Saturday, 23 November 2013

Let's Change how we Talk about Sex!

A little while ago one of my favorite YouTubers, Hannah Witton, alerted me to a new international sex education campaign called Someone Like Me. It’s run by Durex and it’s based around the idea that by encouraging people to talk more freely and honestly about sex we can start to chip away at the stigmas that surround sex, and particularly the issue of HIV. The people at Someone Like Me want to create a world without HIV.
            They’ve already recruited a lot of people, who are making video blogs to tell their own stories and share their opinions about sex. There’s a really great diversity of people on there: people having sex, people not having sex, gay people, people with HIV, people from Britain and Mexico and Australia and South Africa. They’re all young and they’re all very upfront and undramatic about their experiences. They have a documentary coming out in a few weeks that deals with the same sort of stuff.
This kind of work is highly important, particularly in New Zealand and other countries whose youth’s sexual culture is characterized by sexism, rape tolerance, empty bravado and shaming teenagers who don’t have sex and/or who fit into a sexual minority. In the weeks since the roast busters scandal was announced, there has been an explosion of discussion about where New Zealand’s sex education schemes are failing, and debate about how to fix them. But even as this is occurring, honest attempts to improve our sex education are being rejected by conservative organizations and politicians. Recently Family Planning released a new educational resource designed for use with children in school years 1-4, which focuses on developing the skills to express ideas, needs, wants and feelings, and listen to those of others, exploring gender identity, and understanding ways to care for the body[1]. It has been slammed by Family Life (a christian organization who offer what they call ‘biblical solutions’ to the problems of unsuccessful marriages, unwanted pregnancies, etc.), whose members claim it represents an effort to desensitize children to sex, despite the fact that no discussion of sexual acts, reproduction, pregnancy or contraception is included[2].
In a radio segment aimed to investigate these conflicting ideas about sexuality education, Megan Whelan from Radio New Zealand National asked some teenage boys about the kinds of things they learn about in school[3]. They said it was true there wasn’t much focus on ethics, but ‘any normal human’ should be able to distinguish between consensual sex and rape anyway. Then again, ‘you still do dumb shit when you’re drunk’. Educators quoted on the show agree with Family Life that parents should be actively involved in teaching their children and teenagers about how to have sex responsibly and respectfully, and worry that teenagers are getting most of their sexuality education from popular culture and pornography. They say that when you’re the lone voice trying to advocate responsibility to a group of giggling teenagers, it’s not easy to get the message across.
My own sexuality education is an increasingly distant memory, but I do remember the giggling. I remember not taking it seriously because we had to do things like relays to see who could put a condom on a banana fastest (not a very effective strategy for teaching conscientious condom usage, I now realize) and listing the ideal characteristics of our perfect partner, which I thought were pretty much a waste of time. According to Megan Whalen these strategies are still in place, and I still feel they’re setting educators up for a hard time when they try to turn to the topics of sexual consent and rape, which can only be treated seriously, especially with the knowledge that statistically it’s likely there’s at least a couple of victims of sexual violence or abuse sitting in the class already. On the other hand, I do sympathize with the teachers trying to deal with these topics, because I know from my own teaching experiences that there are some students who will derail whatever you try to do, and with sex ed already established as a joke by the time kids get to high school, it must be a real struggle to pull them back around.
Family Life believe the responsibility for sexual education lies solely within the family, and consequentially they view any attempt at school-based sex education as a stripping of parents’ power. Their primary proposal is that any sexuality education that does take place through schools and other educational institutes should be based within a framework of abstinence until marriage, which of course has been repeatedly proven to fail. But as the sex education used in schools is clearly not as successful as it needs to be either, there clearly needs to be more of a unified effort to teach teenagers the values and knowledge they need to have safe and respectful sexual relationships. Someone Like Me represents one of the best ways for that to occur: peer education.
Since teenagers are already learning so much of what they know about sex from their peers, it makes total sense to increase the visibility of young people who are able to talk about sex without being squeamish or judgmental. For it to work, the topic has to be stripped of all the stigmas and bravado that so often keep the conversation from progressing. The current teenage culture which views sex as a kind of conquest, and allows for female friends of the roast busters to contend that most of the awful crimes they claimed to have committed were actually just empty boasting, needs to be directly addressed in our sexuality education, but it can also be gradually dismantled through the development of alternative means of talking about sex.
The main thing, I think, is that it should be something we feel allowed to talk about if we want to. Even with my own progressive and fairly open stance on sexuality, I usually feel the only person I can really talk to about my sex life is my partner, and I think that’s a problem that a lot of people share. By talking about sex as a normal and positive part of their lives, the people involved in Someone Like Me demonstrate that it is possible to get over that feeling. A part of the problem with teenage sexual culture right now results from the fact that there aren’t enough people having these normal conversations about sex, and the idea of sex itself is somehow mystified into this thing everyone experiences but no one really discusses. It’s kind of like it’s not a part of real life. And when you think of it that way, it’s not so hard to imagine how teenagers go into their first sexual encounters with their heads filled up with unrealistic depictions of sex from TV and porn (which almost never include verbal exchanges of sexual consent).
I emailed the people at Someone Like Me saying I was interested in getting involved, and a few days later they sent back a message saying that they are currently in the process of reviewing their applications and they’ll be forming the 2014 Global Crew in January. So hopefully I’ll be able to put my words into action fairly soon! I hope this blog is inspiring the same kind of ideas that their campaign is promoting, at least for a few readers. Please share it with people you think it would benefit.
Oh and follow me on twitter guys! The button’s on the side. :)

[1] “Sexuality Education Years 1 to 4 – Resource Content.” Accessed 24 Nov, 2013.
[2] “Sexuality Education for Years One to Four.” Accessed 24 Nov, 2013.
[3] Radio show. Can’t be bothered looking up how to cite it. Here’s the link.


  1. Someone Like Me seems to be a great idea. It utilizes social media as a vehicle to try and encourage the kids to be more accepting about the value of sex and reproductive health. I personally think that the problem with our failing reproductive health is the refusal of parents to talk about it and treat sex as a taboo topic, that kids even get squeamish when sex ed is introduced. We need a more clinical approach towards it, even at home, so that kids can listen properly and therefore make informed choices in the future.
    Vesta Duvall

    1. Hey, thanks for reading!

      You're totally right about the issue of tabboo. I don't think the approach to sex ed necessarily has to be clinical per se, although that's one way to do it - I think it's best to think and talk about it the way we would any other aspect of our lives. There also needs to be more focus on the ethical issues of sex and relationships (which tend to be upsettingly absent from our sex ed in NZ).