Puberty Blues. Still reality for teenage girls?
As fireworks erupt at a night beach party, socially isolated teenager Frieda lays prone and sad in the back of a panel van, while a string of boys “take turns” with her. Others stand around and watch, and as Debbie and Sue wander past they remark: “There’s Frieda”.
They look back at her for a moment and then turn away, pinky-fingers linked, to rejoin their boyfriends. Frieda gazes sadly at them as the two best friends walk away.
This was the final scene of episode three of Puberty Blues, and at work the following day I mentioned how horrified I was by this scene and many other sexually violent situations depicted in the show. My colleague suggested that the experiences of female characters in the show are not the norm for girls of that age*.
It cannot be denied that female sexuality and feminism have evolved over the last 30 years, including in relation to women’s rights to sexual pleasure. But our progress in these areas should not detract from the fact that unwanted sex and sexual violence still occur too frequently for young women.
A study of secondary school students by the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University found that 38 per cent of sexually active females had experienced unwanted sex. The most common reason cited for the unwanted sex was: “My partner thought I should”. Followed by “too drunk”.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, young people under the age of 25 comprise over 70 per cent of all recorded sexual assaults. Young women aged 10 - 19 comprise the highest sexual assault victimisation rate, at three times that of the general female population.
Key to the development of healthy relationships is effective sexual education; that engages young people (both males and females) in discussion about safe sex, safe sexual behaviours, and safety in relationships – education that goes beyond the mechanics of preventing pregnancy and STIs.
In their 2011 report on sexual education in Australia , the Research Centre identified that effective sexuality education provides young people with the ability to make sound decisions about relationships and sexual intercourse (and stand up for those decisions), deal with pressures for unwanted sex; recognise situations that may turn risky or violent, know how and where to ask for support or help and know how to negotiate protected sex and other forms of safe sex.
They note that this agenda is generally endorsed by education authorities in Australia and is in curriculum guidelines; but is not consistently taught to all Australian young people.
Academic institutions, advocacy bodies and youth sexuality experts have identified that the national education curriculum, currently in development, provides an opportunity to review how sexual education is delivered in schools.
“The implementation of the new national curriculum is an opportunity to reinvigorate this area by giving teachers some really exciting material to teach, that they can see has real relevance and value to their students,” says sexual health education expert, Associate Professor Anne Mitchell from La Trobe University.
“Connecting it in to human rights and empowering students to feel they can challenge gender stereotypes, for example, or think through issues of sexual diversity, are all valuable ways of enabling young people to take control of relationships and develop a personal sexual ethic.”
The unique value of Puberty Blues lies in its ability to draw viewers into its warmth, humour and nostalgic reflections on retro fashion, food and beach culture; effectively setting up the stage to then ambush them with ugly scenes of sexual violence and destructive relationships.
This is enormously valuable in provoking viewers to consider the serious issues that lie beneath the entertainment.
However, in order to enable these discussions to shift into changed behaviours for young people, it is crucial that our education system provide them with the opportunities to engage in quality, responsive, and evidence-based sexual education that supports the development of safe and healthy relationships.
* I contacted Channel Ten to ask how old main characters Debbie and Sue are supposed to be, having been 13 in the original novel and 16 in the 1981 movie. I received the perky reply: ‘…their age isn’t actually mentioned! Mysterious, right?’ Yes, it’s mysterious - and very convenient.
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