I will never forget my Year 8 geography class. My teacher, a round, bearded, red-headed man who looked like a kindly satsuma, once asked us to list different types of shops. I waited until everyone had listed all the usual shops before sticking my hand up.

"Lingerereen, Sir!" My teacher stared at me. "What, sorry, Verity?" I went pink. "Um, Linger-er-een, Sir." "Sorry, what? What kind of shop is that? What do they sell?" I was fluorescent by now. "It sells..." Oh God ... "it sells..." No.... "It sells knickers." Silence. "I saw it in Cosmo," I whispered.

It took a second. Then my teacher collapsed into hysterical snorts. "Lingerie!!! It's pronounced 'lon-sha-ray'!"

And that's why you shouldn't trust Cosmo magazine.


Of course, it took much longer for me to realise that Cosmo was not the 100 per cent reliable bible for the Liberated Modern Woman. But this was the first clue.

Why am I talking about Cosmo? Because we need to talk about sex and censorship.

Last week, the New Zealand censorship review board banned Ted Dawe's young adult novel, Into The River. It was the first time in 22 years that the long arm of the literary law flexed its muscles. Why? Because of the book's supposedly graphic sex and drug-taking scenes. Apparently this, combined with the earth-shattering C-word, is going to eternally scar our delicate young flowers. Therefore the book has had an interim ban slapped on it.

My first reaction to this was to stare at the article blankly. Ban it? Really? I mean, really? Mainstream porn websites like YouPorn and RedTube offer constant, free, hard-core pornography. I've heard it's pretty popular. A recent Australian study showed that 90 per cent of boys had encountered porn before they reached 16.

Forgive the pessimism, but I don't think that banning one book is going to help.

But it's not just the fact that banning is an ineffective way to protect young readers. It's the fact that it is actually damaging the very kids that we're trying to help.

Why? Let's go back to Cosmo.

Kids who are growing up in New Zealand today get a very distorted sex education. We have school. That teaches us how to put on a condom. Oh, and that if we have unprotected sex, then we will get an STI and die. It isn't exactly a nuanced approach.


What else do we have? Girls have Cosmo. This was my largest source of sex education as I was growing up. Which, while it is good for a mature, rational woman, is not great for teenagers.

Teenagers don't need to know 15 top tricks for oral sex. They need to know what oral sex is - and whether they want to give it. Aside from Cosmo, or similar online incarnations, girls have girlfriends. Another unreliable source of information, given that they're often still at the stage when they think using tampons means you're no longer a virgin.

Guys have porn. It's hard to articulate how normal it is for teenage guys to watch porn. I grew up just assuming it was how things were. After all, 67 per cent of young men and 50 per cent of young women agree that viewing porn is acceptable, and almost 90 per cent of young men and 33 per cent of young women report using porn. If a guy had porn on his phone at school, it might have been gross. But it wasn't weird.

These sources have one thing in common - they lack a human perspective on sex. They either package sex as a fun activity or a dangerous activity. There is very little discussion of the emotional side of sex.

Do you want this? Do you like this? Do you even know what this is? Young people never get asked these questions.

And what happens is that they get a distorted sexual culture. Everyone's heard about the effect of porn on teenagers' sex lives. But what about the rest of it? There's the rise of sex as a hobby - it's the modern-day stamp collecting. And then there's virgin-shaming. That's where young women are increasingly ashamed of being a virgin if they're over ... say, 17. It's even worse for young men.

But when a great teen book finally paints a brave, emotional picture of what it's like to have meaningless sex ... we ban it? For God's sake, we've probably just ruined the best chance for young people to start sorting this mess out.

Where else are we going to learn this? We really need more teenage books that deal with teenage sexuality in a complex, emotional way. Banning books that do does not help.