Rosie Dawson-Hewes: Sex talk must go all the way

By Rosie Dawson-Hewes

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Teaching our kids that sex is more than just a physical act, that it should come from a place of caring and consent, should absolutely be essential to sex education in this country. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Teaching our kids that sex is more than just a physical act, that it should come from a place of caring and consent, should absolutely be essential to sex education in this country. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Let's talk about sex. Four words guaranteed to make fear shiver down the spine of any teenager when uttered by an adult. But it doesn't have to be that way, something a new approach to sex education in Australia is hoping to achieve.

As a teenager, sex education at my girls-only Catholic high school consisted of a biology lesson crossed with abstinence and what can only be described as sheer fear-mongering.
Rosie Dawson-Hewes

Melbourne's The Age newspaper reported last week that the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University has created a new programme for schools that tackles issues of pleasure, consent, gender and relationships in a way that will hopefully teach the next generation more about the complexities of the landscape of sex and relationships than I was.

As a teenager, sex education at my girls-only Catholic high school consisted of a biology lesson crossed with abstinence and what can only be described as sheer fear-mongering, all taught under the guise of a religious education class. I will never forget the graphic video about abortions we were forced to watch - it was not one anyone should ever be submitted to, let alone impressionable teenage girls.

With absolutely no mention of contraception, or even consent, the message was dangerously clear - quite simply, do not have sex until you are married. And yet my school still had one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the region.

By the time I was at university, it had improved a little. I spent time as a 20-year-old going into high schools across Wellington to talk to Year 10 and 11 students about the importance of responsible decision-making, how to deal with peer pressure and how the way sex is represented in television and porn films isn't realistic. If you ever want to master public speaking for all time, try standing in front of 30 15-year-old boys and talking to them about sex and pornography. Your next board meeting will be a piece of cake, I promise!

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But looking back, even that didn't really go far enough.

Teenagers these days are sending nude selfies. A piecemeal approach to sex education is no longer an option. We need to tackle all aspects of it, no matter how taboo. Otherwise they'll take what you've taught them and piece the rest together from whatever sources they can find - friends, porn, the internet. And those sources aren't always accurate.

Don't get me wrong, it is definitely worthwhile teaching kids how to consider the potential repercussions of their actions before they decide to do something, but when it comes to sex, there's so much more to it than consequences like sexually transmitted infections or an unwanted pregnancy. Sex education expert Jenny Walsh told The Age that talking about sexual desire empowers young people to know what they want out of sex and relationships.

"The first step in encouraging people to make happier choices is to acknowledge that enjoying sex is a lovely part of being human ... if we don't do this, then young people are more likely to put up with less-than-satisfactory experiences."

I couldn't agree more. We need to teach our kids to take ownership of their pleasure, of when and how they are physically satisfied. If we teach our kids that they can enjoy it on their own, they won't go looking to others for that affirmation of their self-worth. If they don't need someone else to make them feel good, then they'll only involve someone else if they actually, genuinely want that person involved.

If our teens know they can satisfy their physical needs themselves, in a safe environment, then their relationships with others become about meeting other, more substantial, needs. They'll realise there's more to it than simply getting your kit off.

The way I see it, teaching our kids that sex is more than just a physical act, that it should come from a place of caring and consent, should absolutely be essential to sex education in this country.

That way, even if we're still teaching them to wait till they're married, or whatever suits your moral compass, when they do become sexually involved, we know it will be from a place of respect - for both themselves and their partner. They won't say yes to anything they're not comfortable with. We'll have a generation of Kiwis who not only have a good sense of their own self-worth, but also respect others. And what could be a healthier lesson than that?

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