everyone from your best mates to some random Year 9 was the norm…Bitching about other girls was kind of like a group bonding activity. Everyone did it and you were on the outer if you didn’t join in. What’s worrying is that some women still think they’re in high school, even when they’re 25.” And sadly, many continue throughout their lives and “don’t even know (they’re)…doing it,” I contest. Concluding that “bitching isn’t attractive” she acknowledged she was trying to quit: “Yep, I’ve got the patches and all. But I’m sure someone is bitching about how they look”.
So is it a norm for young girls as Nadia experienced and where do you draw the line? And is attacking Facebook for posting cyber bullying and/or having laws to diminish its destructive potential going to change a “norm” that certainly I experienced decades ago too? It could be that bullying and/or bitching is an integral aspect of being a female adolescent or perhaps innate in adolescence more pervasively, gender irrelevant. Indeed a conversation I instigated in 2013 with a 15-year-old girl on a train who attended a prestigious, private, all-girls Victorian school, reinforced Nadia’s perspective. She imparted when I asked about female behaviour at her school that not only were many of the girls bitches and bullies, their bellicose behaviour was not limited to just verbal psychological abuse, but involved many girls in physical fights in the school ground, at lunch time and after school. This behaviour she added permeated all year levels at the school. At that time, I did not ask her how the teachers or principal perceived these antics nor did I ask whether she had been bullied or whether she too was a bitch at times. What was pertinent was this bitchy, bullying behaviour was rampant in her school. A couple of incidents in early 2018 support the view that physically violent behaviour by teenage girls may just be more pervasive that social commentators and researchers want to confront. In February 2018, The Age reported a teenage girls was hospitalised and police were investigating after a violent schoolyard fight in Melbourne’s north-east. “One girl was reportedly chocked until she fell to the ground unconscious” at St Helena Secondary College in Eltham North. Police were called to investigate two Year 9 girls fighting. A 14-year-old girl had injuries to her upper body and was later released from the local Austin Hospital. The school’s acting principal said the girls would face “disciplinary action”. Video footage revealed the girls “unching and kicking each other while other students looked on. The mother of the girl NOT taken to hospital claimed her daughter had been “a victim of bullying and was defending herself. “It’s not quite as clear-cut as the video shows”, she reportedly said in a radio interview.
Even more alarming was a Herald Sun article that same month in 2018 detailing a “schoolgirls’ poison murder plot” in a dossier detailing horrific violence in Victorian schools. The article revealed “two students stole chemicals from their school and planned to poison another pupil by spiking a drink bottle.” This is just one of 229 violent incidents involving weapons reported in 2017, 68 against school staff and 161 against students. Weapons included guns, knives, scissors, Tasers, screwdrivers, an axe, rocks, chairs and even pencils. The “poison” murder plot, at a northern suburbs school, was apparently foiled in March 2017 by staff when chemicals were found in one of the pupil’s lockers. The target was apparently another girl, but she did not proceed with a complaint, according to police. The newspaper reported it was understood the school investigated and two pupils were suspended but it was unclear whether they returned to the school; likewise the female target. In total, 1500 assault and aggression against pupils incidents in public schools were reported last year, 399 more than in 2016. Of these, 204 involved police-almost one per school day. From 2015-17, violence against pupils rose 124 per cent.
The incidence of violence is obviously increasing, but back in the early 80s, a male friend of mine then a student at the prestigious formerly all-boys private school, Wesley College, felt he had to “hit” another boy who had been constantly bullying him to get him to stop. Another male friend, at school in Hobart in the 60s, also resorted to “punching a boy hard causing a nose bleed” to stop his bullying too. So what is contributing to the prevalence of bullying and violence by both genders? Are young people so unhappy with themselves and/or are they merely emulating what they see online or at home? It’s a very concerning development over recent years.
While the personal, psychological cost of bullying is undoubtedly problematic, the economic cost is massive, estimated at $135 million according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers Australian study reported in the Herald Sun in March 2018. The article revealed the study found almost one in four Victorian students are bullied at school, reporting bullying as a “time bomb” with the massive costs arising from “chronic health conditions in the years after students leave school.” The study, commissioned by the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, found 228,000 students bullied each year by 136,000 bullies, with schools experiencing one bullying incident a week and teachers having to deal with bullying complains costing $85 million each year in lost productivity. Carers missing work to look after students avoiding school cost the economy $45 million annually. The Foundation’s chief executive Lesley Podesta described the findings are “shocking, but not surprising.”
So what to do? A bitchy “norm” now adopting more perilous pursuits and/or are there other more sinister factors inspiring such behaviour? I cannot answer it only glad I didn’t have to resort to physical violence and was at least “private” in my psychological denunciation of others. Given psychologists’ views that bullying damages “victims’ sense of worth”, parents and teachers need to ensure young people understand the problem as the bullies’ own , not theirs. But how might I have behaved now with online access just a click away, I can only conjecture?
Around 2014, The Age published an article about new research revealing teenage girls were calling for more action to tackle both online bullying and pressures to share explicit images, with most saying these were “common experiences”. Children’s rights organisation, Plan International Australia, and anti-violence against women group, Our Watch, surveyed about 600 teenage girls finding 70 per cent of 15 to 19-year-old respondents were often bullied or harassed online with 58 per cent saying girls often received unwanted indecent (what does that mean exactly?) or sexually explicit material including texts, videos and pornography. Despite recent public information campaigns and efforts in schools, 44 per cent of girls said they felt much less able to tackle online bullying than they did harassment outside cyberspace. A third of the girls responded what could help thwart this practice was more education on sexuality and respectful relationships.
Commenting on the findings, Plan Australia deputy chief executive Susanne Legena said she was “genuinely shocked” by the findings (what world has she been living in?) and that while many of the girls were resigned to the situation, they could act by blocking someone, changing their privacy settings and reporting it. Our Watch chief executive, Mary Barry, said the important lesson evolving out of the survey was that “educators and parents (needed) to talk to their children about relationships, sex, consent and what it meant to cross the line both online and off”. Noble thoughts, but as I wrote earlier if parents cannot even converse with each other about their own relationships and sex, what hope is there they can talk to their kids? As for teachers, I’ve already countenanced that problem.
What is also revealing by omission from the newspaper article was how many of these 600 girls actually acknowledged they were bullies themselves? Were they even asked about their own behaviour towards other girls? Are we supposed to believe all these 600 girls were such “saints” they never uttered a bitchy comment about their peers? Furthermore, from many other articles in the mainstream media I’ve perused, young girls are happily taking and sexting naked images of themselves to boys. And it seems boys behave similarly. An article in the Herald Sun in March 2018, reported “Sadly, sexting has become the new form of peer pressures-for teen girls, in particular-of serious concern is that 52 per cent of teens who were asked for a nude image, according to our research, were asked by someone they didn’t know,” said E-Safety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant. There appears to be “a new dating rule book”, Grant said, adding she was “shocked” that nude images are sexted before one even meets the other person, adding “parents needed to employ strategies that empowered their children to explore their sexuality, but to do so safely online.”
The article also quoted that while “first base” is connecting online, “second base” is sending nude or revealing pictures via private chat. Child psychologist Rose Cantali said many of her clients were coming for help “when sharing nudes went wrong”. She said: “A lot of these young people want the attention, they want to woo the person…and they think the only way to win them over is by sending a topless or nude picture.” Relationships Australia NSW CEO Elisabeth Shaw said: “young girls posted about their sexual conquests on social media and shared revealing picutres of themselves on their public feed. This is happening quite often and is commonplace for many teens.” However, ANU sexuality expert, Lary Lou Rasmussen, told a different story contending that “the vast majority of sexting happens within intimate relationships already established. Young people are actually a lot smarter than we think” So what then is the real truth about sexting? Different perspectives abound depending on who you talk to and seemingly one salient truth is that nude images are being sent by young girls and boys for all sorts of reasons to all sorts of people, known and unknown apparently. Pretending that young girls are being unwantingly pressured into sexting seems a distortion of reality.
Furthermore, just two years previous in 2016, an Age article detailed this disturbing (?) reality quoting a French female psychoanalyst and philosopher, Elsa Godart, who worried about the number of young girls and boys she saw professionally saying they seemed “caught in a social media and reality-TV fuelled obsession with marketing themselves as a product and selling themselves to the world.” One of her clients was a young girl who had taken semi-naked pictures of herself that went viral though she intended it for her boyfriend alone. “Where it becomes worrying is when the illusory virtual self you’re selling is more appealing than the real self. So you can Photoshop yourself into your ideal and of course that illusion is so perfect that nobody wants real life anymore.”
Ironically, Godart said one study in her book “I Selfie Therefore I am”, revealed the more selfies people took, “the less sex they have. It makes sense that the more time spent on oneself in a virtual world, the less open one is going to be to others in any capacity-but certainly sexually.” As Godart makes clear, young girls are sexting as much as boys, but this reality seems conveniently ignored in the Plan International and Our Watch survey, perhaps inadvertently to identify boys as the abusive bullies and perpetrators of sexual harassment and all sexts. If what Nadia in MX asserted has even some vestige of truth and the female adolescent I talked to on the train, the survey was so skewed in its questions to portray girls as innocent and helpless victims by continuing the never-ending blame game against males. The survey’s unrealistic and biased imbalance as well as the double standard is in some ways a depressing scenario for all young people, leading to my next topic of the increasing concern about the mental health of young people 50 years on since my adolescence.
In 2014, Resilient Youth Australia, undertook a survey of almost 4500 year 7-12 students that showed one in three girls and a a quarter of boys were depressed, with many turning to violence, alcohol and unwanted sex to cope with mental health problems. The survey also found 34 per cent of girls and 30 per cent of boys felt “constantly under strain and unable to overcome difficulties.” Commenting on the survey, psychologists and educators said “many young people lack the basic skills of impulse control, conflict resolution and relationship-building to help them cope with life’s challenges.”
Reported in The Age and prompting calls for the federal government to introduce emotional resilience lessons as part of the national curriculum, director of Resilient Youth Australia and clinical psychologist, Andrew Fuller, said: “As a nation we need to start empowering our kids and giving them these skills. The kids who get violent…and get really drunk often have no idea how to form a relationship. These are the same kids who are socially anxious and scared and believe that somehow it’s OK to resolve their problems by hitting somebody.” A previous article in The Sunday Age already highlighted the growing popularity of teaching emotional intelligence in schools, partly in response to concerns about youth suicide, bullying and mental health problems. The RYA survey found a mere eight per cent of high school students had optimal levels of resilience including factors such as good relationships with adults, engagement at school and a sense of empowerment to protect them against violent behaviour, alcohol abuse and school drop-out. One in five students reported being bullied online with a third suffering sleep problems while one in 4 students admitted lacking confidence and trouble concentrating at school.
Three years later in 2017, another new study, reported on the ABC, found “alarming” levels of anxiety among university and TAFE students, with 35 per cent experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts in the previous 12 months. The research of 2600 tertiary students was conducted jointly by Headspace and the National Union of Students, with Headspace CEO Jason Trethowan asserting “Relatively speaking, the number is extremely high and it’s a point of real concern…(with) many students struggling to cope.” In the study, 65 per cent of students also reported high to very high levels of psychological stress, and more than half suffered panic attacks, had trouble sleeping and experienced feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness. Trethowan said changing external factors compared to the “past decade” including moving out of home for the first time, increased workload, looming deadlines, relationship problems and financial hardships, “creates an environment where people need to be more aware of their mental health.” One 18-year-old female Melbourne University student, who grew up in Brisbane, explained that at university “I felt completely paralysed…I started losing a sense of myself. Feeling like I’d lost myself,” consequently feeling anxious and depressed. She eventually consulted a counsellor to then appreciate the importance of defining herself by “the fact I feel well within myself rather than achieving a certain grade.”
While mental health was never mentioned in the media during my teenage years, or not that I recall, and certainly not in my later adolescence, I wrote that I felt depressed because a girlfriend was out on a date with a boy on a Saturday night and I was not. Feelings of depression and anxiety underpinned some of my life as an adolescent about my lack of boyfriends and breasts, but these emotions never negatively impinged on my academic studies, my relationships and my external behaviour with friends. I didn’t drink at all, I didn’t smoke, I achieved well in exams and had the confidence, as the experts have identified it, to say “no” to sex when I didn’t want it. I called it depression but I wonder now whether what supposed experts have recently labelled depression and anxiety is what I actually experienced.
Certainly, I lived life without any obvious ill-effects which makes me ponder whether depression is yet another “dirty” word in the psychological lexicon. That is, as soon as you say you’re depressed, medicos, not just those specialising in mental health, but apparently many GPs too, instantly pull out their prescription pads to authorise popping a pill to feel better, with scant discussion, if any at all, that involves understanding the raison d’etre for feeling depressed. Moreover, prescribing pills too often denies that feeling down sometimes may be realistic and even more significantly, mentally healthy if you’re in a dysfunctional family environment that continually puts you down intellectually, criticises you for everything you do and places personal, delusional expectations on you of what’s desirable because they’re unable and/or unwilling to accept you for who you really are and what you as an individual want. In The Sunday Age in March, 2018, advice columnist, Maureen Matthews, writes that living for and by the expectations of others is often one of life’s big regrets as people face imminent death in old age. Quoting Bonnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse who penned The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying- including “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”, Matthews comments: “So often we feel obliged to fulfil the expectations of our family, religion or culture. Be a success, make money, be virtuous. Women in particular can be crippled by the belief that ‘good girls’ do not explore their sexuality.” As I embarked on living my own life and being true to myself as much as I understood that in my late teens, much to the chagrin of my family, none of the student surveys I’ve just written about apparently even asked about students’ “family experiences”; yet another example of a survey that has omitted, either consciously or unconsciously, to ask young people perhaps more pertinent and relevant questions. It is as if young people live in a social milieu divorced from that of their families; two different worlds that experts do not even consider as possibly conflicting and contradictory to an individual’s well-being.
In March 2018, the Sunday Herald Sun published yet another article detailing that parents’ concerns about their children’s use of social media and technology were paramount over taking drugs, drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes for their effect on their kids’ mental health. Youth mental health experts say online bullying et al and “inaction by Facebook and Twitter has caused a national crisis.” Lawyers have suggested legislation is needed so those injured by online hate can sue, but as Plan Australia’s Susanne Legena explained one can block the sites, change settings and report a complaint. A survey of 890 parents with at least one teenager aged 12-18 Australia-wide was conducted and the current Senate inquiry about possible law reform was told about Germany introducing $79 million fines on January 1 this year if online platforms failed to remove hateful content within 24 hours. Responding to the new German law, Facebook hired 1200 German moderators to address complaints. It is not just a national crisis, but a global problem, suggesting perhaps parents must talk to their children about why they continue to check the sites and don’t block them. Is there some sinister sub-plot with kids needing, even wanting to know what abuse is being disseminated about them? Better the devil you know syndrome…?
Attempting to deal with depressing repercussions of online malevolence, in February 2018 The Australian newspaper reported from New York that the American Academy of Paediatrics has suggested that guidelines issued to doctors should include testing teenagers once a year for depression from the age of 12. This follows renewed scrutiny of mental health issues for young people after a series of school shootings in the US, particularly the latest in Parkland, Florida, where the male teenager responsible for killing 17 people had a history of depression and erratic behaviour. The academy said it is making the recommendation of universal screening “in an era of great clinical need and a shortage of mental health specialists.” Acknowledging depression can be hard to diagnose among teens they suggest symptoms can include sleeping a lot or too little, refusing to talk to parents and an abiding sense of despair and listlessness, often identified by laymen as a natural part of adolescence.
Most doctors “believe it is their responsibility to identify depression in their adolescent patients (but) evidence suggests that only a fraction of these youths are identified…in primary care settings and only 50 per cent…are diagnosed before reaching adulthood.” Official figures show 43,000 American teens committed suicide in 2014. Death by firearm was the most common method. So could annual testing be yet another practice to “psychiatrise” more young people who experience low moods, some restless moments and mild anxiety? To admit to feeling depressed and to use the word I did could be tantamount to be given pills when none are needed, even warranted. If it is hard to diagnose, how can doctors ever be sure they’ve actually made the correct diagnosis? And what other word best encapsulates feeling “a bit down or low” than depressed which most normal people who are actually in touch with their emotions can feel due to certain circumstances that are may be difficult financially or otherwise problematic such as fraught relationships and/or excessive pressures and demands in the home, at school or the workplace; experiences usual to living life not just as adolescents but as adults as well.
Maybe the more significant issue is too many so-called experts erroneously believe life is lived on a horizontal continuum without any ups and downs or trials and tribulations. Expectations, however invisible, intangible and unrealistic, demand we’re always in a jocular and good mood when life can be tough, tense and traumatic. We’re supposed to be emotionally detached and unfeeling automatons rather than sentient human beings. Indeed, what perhaps is pertinent in a valid diagnosis may just be the degree and depth of the depressive feelings such that they inhibit living one’s life as previously experienced. Furthermore, will the young “depressed” person’s family and social environment even be considered as a contributing or causative factor? The academy said family members should be involved in the teens’ assessment, but as I write further on, how might family members respond to absolve themselves of any responsibility for their teens in trouble?
It was Freud who asserted in his Theory of Depression that people become depressed because the anger they feel for others who have hurt or let them down is turned inwards, so it behoves medicos of all persuasions to appreciate the suppressed anger of a depressed individual. Yet too often, anger, especially in young and even older females, is perceived as pathological without any attempt to appreciate why the depressed person, particularly a female, is angry at all, invalidating their emotions as abnormal and “sick”. Too often there is no effort to analyse or identify the cause of the depression because too many medicos are not that interested as it’s far easier to prescribe a pill for the patient to “shut the fuck up”. Furthermore, despite Freud’s insight, there seems no acknowledgement that anger can be normal and may be justified.
Understanding one’s anger is only the first step; learning how to express it constructively and creatively is imperative too. Sadly however, the person or people towards whom that anger is directed can feel so inadequate, insecure and worse, self-righteous and arrogant, they refuse to confront any personal wrong doing or accept any responsibility on their own behalf, consequently “abusing” the angry person as totally at fault, no matter how the anger is vented. Indeed, angry behaviour, however well it is expressed, is oft deemed as “out of control” behaviour. It took me a few more years to appreciate and identify the underlying anger invoking my depressive emotions which I will elaborate on in the Free Love section next.
And why is it up to schools to teach resilience as the Resilient Youth Australia director, Andrew Fuller, suggested? Surely, parents should accept responsibility but maybe the salient truth is parents themselves have little resilience either, with too much alcoholic abuse and violent behaviours, physically and/or psychologically, as well as excessive over-eating among other problems. Furthermore, maybe these parents are unable to even love themselves so how can they possibly love their children? As family violence is now reported in the media with increasing regularity, it seems remiss of those who prepared the survey to not even address, or at least raise this complex problem. Perhaps the unpalatable truth is that mental health practitioners do not want to confront that many families are “fucked” as impugning the “family” could undermine our whole social fabric. After all, the family is usually regarded as the foundation of civilised societies. Indeed, psychiatrist Dr Patrick McGorry, who established Headspace, and is a well-respected practitioner and past Australian of the Year, said on ABC-TV in early 2013 that when children are experiencing serious mental health problems, the parents are as distressed as the children. He did not even countenance that the parents may just be responsible for their kids’ problems and disappointingly, but unsurprisingly, the interviewer did not even raise the issue about parents’ role in mental health issues for their children.
I too left home in my first year at university for only four months, worked part-time waitressing, and did talk to another female student about some of my issues, mainly about my unhappy family experiences. Just before beginning work as a cadet journalist a few days before my 18th birthday and back living with my parents (mostly to save money hoping to travel), I wrote “desperation affronts me, I cannot shake it off” and wondering “where is my peace?” as I “shun the idea of marriage, children…” Having suicidal thoughts, I wrote: “Suicide seems the only answer for me- always dissatisfied…I am sub-existing- in Kew-utterly alone….a helpless, hopeless superficial mess- a future in journalism-a cadetship I have with the “Sun”-but there is still Home- Problem: I hate me and everything about my life Answer:
Reform –Too weak or Suicide-Too weak THUS: NOTHING +HATE still
This poem, written six months after already establishing myself as a promising young cadet journalist, I wrote:
“Myself- a hollow sham
With nothing but deceit
The façade grows quickly
No time for me to tear it down
And to replace with what?
What is behind that superficiality
Those nice clothes, sophistication and that crap?
Too late for me to learn
The ways of goodness
And yet, I am not bad
So what is there?”
While entertaining these thoughts obviously I never acted upon them, and despite being very successful in my early journalistic days, popular among males and with enough money to spend as well as save, my sense of being alone and depressed, for wont of other words, was still within me. Fortunately, I was very adept at the cover-up so no one at work or my friends, let alone my parents or sisters, ever realised. I say fortunately because the real positive was I didn’t really want to die, self-aware enough to be ruthlessly honest without needing to lie to myself about how I felt. Writing in my diary was unconsciously then very therapeutic, as I could later re-read my ramblings to analyse and understand them, at least for myself. “All I can see is myself-alone and drifting- screaming inside for somebody-but substitutes are no good. At least that much I have realised. It has to be the real thing or nothing…but I couldn’t stop the tears inside-the desperation, I felt-so utterly alone- caring for no one either really-frightening. What matters at all? I have lost any intelligible comprehension of the world I ever had…” Sadly, my writings reflect negatively on my family members, though I don’t indulge in blaming them but rather berate myself.
My diary entries continue in this depressing aspect for months- where at work I felt “so superficially something yet not that at all. Not the grown up sophisticate-not the confident stable dependable Paulyne-but a Paulyne yearning for frivolity and youth-for times when she simply isn’t sure of anything-and that’s me….I think nothing could make me happier than to fall in love and drift around and around and around-into obscurity-fame is an excuse-an excuse because I couldn’t find him-I think my love would involve me totally-completely-but still writing-not destroying myself but creating myself- because now I am nothing but a big pose-an act of nothingness completely devoid of thought.” Not even a month later, having “fallen in love (though lust is actually more apt)” with a journalist I worked with about six years older than me which wasn’t reciprocated, I wrote: “now in the morning, sun shining and such a beautiful day, I ask anyone how could they feel depressed…just the trees, the birds, the sky-all so utterly inspiring and so fresh. I have this mad longing to go away…still absolutely wrapped up in myself… But I can’t force myself to feel interested in people… (I need) to get myself sorted out a bit…I’ve forgotten or perhaps I never knew how to have fun-just be free.”
Exactly why I never even attempted suicide is up to readers to surmise. In retrospect, I believe my honest admission to self and understanding about my desperate “need” for love, sex too as well as partly recognising my anger towards my mother and sisters as well as friends, pervaded simultaneously by enough self-belief that I could and would work it out for myself, inspired my quest to live life and stay alive, grappling with the problems I had on my own. Being my own best friend seemed most significant as well as acknowledging my family was “sick”, albeit psychologically violent towards me, realising I had to sort out the destructive effects manifested in my emotional responses.
Although I didn’t comprehend I had internalised and absorbed some of my mother’s unhappiness with herself as my own at that time, in part identifying with her negative aspects, it took a few years to recognise how she projected her personal problems and dissatisfaction onto me, albeit unconsciously and with no self-awareness about her projections. Simone de Beauvoir had written lucidly about mothers making their daughters in their “own image” in The Second Sex, dispassionate understanding I remembered reading at 15, though it took a few more years to identify and articulate the how and why of my mother’s attitudes and behaviour towards me. Complicating the scenario even further there was at the same time much about her interests-philosophy, politics, psychology, literature, theatre, music and movies that impacted me positively, simultaneously displaying genuine love and care about my well-being. These behaviours enriched my life though elicited ambivalent and contradictory emotions within me. By 19, I worked out enough about her psychological duality and personal conflicts which I felt she hadn’t resolved pondering whether she ever would. Determined and resolute about resolving my own irrespective of her, I appreciated I needed to get away and put some distance between us and the rest of my family to acquire some clarity and comprehension about my familial experience. I will elaborate on this more in the Free Love section too.
Sadly, it wasn’t just my mother but my sisters too, as well as some female so-called friends who projected their inadequacies onto me too. Realising the image I portrayed at work, at home and at play was something of a façade (I say something because I later realised that other females had unconsciously disparaged my sophistication and penchant for beautiful clothes as false and undeserving), I left journalism to travel overseas without any further self-deprecating abuse. I felt lucky I could do that (I’d saved sufficient money), taking time to sort myself out as I needed to and feeling fortunate I had enough resilience and confidence to walk away and create a different life of my own choosing without unrealistic and ignorant expectations, pressures and demands upon me.
While my adolescence was perplexing and problematic not just sexually and family focused, the subject of sexism of course was not even on the social agenda 50 years ago. How it’s all in the public spotlight now. In 2017, the Victorian Government announced plans to teach its Respectful Relationship program to pre-schoolers to target and prevent sexist behaviour among three and four-year old children. The government document, explaining its inclusion of such young children (the program was originally introduced for teenagers), states: “as young children learn about gender, they may also begin to enact sexist values, beliefs and attitudes that may contribute to disrespect and gender equality.” But as University of Tasmania Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Kimberley Norris, asks: “Can children at that age be sexist? When is it that children are aware of gender differences and what makes them act on it?”
Norris claims at age three “children have a basic understanding of gender identity, but even then, it’s pretty tenuous….Gender constancy,…understanding that being male or female is a fixed personal attribute-does not develop completely until around age six or seven.” Arguing that young children “imitate” behaviours of important role models, “the reality is that we reinforce gender differences and expectations every day without even meaning to through observational learning processes…Information (acquired by the role models so observed by children can then be) internalised to inform their understanding of how the world works-with early understandings about gender differences and expectations emerging by age three.” Norris goes on to assert that while older adults may “inadvertently” reinforce gendered behaviours, “Kids are incredibly fast learners..(and) complicating this is that children filter information according to what their brain can make sense of. At age three to four, children demonstrate very “bad and white” thinking-things are good or bad, right or wrong…(also) girl or boy, and categorise their world (eg toys, clothes, activities) accordingly.” In an adult who Norris attributes to seeing “shades of grey”, thinking in black and white would be considered sexist. For kids this age, it is normal.
Arguing that this in itself is not a problem, it arises when expectations about gender and gender differences lead to “gender inequality”. The purpose of providing an environment in which gender equality is taught and modelled could engender beliefs about gender and differences to support more respectful relationships with others from a young age. She goes on to contend that four-year-olds “don’t need to know what sexism is-the fact is-they won’t understand if your try…it’s really more about what they see than what we say…In a world where actions speak louder than words, it is not what you say, but what you do that will shape your child’s gender expectations. “
Norris’ beliefs seem sensible common sense and I am grateful my parents as far as I recollect, allowed me to play with dolls as much as toy cars and trains as well as introducing me to football, chess and poker and never behaving as if my gender was a ‘barrier’ to what toys I wanted to play with, what clothes I wanted to wear, who I spent time with socially and my ambitions. Of course, I cannot recall much at three or four, only surmising that because I referred to males as “people” at 14, I had not absorbed a conscious gender difference in my attitudes and feelings about girls or boys as intrinsically so different.
Educating to ensure respect and inhibit sexist attitudes and behaviour is one thing, but how many young children understand or know much about sex? In 2017, The Age reported on new research published in the Sex Education journal by University of South Australia lecturer in child development, educational psychology and child protection, Dr Lesley-anne Ey, who asked more than 100 teachers across all school sectors around Australia about their experiences with children’s problematic sexual behaviours. She found 40 per cent of these teachers reported witnessing such behaviour, including simulated intercourse and attempts to coerce other students into sexual conduct. In one case, a year 4 student threatened to rape other students. Dr Ley said: “Teachers should know the questions to ask so they can recognise whether such behaviours are prompted by potentially criminal activity that a child is seeing or experiencing at home or at school, or whether the child is simply copying actions they see in increasingly sexualised music videos, advertising and internet content.”
Equipped with smartphones and devices, children had access to a range of online content, including pornography, but Dr Ey stressed she did not want to see kids “treated or labelled as deviants because they are copying behaviour they understand to be normal because they see it at home or on television. At the same time, we don’t want teachers to miss what could be abuse…” The issue for teachers “is knowing how to respond to what they see”, she added.
Compared to my young years with no devices to view porn and ignorance about sex, I certainly indulged in playing doctors and nurses behind the bushes in the school playground with boys and girls when the comment “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine” was commonplace, but I never acted on it and I have no idea whether any other kids did either. Furthermore, I have no memory whether the boys all adopted the doctor role and all the girls were nurses; interesting but irrelevant in how I later perceived my future ambitions. This “innocent” experience reflects that as young kids we already have some conscious idea about different gender biology, but any knowledge about sex was not much more than basic birds and bees’ information as I can recall. Is it worrying what some young kids may be enacting and/or emulating these days? When coercion is involved of another kid or kids, it is unequivocally of great concern but if no one’s safety or security is endangered, the “harm” of playing sex games may be minimal, if at all. Kids are naturally curious about their own bodies and those of the other sex from what I’ve perused in my life’s reading, so wanting to explore the physicality of each other, even at a young age, could be considered a normal developmental process. How that’s approached and implemented could be the problem.
Looking back, I have no doubt the teachers at my primary school must have had some cognisance of what some of us were up to, but nothing was ever said and no prohibition was enforced. The interest in playing that game passed as we became more interested in sex for real rather than indulging in mock pretence. My first kiss at 10 says it all about me and the boy, though as I wrote, it didn’t go any further. Repressing kids’ sexual interest and regarding it as dirty, abnormal, even precocious, can do far greater harm than simply “simulating” intercourse provided its consensual and nothing actually happens.
Without having re-read what I wrote in the 60s decade of this book, I’ve undoubtedly forgotten many things to compare 50 years on now, but the reality as I perceive and understand it is that while attitudes and beliefs about teenage sexuality, particularly for most girls, do not seem to have changed that much, what is really very encouraging is the exposure of the pertaining issues in the mainstream media, online and in books. Sex and love were scant discussed in the public domain 50 years ago and as I wrote, I grew up incredibly ignorant about not just my own body but about males and sex itself. It is great there is some sex education at least, but clearly, there is a long way to go before the nature of that education is pertinent to young people. I also think kids are fortunate in having access to porn and it behoves parents and teachers to learn how to deal with it. Some boys might adopt behaviour that upsets some young girls, but maybe social mores need to confront sex as a natural, normal and healthy expression of self between two consenting young people who feel some “simpatico” connection without love being an essential ingredient. Some realities have clearly changed, but many social mores still shame sex to the detriment of too many young people today.
Visiting Australia in March 2018 was psychologist, Jordan Peterson, here to promote his new book: “12 Rules for Life-An Antidote to Chaos“. A former Harvard clinical psychology professor now at the University of Toronto in Canada, he delivered a lecture at the Melbourne Recital Centre with the audience mostly 20-something fans. He is a YouTube hero with his videos viewed more than 150 million times. Described in The Spectator, a politically conservative magazine, as “one of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for years”, he is “famous or infamous”, depending on perspective, for denouncing what he considers “contemptible Western feminism” promoting gender studies he believes “pathological to the core” according to a Herald Sun article written by Bettina Arndt. She quotes Peterson asking how can we tackle sexual harassment in the workplace if we “don’t acknowledge that women wearing high heels and make-up to work is sexually provocative?”
He continues his tirade by telling parents they should remove children from schools that talk about “equity, diversity, inclusivity, white privilege or systemic racism”. According to his gospel “(These kids) are not being educated, they’re being indoctrinated and there’s absolutely no excuse for it.” In an interview with Arndt, he condemned “the psuedo-scholarship dominating debates around issues such as gender differences, in which feminists distort proper evidence to promote their ideology.” Furthermore, he contended “that allowing feminists to take over public debate on such issues alienates young men by ‘telling them that they’re patriarchal oppressors and denizens of rape culture,tyrants in waiting.’ It is “so stupid, so destructive”. Arndt concludes that what Peterson offers young men today is “much-needed hope, while teaching them to be honorable and self-disciplined- to grow up and take responsibility for their own lives. And they love him for it.”
Where to start to break down his “blame game” psychology except that I agree young men need to take responsibility for their own lives but so too do young women; indeed everybody should, I contend. However, by abusing western feminism as “contemptible”, as if all women championing equal rights and opportunities for women are hateful, he misses the important point that many feminists do not intrinsically affirm equality of opportunity and fair pay implies stripping or undermining men of their rights and opportunities. All these women do not regard all men as “contemptible” perpetrators of some sexist conspiracy; certainly I never supported that belief and never will. Furthermore, it may be some teachers talking about equity and diversity et al indoctrinate young students, albeit unconsciously, but to denigrate education generally in these vital sexuality issues is to deny that many young people, both males and females, need to learn, discover and understand not everyone is hetero-normative, tolerant, patient and accepting. Teaching that aspires to dispel ignorance with relevant information should be applauded, not attacked. Sorry the system is not perfect!
Moreover, I ask what should women wear to work to negate sexual provocation? Maybe as women we must de-sex ourselves completely and don sack-like dresses to disguise our shape and size as I once did, soon realising I was denying an important aspect of myself; that feeling good involved looking good and if that mean’t “sexy” and that’s all some men could appreciate, I was better off without them. Yes, I copped much sexual harassment as a young woman, but I also had friendships with many young men who seemed to respect my intelligence and good work irrespective of what I wore. Moreover, Peterson’s belief implies that men must be so susceptible to a “sexy” appearance they are unable to control their lustful impulses. By asserting this, he is insulting men as poor sick saps so beguiled by a sexy woman as to render them helpless from the waist down. I’m disgusted with his psychological misunderstanding about appearance and at the same time he “blames” women for the sexual harassment comments they receive instead of appreciating young men need to acknowledge women as being more than their appearance. Moreover, he contradicts himself by believing men need to take responsibility for themselves and then blames women for wearing sexy apparel that ensnares weak men in view of them. He can’t have it both ways. Shouldn’t they be held responsible for their harassment comments and exactly what responsibility is it they need to take?
A female letter writer to the Herald Sun on March 20, 2018, Margaret Brennan of Yarraville, penned similar thoughts to mine writing: “Does he want (women)…covered to save men from themselves?” It’s reassuring to know I’m not a lone voice in the wilderness about his “blame” game against women.
The generalisations he supports are indeed disturbing even though I do concur that there is “pseudo-scholarship” in much of the debate about gender differences and stereotypes. I have lambasted some female researchers and so-called feminist experts myself, but again Peterson doesn’t seem to countenance people as humans; instead contributing to a gender distortion about young men and women as so different they couldn’t possibly have anything in common to celebrate. He is so negative, unrealistic, extreme and abusive in his comments and beliefs it is depressing so many young men find “hope” in his diatribe.
During my teenage years, any reality about sexual diversity by-passed me, completely unaware and/or ignorant about whether any female or male young people I knew were anything other than heterosexual. I never thought about it or questioned it; heteronormative was just the way it was. Fifty years on, social mores highlight a very different reality for many young people as the LGBTIQ community spotlights homophobic abuse, a fear of difference, a comparably high suicide rate and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety and problems associated with “coming out” to family and friends. A stigma seems extant for thousands of these people and while transgender was not even a concept I was at all familiar with, trans people now feature almost routinely in the mainstream media as well as writing books about their experience.
In 2014, the Australian Supreme Court found trans “Norrie”, formerly a man now appearing as female, could be referred to in all official documentation as of “non-specific” gender, supporting a belief that any reference to being male or female might be redundant and irrelevant to some people. Indeed, in early 2018, The Age reported that Germany’s federal constitutional court ruled that the country must create “a third gender” category for those not identifying as male or female after finding binary gender designation violated the right to privacy, stipulating that lawmakers had until the end of 2018 to either allow the introduction of a third gender or dispense with gender altogether in public documents. Five years before in 2013, Germany became the first European country allowing parents to register newborns as neither female nor male if the child was born with characteristics of both sexes. The article, reprinted from the New York Times, claimed the ruling coincided with society, medicine and the law increasingly recognising ways in which gender is socially constructed and not necessarily fixed or stable. Eight countries, Australia, Bangladesh, India, Malta, Nepal, New Zealand and Pakistan as well as Germany, recognise more than two genders on passports, according to US organisation, Lambda Legal, which works for LGBTIQ rights. The organisation’s general counsel, Hayley Gorenberg, said : “(The German court ruling) seems to be very clearly about not forcing people into a particular gender marker label and I think that’s very important.” The court found “The assignment to a gender is of paramount importance for individual identity; it typically occupies a key position both in the self-image of a person and how the person is perceived by others,”
For many LGBTIQ people in Australia, the same sex marriage debate preceding the postal vote to allow same sex marriage, engendered hurt and pain across the community, people celebrating ecstatically when legislation was finally enacted in parliament at the end of 2017. According to a 2013 National LGBTI Health Alliance study on mental health and suicide, the “average age of a first suicide attempt is 16 years- often before “coming out”, with the community having the “highest rates of suicidality of any population in Australia”. The study claimed that the “elevated risk of mental ill-heath and suicidality among LGBTI people is not due to sexuality, sex or gender identity in and of themselves, but rather due to discrimination and exclusion as key determinants of health. “Be very clear that being lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex and/or questioning is not in itself a problem.” What I find interesting in particular is that slut shaming and verbal sexual abuse I was aware of in my teens was actually about having sex, especially for young girls, whereas the alliance points out it is not about sex per se for the LGBTQI participants, but the discrimination ensuing from other people. Is that any different to how young girls having sex with young boys experienced their indulgence? I know that I certainly refrained from having sex with boys occasionally because I didn’t want to be labelled “sluttish”, either by the boys or the girls. I don’t know how other girls felt but I know what some girls told me about girls they presumed having sex. It seems that having sex, be it hetero or LGBTQI, is still infra dig for some people who condemn it as shameful, appropos of what the young girl on the Insight SBS program said and what I’ve read about cyber bullying et al. While Jordan Peterson may believe teaching about diversity is akin to indoctrination” the alliance study found inclusion and acceptance without discrimination vital to engender good mental health. The more young people can learn about difference, the more likely they are to accept it.
Australian Olympic gold medallist, Ian Thorpe, has detailed his depression and reluctance to admit his homosexuality during his illustrious career in the pool, and an interview in The Weekend Australian in March 2018, with Nick Tabakoff, highlighted how his sexuality back then “posed its own challenges.” Now “proudly and publicly gay…it was a different matter for an awkward 16-year-old…still coming to terms with his identity.” Confronted by a reporter, Thorpe said: “It was too early for me. Everyone has their own time in coming out.” Tabakoff opines however that being asked whether he was gay at that time “created a stigma in…(Thorpe’s) own mind.” Thorpe continued to explain that being asked that question “along with the rumours and the innuendo..I always thought of being gay as a negative thing. I wasn’t comfortable in myself to come out….Back then I was a teenager. No teenager is ever comfortable in their own skin.” Thorpe articulates so clearly what many young people still confront about their sexuality, not just I posit because they are LGBTQI but because understanding one’s own sexuality during adolescence is often complex and fraught, particularly I suggest for young girls whose sexuality is sadly circumscribed by social mores that still shame sex. Being “comfortable’ in one’s own skin can take a few years to comprehend and clarify; it’s called growing up and it can be difficult to develop a strong sense of self, security and stability as an individual who flouts social conventions and conformity. Standing alone as oneself demands great resilience, confidence and personal belief and that isn’t engendered overnight, perhaps more problematic for the LGBTQI community as they are in a minority that does elicit disrespect and discrimination.
What’s really pertinent about Thorpe’s reality as a 16-year-old is why journalists were even interested in his sexuality; why was it deemed at all relevant and/or important? What significance did they attribute to it in respect of his swimming prowess? Why should anyone have even cared or been remotely interested? I cannot answer these questions re Thorpe; however I do appreciate as I personally experienced during my life that who a person chooses to have sex with, albeit mutually consensual, matters to others far more than it should, particularly when there’s no harm to anyone. That Thorpe felt distressed is completely comprehensible and it says more about the salacious and sleazy scumbags in the media who seemed obsessed with his sexuality rather than their own. Perhaps they needed to “get a life”; especially a “sex life” for themselves! Moreover, I have oft pondered why LGBTQI people need to “come out” at all, as why does being non-heterosexual invoke an acknowledgement of sexual diversity? Having discussed this once with a 21-year-old gay barista I talked to at one of my local coffee haunts on many occasions, he simply stated he needed to assert his sense of self and that encompassed being gay. Interestingly, while he had discussed it with his mother, he hadn’t openly divulged it to his father who he believed intuited it anyway. Go figure!
Certainly, I did become aware at 18 when I started work as a cadet journalist that my boss was “queer” as I was told and ipso facto the reason he didn’t think highly of female journalists. As he developed support for my endeavours, I didn’t dwell on his homosexuality, even though in 1968 it was a “crime” in law. Moreover, the football reporter I realised was gay never presented as an issue, of discrimination or exclusion as far as I could understand back then. I just accepted them as they were without even thinking much about how they lived their lives as gay men.
In March 2018, being LGBTQI continues as an issue of consternation and concern for many as a Herald Sun article reported a University of Technology Sydney course coordinator cancelled the first week of lectures because “he believed holding them in an Anglican church would prejudice LGBTQI people.” In an email, Dr Timothy Laurie told the students, the church, a temporary venue for a week because of construction at UTS, was unsuitable as a venue and consequent of “The heated political climate in Australia around the marriage equality postal survey and the Safe Schools Coalition…Meant that we need to redouble our support of the LGBTQI community at UTS and beyond.” Some students were non-plussed about the cancellation of lectures, asserting “This is to me political posturing and for all intents and purposes propaganda. I am happy to learn in a church, a mosque, a temple, a lecture hall, a museum and have the utmost gratitude for any institution willing to offer me such services”.
The concern by Dr Laurie may be somewhat misguided appropos of the church venue for lectures, but as several of my friends are gay men of disparate ages, they have all imparted anecdotes of first-hand bullying at school, in the 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as Alexi telling me he was bullied by boys at school in the 60s because he didn’t play sport and preferred to read books on his own in the girls’ playground. Some of the bullying involved physical violence as well as psychological abuse and despite efforts to teach diversity and respectful relationships, being LGBTQI still inflames hostility and hate with a sequence of discrimination and exclusion. A stigma still abounds and maybe part of my ignorant adolescence was because no one even dared mention any possibility they might be lesbian or gay. Sadly however, I’m unsure as to whether that much has changed for many young people who prefer to stay “in the closet” rather than being discriminated against and excluded for “coming out”.
As testimony that being LGBTQI is still perceived by some as pathological, The Age in March 2018 broke a story about the prevalence of gay conversion therapy in Australia, “hidden in health services, schools and religious ministeries linked to an informal network of churches and counsellors.” One case revealed by the newspaper was “a gay man…encouraged by church leaders to exorcise his demons, leading to a spiral of self-loathing and shame when he was unable to change his sexual orientation.” Victorian Health Minister, Martin Foley, calling it “dangerous quackery”, said the Andrews government was “deeply concerned” about the impact of this therapy saying “It’s a whole new level of bullying and mental health trauma, where people are urged to deny who they are.” He suggested it should be “taken up as a key part of the national mental health strategy,” with the government urging Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to help other states “crack down” on it. The Turnbull government has declined to co-operate with a spokesman saying it was a question for Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt. His spokesman said: “This is not something which is funded, supported or practised under the Commonwealth. Therefore by law this is a matter for states.” According to The Age, “the gay conversion ideology has been quietly pushed in schools as part of the federal government’s chaplaincy program. It has also been raised in the context of the federal review into religious freedom.” A Change.org petition with about 12,000 signatures calls for Turnbull and Hunt to act. Another salient point is that some, if not many, devout religious believers endeavour to impose their convictions onto others surrendering our sanctity as a secular country to one that wants to limit individual freedoms. However, one of my Jewish, female cousins my age converted to Catholicism nearly twenty years ago, telling me “she would probably be a lesbian but the Pope doesn’t allow it.” Horrified that she assented to another telling her how to live, it is unsurprising and nonetheless utterly depressing that being LGBTQI is still asserted as pathological in 2018. What else can I say?
Being transgender complicates the scenario even more profoundly in so far as gender identity is confused, complicated and often contrary to social norms, expectations and traditions. For Nevo Zisin, according to an article in The Sunday Age in 2017, looking in the mirror is not something he enjoys as he is unsure “if he sees a man, a woman, child or adult”. Born female, Nevo has undergone hormone treatment for male identity, at least superficially, but asserts “I used to identify as man, I used to identify as a woman but right now that’s not relevant to me. I see myself as a mosaic of femininity and masculinity and complex thought and ability.” Having just written an autobiography, Finding Nevo, he has interrogated his own identity since the age of four, now regarding his gender as fluid. “I’m constantly confusing people. But I think everything is really confusing. You talk to anyone-no one knows really what they are doing.”
It was in kindergarten when Nevo set on the fact he was a boy, refusing to attend the girls’ section in department stores, wearing only boys’ clothing and correcting those who referred to him as a girl. “I didn’t just decide at four years old I’m not going to be a girl, I’m going to be a boy. There was something in me that felt I had to present myself differently. I wouldn’t say it is entirely a socially constructed thing or entirely biologically determined. I think there is this mish-mash of in-between.” At 14, he came out as gay but realised “I was so scared, I thought, ‘well right, right now I am (lesbian) but I don’t know if I want to be in the future,’ ” acknowledging “I always have doubts about everything all the time and so does everyone.” At 18, coming out as transgender to his mother, he changed his birth name to one selected from a Hebrew’s baby book. Responding to criticism that his gender variance was a phase or that he was too young to know who he was, he claimed “At what age does one know who they are…And what isn’t a phase? ” believing his book is not about gender transition but “a story of life and growing up and body image and insecurity and coming to terms with realities we are faced with. These are symptoms of the human condition. It’s not just a trans narrative.”
In his book which I’ve read twice, Nevo realised “At age four, I was set on the fact I was a boy…(Upsetting his mother, she) tried to set boundaries as to how masculine I could be…saddened by my choices to wear suits in preference to a dress.” Aspiring to please his mother nonetheless, he did wear dresses too, writing “Even at a very young age I learned to compromise my own happiness to fulfil my parents’ expectations. Later in life when I tried to conform to femininity to fit in, I could see how happy it made my mother, despite the fact that I was lying to myself.” His mother, he wrote, wanted a girl at birth, but while she obviously didn’t like his boyish proclivities, my mother and father did not demarcate any gender boundaries that I was conscious of. However, my mother did impart that after having two daughters, she hoped I would be a boy, particularly to please my father, going so far as to select the name “Paul” after my father’s deceased Russian uncle, Pavel. I have often reflected whether her desire for a boy as well as my father too, translated into how they raised me, unconsciously inculcating me with masculine interests and traits that shaped me as a competitive, relatively confident and risk-taking female. I only recently recalled that my mother, who used to go to “town” maybe once a fortnight when I was young and always returned with a book for me, came home one day with three picture books that thinking about now, were decidedly masculine in nature. The trio of transport books, one on the history of aeroplanes, the other on ships and the third on trains, were certainly not traditionally female interests back in the late 1950s, but as she also purchased dolls for me, I was happily oblivious to any gender specifics, enjoying reading about how flight, sea and land travel developed and changed over hundreds of years. In the perspective of Nevo’s mother, with almost five decades of age difference between him and I, I feel very fortunate to have enjoyed both feminine and masculine nurturing without gender seemingly being pertinent or ever expressed. However, later in my teens and particularly in my twenties, it was very different.
For Nevo, early childhood presented “a lot of struggles… bullied a lot for being a “tomboy” and also for (his)…weight. I was a chubby little kid and the other kids at school often reminded me of this. These kids already had such ingrained fatphobia and misogyny. In order to fit in, I bullied other kids…” Despite growing up in different epochs, I too also had a “fatphobia” in my teens, although unlike Nevo, I was very thin and never experienced bullying, certainly not because of my weight. Yet, I noticed and disliked fat kids, never befriending them or wanting to spend time with them. It is unclear where and why I developed this phobia but obviously, weight may well be a perennial issue for young children, irrespective of generation.
Desperate to fit in with other girls as he got older, Nevo went to a party wearing “heels, a dress and make-up….It took a while experimenting with different looks and styles to realise the girls actually didn’t care what I looked like, they just cared about me. The more I tried to conform, the less I fitted in…When I stopped trying so hard to be something I wasn’t and allowed myself to be who I was, it was a relief….It was radical for me to be part of a group of powerful girls..(as) I saw the feminine parts of myself as lesser.” While I never confronted a problem with femininity as he did, I wrote that at 13, wearing black apparel and looking svelte and sexy as I perceived, seemed to ignite the ire, if not jealousy of other girls at a party I attended. Other girls seemed to care very much what I wore as I never donned those clothes again socially, but was unaware as to why I didn’t. While Nevo was trying to be something he wasn’t and could be who he was, it was the opposite for me as I had to start being something I wasn’t after that party experience; not that I understood that at the time. It took several years to clarify.
Nevo’s experience also seems contrary to what I’ve read and written above about bitchy girls bullying other females either face-to-face or online, but he hasn’t yet reached adolescence and his primary school years are good: “For a few years, I truly felt on top of the world.” Moreover, while he enjoyed boy clothes and felt somewhat masculine, he also “loved to play with Barbies”, but when his parents’ marriage started to breakdown, more societal norms revealed themselves. “I learned from a young age that crying is a sign of weakness…Over time, I’ve learned that tears can be a sign of strength…but I remember as a child trying to hide my tears…(that would otherwise label me) as some sort of vulnerable weakling.” Indeed, I had a similar attitude to my own tears when my parents began tearing each other apart, seeking refuge alone in my bedroom crying and feeling like a “weakling” as I wrote in my diary. The sad reality is that despite being so much younger than me, Nevo was affected by the same social mores that crying is weak. I can only ponder yet again what attitudinal changes have actually occurred since my young years.
Being a young female, Nevo articulates that “Naturally, as young girls in a patriarchal society, my group of friends experienced misogyny. It was everywhere: in the media, at school, in our day-to-day lives. Unfortunately, misogyny is one of those things that shows up constantly…There was an atmosphere all of us felt at school, of having to overcompensate as females in order to be addressed in the same way as the male students. Leila (a close friend) told me she felt she always had to be louder, pretend to be sure of herself, even when she wasn’t, to be taken more seriously.” He adds “Teachers made inappropriate comments about our appearances…One teacher pointed out my chubbiness often and made comments constantly about my unkempt, curly hair. It resulted in a lot of insecurity.” Nevo does not clarify the teachers’ gender so I’m presuming male, but I find it astonishing that these young girls were even aware of misogyny, wondering whether he is using the “wrong” word altogether and meaning more appositely “sexist”. Certainly, misogyny has been popular parlance for more than a decade to highlight discriminatory behaviour against females, but dictionary definitions have it as “hatred” towards women when “sexist’ might be more appropriate. Even as a pre-pubescent girl which Nevo is as he writes, I don’t remember ever hearing about misogyny, or even considering whether some male teachers or boys were anti-female and certainly in school, I never consciously felt I had to be a particular way to receive attention, either of fear or favour. At 11 and 12 years of age, I felt totally accepted and respected, even applauded by both female and male teachers as I came dux at 11, and also had male cousins and friends I attended the football with who did not denigrate or disparage my knowledge and understanding of football. By 13 and 14, I was more aware of gender issues re football ( I couldn’t enter the players’ rooms after a game) as I could not play the game at school, but I never regarded it as males hating females, just an unfairness that I believed, albeit naively, would change over my life.
It seems sadly depressing that young girls such as Nevo in this 21st century are already ingrained with such polarising gender perceptions that clearly affect their sense of self. I ask myself exactly why this is happening and if its so negatively impacting young females, I can only surmise that for all the so-called progress for females since the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 70s, there’s been more harm than good as a consequence. Why? Because it has seemingly set up an “us” and “them” mentality from a very young age, apparently blaming male misogyny for all female misfortune with no appreciation of personal responsibility for one’s own life. The fact that Nevo’s mother disapproved of Nevo’s penchant for male clothes is already delineating differences of gender that have nothing to do with sexuality at such an early age. Indeed, I also purchased boy jeans and jumpers in my early teens as I was virtually hipless and female jeans didn’t fit as well as the male variety. Moreover, I liked long, “sloppy joe” jumpers and male ones were perfect. Female jumpers were tighter, shorter and I thought, less attractive. My mother never issued any negative comments about these purchases. Nevo’s mother’s attitude of “this for girls and that for boys,” be it clothes or toys among other things, imbeds a predisposition to perceiving all things as gender specific and never the twain shall meet. I ponder whether his early gender specific experiences then fostered a sense that being male was somehow “better” than being female which may have contributed to his dysphoria realisation a few years later. If wearing boys’ clothes was regarded as a norm and he wasn’t criticised for being “chubby” as a girl, would his reality be the same? Furthermore, Leila developed physically faster than the other girls and was gawked and stared at by men which she complained about to Nevo who ironically writes: “I wished men would look at me that way.” Was there some latent inferiority complex about his appearance in his psyche that catapulted him into becoming trans? He goes on: “Growing up in a society that teaches women we are only as valuable as our appearance leaves many of us desperately needing validation. I didn’t feel valuable because men didn’t toot and catcall me. That’s how deeply misogyny was ingrained in me. I found myself wanting to be objectified in order to feel attractive…(and) tried to conform to femininity to make friends.” At the same time, he proposes: “Not all men sexually harass, but all men need to be taught not to.”
I wrote that during my middle to later years of adolescence I too had something of an inferiority complex about my appearance, but simultaneously, I never forgot, however deep down I’d pushed it, or societal norms of female beauty had engendered me to push it, that at 13 I wanted to be a model, remembering at the same time how stunning I looked at the party dressed in black. At the same time, I didn’t blame boys for wanting a good looking girlfriend because I wanted a good looking boyfriend too. While recognising appearance was important, I also acknowledged common and shared interests were just as important, and unlike Nevo fortunately, I never believed my appearance enshrined my value. Why and how does he believe that so young? Who is “brainwashing” him into this belief? What are his parents telling him, as a her, about other more significant personal, positive attributes, academic acumen and abilities? As a female, Nevo was an A-grade student so why weren’t her intellectual talents important to her? Why was her appearance the one and only aspect that apparently imbued her attitude to self? It seems her parents didn’t acknowledge her talents as valuable at that time in her life so that appearance was the defining value. And why didn’t they? Was it because his mother’s own sense of value was dictated by her appearance, passing on this traditional and conventional superficiality to her daughter? Certainly, I don’t know as Nevo doesn’t explore the role his parents played, blaming and singling out misogyny and patriarchy for the problem instead.
While I may have felt “depressed” because I didn’t have a good-looking boyfriend, or one at all, I already strongly understood I was very bright and could do and be what I wanted and that boys of genuine intelligence would look beyond my superficial appearance. That’s what I hoped for. But sadly, Nevo’s early experience is not at all uncommon or unusual as in the Herald Sun on April 16, 2018, an almost 40-year-old mother of two girls and one boy, Bronwen Griffith, articulated similar realities for her children. She writes: “Young girls are being conditioned from birth, consciously and unconsciously, about the appropriate way to behave. Advertising, television shows, even real-life experiences, bombarding us everywhere we turn, tell us how females are meant to be. As adults, we are (to some extent) able to tune this out. But children are sponges; they absorb everything they see and hear. The messages we receive tell us women should have attractive bodies, no body hair, smell like roses, love being sporty, but only in skin-tight apparel, and be allowed to get dirty as long as they look hot doing it. Women should always be accommodating and always responsible…the list goes on.” She stresses: We need grassroots societal change…”
While I had read enough to appreciate being female was an issue for some men as well as women, I never thought gender would impede me if I wanted something enough. I thank my parents for instilling in me a sense that being female was not intrinsically a limitation as well as nurturing me without gender bias so I absorbed both masculine and feminine interests accompanied by believing in my intelligence and other talents. This I believe helped engender my own self-belief and self-esteem, however fragile at times, fortunately unaware of any gender bias. It was only in my middle to late teens my mother’s own unhappiness, and I think, my rejection of her, created conflicts for both of us. My choice of a career in journalism, which she didn’t support but also didn’t prevent, only fuelled the already flickering flames of fire between us. My passion for football I believe also fostered my competitive nature ( my father was certainly of that ilk when he focused on not just my school marks but also my friends as I did too) but it wasn’t until my twenties that being female really became a significant if not overriding issue for others, women and men both, and consequently for me too. However, reconciling and understanding that it was their problem of gender-specific perception with subsumed assumptions and limitations projected onto me, and not mine, took several years to disinter.
Talking about swimming lessons at school, Nevo “hated that (he) had to wear a one-piece bathing suit. I just wanted to be like the other boys. This experience became one of the first ingredients in a recipe for lifelong dysphoria.” His appearance as a “fat” girl rears up again, writing “I saw being fat as a bad thing and rejected any idea that I could be fat”, this awareness registering as “deeply” offensive and resulting in him wearing shorts for swimming instead. Unfortunately, he asserts “I’ve had a difficult relationship with my body as a woman, as a transgender person, as a non-binary person and simply as a human. I was a chubby kid and constantly reminded of it. Much of my childhood was inhibited because of insecurities relating to my body…My understanding of beauty has been poisoned by rigid societal standards which has not included being fat. People told me I had a pretty face, that if I lost weight I could be beautiful. I was complimented whenever I did lose weight..As a woman, I became aware I was entitled to less space than men…expressed literally through the policing of my body. I was treated differently depending on my size.” Although I didn’t put on weight unattractively until my early twenties, I too was aware in my adolescence that people responded to me differently due to my appearance, though not specifically my size. Maybe Nevo’s fixation on his size deflected his understanding that it is just one visible manifestation of how we present to others. As he wrote earlier, appearance can dictate others’ appreciation and value of us which in his case, was internalised very negatively. Moreover, he and his mother seemingly shared a perennial over-weight issue: “We weren’t focused on being healthy or happy, we were too distracted by the numbers on the scales…when I couldn’t exercise for a while, I would feel immense self-hatred and disconnection from my body.” Reading or thinking between the lines, I can only conjecture whether Nevo’s body issues morphed unconsciously into a conscious body dysphoria, believing males were less sensitive and imbued by false images of physical pulchritude, consequently off-loading his self-hatred as a “chubby kid” into wanting to be male. Perhaps he cannot clearly articulate if that was his raison d’etre for feeling dysphoric as comprehending why and how we feel as we do and identifying individual reasons for these feelings as we age is difficult to determine for all of us. What’s sadly obvious is that he didn’t enjoy sufficient support and validation for his worth as a female from others whose gender was irrelevant. Moreover, as his mother also had an over-weight issue, did she unconsciously project her unhappiness with self onto Nevo so that he internalised his “chubbiness” as an all important issue? He doesn’t explore or even raise that possibility.
By 16 or 17, Nevo was feeling more “comfortable to be myself. I began thinking about my own sexuality. I wasn’t involved with any of the boys; they were generally too intimidated by me. I wasn’t typically attractive, at least by the standards held by the boys at my school. I was chubby and had curly hair and I didn’t conform to the traditional beauty norms by straightening my hair or wearing make-up. I wore clothes I liked rather than those boys might find attractive. I felt mostly invisible to them.” Endowed with profound insight even at just 16 about himself, I can relate to some of what he felt, also aware I did not conform to traditional beauty norms. However, I didn’t contemplate that I was intimidating to some males and more significantly some females, until I was in my late 20s. During my adolescence, I did straighten my wavy and at times wonky hair with jumbo-size, plastic rollers and donned make-up to create an image of attractiveness. It wasn’t until I was older that I started to understand and appreciate gender stereotypes as limiting and proscriptive, actually enjoying being female particularly vis-a-vis my sexuality. The gender stereotypes seemed more significant for others than myself and as I’ve written, negotiating my way around that nebulous negativity took several years.
Shortly after, Nevo , “defying stereotypes and embracing my looks…I realised I was gay.” While he had kissed boys, he writes he “never particularly enjoyed it. Probably because I was kissing boys I didn’t actually like…(Sitting on his bed talking to a girl friend) All I could think about was kissing her. Her smell was intoxicating…before I knew it, she was kissing me…I wasn’t sure I was a lesbian. I wasn’t certain I would never fall in love with a man, or someone who wasn’t a woman,,,,The whole concept of coming out bothers me. I hate the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise…we should stop making assumptions about people.” What’s really interesting is that while I kissed a couple of boys in my teens that didn’t make me “feel” sexually attuned, I believed it was not because I didn’t like boys generally but rather that I wasn’t attracted to those particular boys, having kissed a couple of other boys that really “turned me on”. Apparently, Nevo doesn’t acknowledge the issue of attraction to boys more broadly as relevant, failing to particularise males and instead lumping them all together. Feeling attracted to this girl, I can’t help wondering was this as a reaction to not liking the boys he kissed. In this perspective, he does acknowledge his uncertainty about never falling in love with a man and he is spot on about the imperative to stop making assumptions, which I will elaborate on in Epilogue- Part Two as I confronted the assumptions about me and my sexuality as they manifested at Thames TV in my mid-late twenties and continually throughout my life. Ironically, Nevo himself seems to make his own assumptions about males per se regarding his lack of enjoyment kissing a couple of them as indicative of a “lesbian” attraction to girls. Indeed, he dismisses what he heard – “It’s just a phase” about this attraction, proposing “Well, guess what? Everything is a phase,” adding “it only means nothing is permanent and things change. Who would we be if we didn’t evolve and grow throughout our lives?” He is right about that, certainly.
It was in Year 10 that he “first owned my feminism…(whereby) I could suddenly see the underlying oppressions and microaggressions of the patriarchy…People boxed me in as political, opinionated and radical, and therefore didn’t want to hear anything I had to say…It is easy to be cool, calm and collected about an issue that doesn’t and hasn’t ever affected you. But my life and body is political.” Angry about his experiences, he writes: “Well-behaved women seldom make history,” as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said. Personally, I find it surprising that his political and feminist passions were so contrary for other people that they apparently didn’t want to “hear” them, particularly 50 years later than when I started espousing some feminist and strong political opinions of my own. I can only surmise that his social and school environment, maybe even his familial one too, were so ultra-conservative that they would not or could not countenance his different views. It seems sad that he had no acceptance or interest from anyone in his social milieu and I can only feel fortunate that while I didn’t express some of my contentious political and feminist ideas to most people, I did have some acceptance and interest from my mother and father as well as a friend or two. However, I didn’t feel angry about my blossoming sexuality as I felt very heteronormative (this wasn’t even a word I had ever heard in my teens) which may explain Nevo’s ire. Moreover, I certainly didn’t feel boxed in but rather, feminism as I grasped it, offered liberation, highlighting that I could live my life as I chose with my gender irrelevant, despite being aware that while others may have proscribed my choices because of my gender, I certainly wouldn’t. I can only thank my parents, particularly my father, for imbuing me with belief in my intellectual abilities and the confidence to transcend what in the 60s was typical and traditional female pursuits; likewise a couple of teachers who acknowledged I was “very bright” and didn’t consciously impose any gender limits on what I could do. In 50 years since my teens, Nevo’s adolescent experiences seem to encompass a “backward” step in the quest for female liberation, exacerbated by a “blame” game against the patriarchy for impeding his own life rather than accepting responsibility for that life and his choices. Reading other research about young girls it seems Nevo’s experiences are actually typical of most young females today who are still growing up without a strong sense of self and empowerment to direct and control their own life.
An article in The Australian on April 26, 2018, published originally in Britain in The Sunday Times, reinforces yet again the issue of confidence and self-belief for young girls today. Two female journalists, Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, have written a book called “The Confidence Code for Girls” detailing that “a quest for perfection and a lack of self-confidence is crippling girls across the Western world.” Quoting stats that a typical girl’s confidence drops by about 30 per cent between ages 8-14, the authors claim mothers “many of whom lack confidence” cannot necessarily “spot” their daughter’s confidence drop and fathers ” are better at spotting the dip”. Based on research, though unspecified by whom and where, the authors reveal girls aged 8-14 years “are less likely than boys to describe themselves as confident, and more likely to use words such as anxious, shy and ugly. More than half of teenage girls feel pressure to be perfect, while three-quarters worry about failing. One in three girls believe boys will make more money in life.” Fathers, they assert, “may be better placed than mothers to help their daughters simply by treating them as they do their sons. Girls should be encouraged by them to break rules, take risks and make mistakes- which is the way to build confidence.” Reading this I can only thank my father for being proud of my academic achievements, fostering my interest in competitive football and encouraging me to do sciences in Year 11 when I didn’t want to. Having three daughters and no son, I have written that he raised us all to aspire academically, be economically independent and have prestigious careers. My older sister’s choice of being a doctor I believe was inspired by him at a time when male medical students far outnumbered females in the early 1960s. Moreover, while he didn’t want me to accept my journalistic cadetship before I finished my university studies, he accepted my decision to defy him, always reading my stories and proud of them. Thinking of my other girl friends in those days and their fathers, I believe my father was unusual for men of that era as he was also apparently ‘pleased” that boys were interested in me and he never rebuked me for my kissing a boy at 10. What he told me at 17 that I “could sleep with boys but don’t get pregnant” was also salient to my sexual development. While I think gender awareness may have been unconscious in his psyche in some ways, his influence was much stronger than my mother’s as I aged, as I do believe she didn’t have sufficient confidence and self-belief to do her own thing. Typical of women of her generation, and sadly still too many women from what I read, she wanted to “please” everybody but couldn’t even “please” herself, a self-sacrificing martyr that sadly was unhappy most of her life.
The authors continue that while girls are achieving like never before, “they’re consumed with doubt on the inside. Girls worry constantly about how they look, what people think,…why they aren’t getting perfect grades…” They articulate what I’ve just written about my mother “Perfectionism plays into people-pleasing, girls not speaking up for themselves…The problem with being perfect is that you stop taking risks and stop doing the things girls need to build confidence. Confidence comes from going outside your comfort zone.”
Back to Nevo’s book, embracing his “long-repressed masculinity”, he writes: “Once I stopped caring about the attention of men, I no longer cared about the beauty standards they had set. I didn’t need to be skinny to feel attractive as a lesbian…(I) felt liberated to know I no longer had to try to be something I wasn’t.” The reality that his lesbian sentiments are focused, even obsessed by the physical nature of beauty seems absolutely tragic from my perspective, seemingly having no other identity or sense of self than his appearance. A girlfriend suggested to him he may be transgender, and “I was always really uncomfortable in my body, but I hadn’t met any women who weren’t (another tragic perspective?)….Our society profits a lot from people’s self-doubt. The more you hate your body the more money you’ll spend on products that promise a solution. I had never liked being naked…”
Confronting gender dysphoria, he continues that he “struggled with the idea that there were different behavioural standards for men and women…conforming to behaviours I didn’t necessarily identify with.” Once again, his lack of a strong sense of self or confidence in being himself catapults him into “conforming” and while I can appreciate that having a strong sense of self and total confidence in your teens is undoubtedly unrealistic, his adherence to conforming is sad too. Indeed, articulating his problems, he writes “I spent so much time researching what it meant to be a man that I lost sight of what it meant to be me. But this was an important step in my journey of self-discovery. I needed to move on from who I was in order to discover who I could be…I wish I had known at the time that I could be a man in any shape or size, rather than changing myself to fit some narrow view of what it meant to be a man.” I certainly have no idea about dysphoria but it seems that he was constantly trying to fit some narrow view of what it meant to be female and consequent of recognising his dysphoria then what it meant being male. Sadly it seems he needed a lot of approval and acceptance from others to feel ‘good’ about himself, both as a young female and then as a male. Unequivocally, he seems so confused about who he is as a human being, gender irrelevant.
The reason transgender interests me so much, despite never having heard of it in my teens, is that in my 60s, when being trans hit the mainstream media, I identified with a sense of masculinity that was innate in me but did not translate sexually or biologically. As I wrote in the Free Love section, being ‘masculine’ in many of my passions and interests, even my sexual behaviours, was misjudged as lesbian by many, despite my understanding and being happily contented with both masculine and feminine aspects in my sense of self. These societal, gender divisions, perceived and understood as disparate and almost opposite by others, not just about me but most people too, made me angry because of the underlying assumptions and/or conscious and unconscious bias that affected my career and my life more generally. I was, as I have written, regarded as “abnormal”, even pyscho, for wanting to be treated as an individual, gender irrelevant. Furthermore, expressing my opinions vociferously and vehemently and demanding more money at work and a “fair” go, was “psychiatrised” as aberrant disturbance in my pysche and as having delusions of grandeur, mostly by other females who called themselves friends as well as feminists. This reality didn’t manifest till my late twenties and thirties, by friends, family and work colleagues, and while it certainly troubled and concerned me, my sense of self by that age was strong enough to transcend the stereotype proscriptions, however unsettling at the time.
On being a man, Nevo writes that he felt constrained by whether others saw him as a man or not. “If that is what I say I am, it’s as simple as that. I shouldn’t need to meet rigid ideas of masculinity.” Likewise, I felt similarly by my late teens that I was affected by rigid ideas of femininity, conflicted and confused about the “sort” of female I was as I was loud, swore reasonably often, was outspoken about my feminist views, and did not comply with the subordinate, passive, docile female. Moreover, I didn’t conform to a physical ideal of female beauty, though unlike Nevo, I certainly did feel attractive and sexually alluring. Reconciling my masculine and feminine traits took a few years. Nevo writes very perceptively that “I’m not sure why moulding everyone into the same kind of person is so appealing anyway. There are many different ways to perform gender, and we should be open and encouraging of them…(However) I often found myself wondering, what does it actually mean to be a man? Or a woman? Who gets to decide these criteria? And why are we afraid to embrace notions of “other”? ” I have pondered these same questions over my life, raising the problematic notion of being an individual in my teens and some of my answers will be articulated in Epilogue-Part Two.
About to complete his schooling and preparing for the possibility of studying advertising at RMIT, Nevo, presenting as male, attended a creative workshop at the university where he gave an address about females and make-up, asserting that “women do not necessarily buy make-up and use it for the attention of men…(continuing) to talk a bit more about beauty standards in the media and the misogyny intrinsically connected to it…The applause I received afterwards was embarrassing. As a woman feminist I was laughed at, ridiculed and not taken seriously. But in a room filled with people who read me as a man, seeing a man stick up for women’s rights and women’s issues was commended. I had never before been positively regarded for being a feminist and I was acutely aware the only thing that had changed was people’s reading of my gender. This proved to me that people respect men more than women, even in issues concerning women.” Certainly, I can relate to some of what Nevo claims, having experienced much disrespect and ridicule for my feminist views as a female. That notwithstanding, I was taken seriously by some men for my views and indeed, it was more other females who also called themselves feminists, who disrespected and ridiculed me for my understanding of feminism as I did not blame men nor see men as the perpetrators of some oppressive patriarchy where I was powerless and persecuted as they tended to. By my late twenties, I started abandoning my feminist emphasis, believing it implied “rigid ideas” about how women should be. Ultimately, I believed in being an “individual”, and while I recognised millions of women and young girls worldwide were oppressed, I also appreciated men could be too by “rigid ideas” of how they were supposed to be. The suppositions were the definitive issue and gender stereotypes limited us all. By my late twenties and as I revisited the nature of oppression as I aged, I realised many females, inadvertently and unconsciously, were “victims of their own inability to think”, participating in and even accepting oppression, without acknowledging their own complicity and responsibility for self-direction. It is a complex conundrum, but as so many young females in the west, as current research illustrates, seem bereft of self-belief and confidence in their own self-worth as intelligent, sentient beings, they are sadly unwitting victims of their own shortcomings, too often absorbing and internalising traditional, stereotyped social conditioning passed on by generations of women to their offspring. Fortunately, recognising this was my key to liberation.
As Nevo ages, he too understands that “I began to see that maybe things I had been reading about being a man weren’t true. I could do whatever I wanted. It did not matter how people read me, whether it was as a woman or a man, because regardless, I was being true to myself and that’s what mattered the most.” He sums it up brilliantly! He adds: “I’d spent too long pretending I was like everyone else…I have only ever been me…I don’t identify with the words “female” or “male”. They are not my words. The space in which I have felt gendered female and transitioned to gendered male has been in the ways people have treated me.” I add that this treatment was probably based on the total superficiality of his external appearance. However, he goes on to say that “It is undeniable that the world is an easier place to live in for men. The only reason anyone would contest that would be a lack of perspective…On the privilege/oppression dynamic between men and women, it is men who hold the power and women who are the marginalised group. Men are afforded more space, more money and more rights…Acknowledging this addresses the fact that there are power imbalances in our society, which require change…and that we are complicit in..it…even if we don’t consciously oppress.” I do contest his perspective in so far as I believe that it is only some men, those who conform to the so-called successful, alpha male stereotype for whom “the world is an easier place to live in”. Men, who for whatever reason, do not adhere to traditional masculine manifestations of success, can experience as much oppression, and or difficulty in living, as many women do. It is complex, to repeat myself. Nevo further asserts that while some may claim “there are no differences between men and women in our society…I can give tangible examples of how people’s interactions with me have changed since my transition.” Being a male might for Nevo have engendered these changed interactions, but as a female who changed my appearance, profession, and some overt behaviours, I also experienced very different interactions with an assortment of people, especially my family and friends at the time, unsure whether his experience is only a gender perception. Furthermore, he asserts that he feels “taken more seriously by men. If I said anything about feminism, I felt listened to, compared to being trivialised when I was presenting as a woman…People stopped commenting on my weight and the clothing I wore…There was less pressure on my appearance because suddenly I was valued for the content of my personality rather than my physical attributes…I went from one rigid gender box to another, but this one had more space.” Never having presented as a male, I cannot negate the veracity of Nevo’s experience, except that I felt, in different contexts, for different reasons and at different times, I was taken seriously by some men (albeit a few) and do not believe being female inhibited my choices. It did proscribe opportunities. I think Nevo’s own preoccupation, or sense of being unattractive, with his “chubbiness” and appearance counted far more than others’ attitudes towards these aspects as some people can intuit how one feels about self and then react accordingly, albeit unconsciously. If he felt more confident and comfortable as a male others may well have accepted his views more favourably because of how he presented. However, he is spot on about going from one rigid gender box to another but that too is how most people perceive males and females, sadly.
Concluding his narrative as a twenty-year-old, he writes “the more I was passing as male, the more I realised I wasn’t a man…I couldn’t fit into either (of the rigid gender boxes). I didn’t want to reject my masculinity…But I didn’t fit in with men. I didn’t get along with them in the way I did with women and even though I was treated better by them, I still didn’t always feel safe….Maybe I was neither male nor female, man or woman. Maybe the idea of gender is socially constructed through institutions and social norms we’ve created. Gender has changed through time, cultures and geographies. Once I recognised this, a liberating thing happened. I started to look at myself as a human being, who is a mix of masculinities and femininities, interests that transcend gendered behaviour and intricate relationships and emotions that cannot be sorted into simply “male” and “female”…This time (I came out again) not as a lesbian, not a transgender man, or queer. This time I came out as me.. (asking) people to do their best not to gender me, but rather treat me as a human being they know and understand.” Despite his request, gender specific perceptions still depressed him until he “realised much of it revolved around how others would perceive me. ..I wish I could have focused more on how I felt, detached from the perceptions and judgements of others…I wanted only to be treated as a human. I didn’t want the associated expectations of being a woman or a man….This wasn’t about ideology…the act of living in a society that asserts there is a certain standard to which you must subscribe can be distressing.” He continues “…it’s important for me to recognise who I am, break down the binary understandings of both masculinity and femininity and find a comfortable spot that fits for me. I have spent many years trying to unlearn what has been ingrained in me….It’s not easy…” Nevo’s conflicts resonate with me and though I didn’t want to ever be a man in my late twenties I once wrote “I should have been..” Reconciling his gender issues is something I too wrestled with as I aged, realising by my mid 30s “to thine own self be true” though being able to withstand the often humiliating, disrespectful and derogatory perceptions and judgements of others was incredibly hard, painful and problematic, particularly where work was concerned. At only 20, Nevo has insights and knowledge I never had but then, I wasn’t transitioning to manhood and these are different days where gender is in the spotlight far more than it ever was 50 years ago and that’s certainly a positive.
Over the following decades of my life, it has been encouraging that issues of domestic violence, marriage, children and staying single, women’s continuing battle to break through glass-ceilings in many diverse workplaces, sexual practices and behaviours of adults, relationships between parents and their offspring, friendships between women, pay parity and sexual harassment and assault as well as the nature of masculinity and being male are now spread across the pages of the mainstream media with increasing regularity. They are not only topics for popular pundits, but also some politicians and other social service workers who are attempting to redefine gender, sex and love in our environs across the globe, be it Australia, Britain, America, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Africa and Asia, too.
The issues I confronted, mostly alone finding support, solace and salvation in books, movies, on TV and occasionally in the media too, are now catapulted into a public spotlight for analysis, thought and hopefully, reflection. Some of my blogs on this website discuss these 21st century issues in response to my reading. As a reader you may want to click on my gender, politics, sex and sociology content as well as my published letters and published articles for further commentary on current research and critiques about these issues. I write Epilogue Part Two where I reflect more on some of the above to elucidate my understanding of self and my role as One Woman in her pursuit of love and sex. It’s not too long and I can only hope this book seems sensible, sane and suitable for others to read. I hope it’s been enlightening and enjoyable, humour and heartache all part of the wondrous thing called LIFE!