It’s time to move on from the “birds and the bees”
I’d just started Year 7, I’d come home from school and had just eaten dinner when my Dad asked me if we could have a chat. I sat down with him in the lounge room and he started talking.
Neither of us can remember the words he used to broach The Talk with me, but we can both remember my reaction.
“Daaaaaaaaaaaaad!!!! I know! No, I know! No, I-know-shut-up-I-know!”. The conversation was over before it had even begun.
One reason I reacted that way was because I was a know-it-all brat. Another was that I, and most of the kids I knew, had successfully figured out what sex was by then. If not from friends, Google or Friends, then from the awkward sex ed documentaries shown to my Year 5 class about the noble quest of a humble cartoon sperm.
However, I also might’ve reacted that way because The Talk is an outdated concept.
At least, that’s what a prominent sexual health development researcher told The Punch yesterday, off the back of reports kids should be getting the sex briefing younger than ever.
“The whole idea of the ‘birds and the bees’ talk is part of the problem,” Professor Alan McKee of Queensland’s Uni of Technology said. How so? The concept gives off the idea that parents should only have to talk sex with their kids once in their life. That talk is almost always going to be too late, because parents tend to believe their kids are more innocent than they actually are - which pressures children.
“Kids get really stressed out pretending to be innocent,” McKee said. Instead, parents should talk about sex with their kids “soon” and “often”. That is, when children first start asking questions about sex, parents should answer them honestly in age-appropriate language.
That doesn’t mean giving a detailed sociological rundown of the potential ramifications of sex at age 5. It means directly answering their questions – “why are boys and girls different?” - without blabbing on and confusing them with all the issues around sex.
It isn’t only the ‘birds and the bees’ chat that could and should change for the better though. Sex education in many schools across Australia isn’t good enough, which is particularly problematic since adolescents are facing issues around sex that their parents might not have grappled with in their lives.
Sex ed in schools revolves around teaching three major things: safe sex, the biological component of sex, and for girls, how to say no. But kids aren’t taking away some important lessons from school in how to be a responsible sexual adult that they should be.
So they’re learning lessons from other places instead. Statistics show that over 70 per cent of 16 to 17 year old boys have watched porn. And the other 30 per cent must’ve been lying. Sure: you can definitely pick up the mechanics of sex from porn. But there’s plenty of research to show that teenage boys try to emulate the fantastical behaviours of porn stars in real-life interactions with girls, and the appropriate way to treat your partner in the bedroom isn’t something emphasised at school.
I don’t remember learning a whole lot about sex and sexuality at school either. Things like it being natural for some people to be attracted to the same sex. I remember a couple of effeminate boys (who coincidentally later turned out to be gay) being bullied a lot in the playground, though.
And what about issues like sexting? I wrote a piece last year (which I gave a headline which was honestly, a little over-inflammatory) about how sexting can be harmless flirting in the hands of responsible teenagers, but just like sex can be used in an abusive way. That whole concept of being sexually responsible isn’t taught at school and it should be. As Benjamin Law wrote last month:
Teenagers are smart. They instinctively know when you’re patronising them. Cast your mind back to when you were a teenager yourself: you appreciated it when adults trusted you with sensitive information, and assumed you could make choices based on that information. So let’s cut loose here.
But there’s a reason this hasn’t happened: The politics of sex. It’s an emotional issue. And that emotion gets cynically inflamed by politicians.
This only leads to situations like in WA in 2009, where Catholic schools declared they would shun a state government website that said sexual activity could be “awesome”. The first thing wrong with that is that it is. The second thing is that the website provided vital information about contraception and sexual acts.
Compare Australia’s conservatism with the Netherlands. It’s one of the most sexually liberated societies on the planet – but kids have sex a whole year-and-a-half later than they do in Australia.
Teaching kids about sex isn’t about sexualising them. It’s about teaching them how to be responsible users of sex. What’s wrong with teaching 14 year olds about things like pornography and homosexuality and sexting so they can deal with it responsibly?
“It’s impossible to imagine that happening in Australia,” Alan McKee, the sexual health researcher, said. “Schools could do a much better job, but it would never be allowed in this political climate.”
Late yesterday The Punch got a press release from Peter Madden, a Christian activist in the Fred Nile tradition. Capitalising on the Katter controversy yesterday, Madden was announcing a campaign warning against “the dark side of same-sex marriage” and “homosexual sex-ed for your young children”.
Madden may have been taught the birds and the bees. But he certainly wasn’t taught what the focus of parents, and particularly, our school teachers should be right now: How to get people to use their brains when it comes to sex issues.
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