Full disclosure: I have not (yet) read Yumi Stynes’ and Dr Melissa Kang’s book, Welcome To Sex. Nor, I strongly suspect, have pretty much any of the offenderati currently calling for its cancellation. Unlike them, however, I’m all for books like this and while unfamiliar with this particular volume, I know what it’s like to be an author at the centre of a sex ed shitstorm.
My book, The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made, had been on Kmart and Big W shelves for three years when, in 2018, someone took umbrage at what they deemed an inappropriate illustration (an educational picture of a man and woman having sexual intercourse), took a photo of the offending illo then took to Facebook to express their outrage. A small debate involving about eight people (half for, half against) ensued. It would have gone nowhere were it not for an eagle-eyed Daily Mail employee who saw this as clickbait gold and over several days ran a bunch of increasingly fevered stories (with the photo from Facebook) about how this “GRAPHIC” and “CONTROVERSIAL” book “HAS PARENTS DIVIDED”.
Sex sells but hooo boy, so does a sex ed scandal. Over the next few weeks, the story was picked up by publications across the world – “Kids’ Sex Education Book SLAMMED for X-rated Images and Descriptions” (UK’s Daily Star), “Graphic Sex Ed Book For Five Year Olds Sparks Fierce Debate Among Parents” (Leicester Mercury), and even made it to the popular US medical show, The Doctors. All this despite the book only being available in Australia and New Zealand.
While my book is aimed at younger children I share Stynes’ and Kang’s philosophy of an open, honest, factual and sometimes funny approach to sex education. Like Stynes and Kang, I read a lot about how children absorb and interpret this kind of information and how different it is to what opponents of sex education believe.
Teaching a child about sex is not teaching them to be sexual. It just doesn’t work that way. Children learn at the level that is appropriate to their understanding. A five or ten-year-old doesn’t suddenly think “that looks fun, I’ll give that a go”. They know it’s something for adults. With teenagers it’s slightly different. Puberty makes issues of sex and sexuality hard to avoid and young people will seek out information but again, they will learn at their own level of understanding and experience.
Children and teenagers are curious. If parents and carers (or the books they buy) don’t teach them, then there’s a way less healthy education available on the internet. Pornography is incredibly easy to access and if kids feel that sex is a taboo subject, they’ll seek it out. As they get older, they’ll most likely look there anyway, and often before they’ve even had their first kiss. As Stynes has pointed out, this is an incredibly toxic and misleading way to learn about sexual activity and what is expected (especially of females) in a sexual relationship. I’m not anti-pornography but like Stynes, I’m totally anti-pornography-as-sex-education.
Opponents believe that honest and comprehensive sex education makes children and young people vulnerable, but the opposite is true. It’s empowering to know the proper names for genitalia and to understand puberty, sex and sexuality. In places where such education is denied, sexual experimentation doesn’t stop, and rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are much higher.
Children denied sex ed are also more vulnerable to predators as they don’t understand what is happening. This week on ABC Radio in Canberra, a listener texted in to share a situation in which a child had asked what rape was, only to be told that she was too young to know. She wasn’t too young – it was happening to her. Had she understood what sexual intercourse was and what was appropriate, she would still have probably not known what the word “rape” meant but she would have known that what the adult was doing to her was wrong.
In response to those who cry “groomer”, ABC journalist Shalailah Medhora put it perfectly in a tweet on Friday:
Back in 2018, those engaged in the culture wars were not yet hurling the word “groomer” as a weapon, nor the term “gender ideology”. That these terms are now central to the anti-Stynes Kang brigade is a cause for concern. They’re imported from America, cluster bombs of faux concern mixed with of Q-Anon conspiracy. They have been used to ban books in the US and shut down Drag Queen story hour in Victoria. Scarily, the tactics are working.
I was lucky – my shitstorm blew over and my book didn’t get taken off the shelves. With Big W as Australia’s biggest bookseller (sad but true), it’s a huge blow to an author and publisher to have your work removed from sale. On the bright side, this publicity has rocketed Welcome To Sex on to the bestseller list, which shows that there’s still a market for honest, frank sex education. Now I’ve just got to go to my local independent bookseller and get a copy for myself.
Fiona Katauskas is a Guardian Australia cartoonist and author and illustrator of The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made (Harper Collins 2015)
In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831, and adult survivors can contact Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380. In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331. In the US, call or text the Childhelp abuse hotline on 800-422-4453. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International