We can’t afford to be shy about sex education – or porn will fill in the gaps

Article by Ruby Schwartz  /
Sydney Morning Herald  /
August 1, 2017  /
Click here to view original  /

When I was at school, sex education was pretty much non-existent. I graduated in 2010, and the main things I came away with, in order of how they were prioritised included: how not to get pregnant, how not to get an STI, and how to distinguish between mine and my male counterparts “private bits”.

Seven years later, not much has changed. While some schools provide open and honest sexual education emphasising consent and respect, many others teach only anatomy and safety, or avoid the topic altogether. The ongoing prevalence of sexual assault is proof that a biological approach to sex education isn’t cutting it.

So, I was happy to see a recent article in Teen Vogue titled: “Anal sex: what you need to know”. The article’s author, sex educator Gigi Engle described the piece as “anal 101 for teens, beginners, and all inquisitive folk”, emphasising ideas around consent and pleasure in a gender non-binary way.

Unsurprisingly however, the article received loads of criticism online. On Twitter, many parents expressed their disgust and outrage that kids would be exposed to such “garbage”, with one woman going as far as to post a video of her burning the copy of Teen Vogue with the hashtag #PullTeenVogue.

This response shows a complete and utter lack of understanding about the sexual lives and experiences of children and teens today.

Gone are the days of hiding Playboy under the bed, and of tearing open the sealed section of Dolly magazine to read about period mishaps. Today, pornography is easily accessible, for everyone.

A 2013 UK study revealed the average age of first exposure to internet pornography is 11, and the Royal Australian College of Physicians submitted that one study found 28 per cent of 9-16-year-olds had seen sexual material online and 73 per cent of 15-16-year-olds.

This means that many children may first come to view and learn about sex through pornography, of which a large majority includes verbal and physical aggression towards women.

In fact, according to one British study, 100 per cent of 15-year-old males and 80 per cent of 15-year-old females surveyed reported that they had been “exposed to violent, degrading online pornography, usually before they have had a sexual experience themselves”.

It’s therefore no surprise that we are seeing increased rates of sexual assault among young people. Australian Bureau of Statistics data showed the number of young people under 20 who had committed sexual assaults had increased by more than 20 per cent from 2008-09 to 2013-14.

While Australian universities are now taking steps to “prevent and address sexual assault and harassment” through their Respect. Now. Always campaign, it’s too little too late.

We spend years protecting children in arguably the most formative time of their life from the reality of sexual relations, and then hope a few “no means no” campaigns and safe sex tips will influence the behaviour of 18-year-olds.

Everyone needs to be taught messages about sexual consent, pleasure and respect from a young age. As University of Melbourne lecturer in gender and politics Dr Lauren Rosewarne noted, “Ten is the average age now of seeing porn for the first time, so if that’s the case, we need to start sex education at nine”.

The Luke Lazarus case is a shocking illustration of how important it is that young people receive a thorough education about sexual activity and consent.

Lazarus was initially convicted of anally raping an 18-year-old woman outside his father’s nightclub in 2013. He served 11 months of a three-year sentence before he was recently acquitted on retrial. The judge concluded that Lazarus had reason to believe the complainant was “consenting to penile anal intercourse”, even though the judge accepted the complainant did not believe she was consenting.

While disappointing decisions like these are made all too often, I still found myself surprised by the outcome. Despite the fact that the complainant had drunk alcohol, was a virgin, did not give consent and was anally penetrated in an alley, the judge still found that Lazarus had reasonable grounds to believe the complainant was consenting.

How can we expect these outcomes to change when there is so little education around sexual consent and pleasure?

And it’s not just cases like these and the aforementioned statistics that put forward a strong case for a radical rethink of our sexual education system. A report published last year found that students themselves are beginning to think more deeply about their sex education, and believe these classes need to be more than just a biology lesson.

“Students were interested in more than the biology of sex or the usual rundown on safe sex practices; they wanted to know about love, starting a relationship, gender diversity, breaking up, violence in relationships, sexual pleasure and a range of other topics,” the report stated.

And as part of this, young people need to be taught not only how to refuse consent, but also how to ask for it, and how to recognise when they do or don’t have it. And this needs to involve discussions not only around verbal consent, but other forms of consent, such as through body language.

While this kind of information is not being disseminated at schools, there have to be other avenues for children and teens to access sexual education that is not confined to learning about biology and ways to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

While you may think that a step-by-step guide to anal sex is taking it too far, the overarching lessons Gigi Engle’s Teen Vogue article imparts fill in crucial gaps typically ignored in sex education.

First and foremost, the article emphasises the importance of dialogue and “enthusiastic consent” before engaging in any sexual activity, noting, “consent is necessary for both parties to enjoy the experience”.

The article also describes how to have anal sex safely and pleasurably, i.e. not in an alleyway, while drunk, outside a nightclub. Engle writes that you need to “start slowly” and use lubricant for “comfortable (and safe) anal sex”. And throughout, the author employs language inclusive of transgender, intersex and non-binary people.

In doing so, this article not only educates young people on what they have explicitly expressed interest in understanding, but also offers an educational perspective on sex which is otherwise absent in their lives.

And while many schools continue to offer archaic sexual education programs, I can only hope Teen Vogue produces more articles like this, giving children and teens a better understanding of sex outside of what they learn through pornography.