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Children and sexuality education: kept on a strictly 'need to know' basis?

By Rose Cooper - posted Wednesday, 22 October 2003

An exasperated 11-year-old boy holds a small square of cardboard aloft and asks, "does anyone know what the clitoris is?" He is frustrated and impatient. His group has been assigned the difficult task of piecing together a puzzle representing female genitalia, and this poor kid appears to be the one holding the short straw.

This presumably "absurd" slice of life was one of the snippets used to promote an episode of 60 Minutes earlier this year. The media's interest in the topic flared up, due to the release of findings of a study of Sex in Australia conducted by Latrobe University. Although there were many fascinating and occasionally disconcerting findings in this comprehensive study of Australian sexual peccadilloes, the main focus has been centred on the statistic that indicated, rather unsurprisingly, that the average age of first sexual activity has dropped from 18 to 16 in the past 50 years. According to the study, it was this finding in particular, that "highlighted the need for improved sex education in our schools". (By the way, how did this screamingly obvious tidbit of info become "news"?) Nevertheless the great sex-ed debate has been back on the table ever since.

While the ensuing 60 Minutes story presented a fairly convincing argument for a more comprehensive and extensive sex education curriculum in schools, another far more compelling finding from the study has remained ignored - till now.


Consider this. All respondents to the survey were aged between 16 and 59 - so a lot of the information given is retrospective - i.e.: old news. Of the 9000 women surveyed, 21 per cent said they had experienced being "forced or frightened into unwanted sexual activity". Half of these incidents occurred at the age of 16 or younger. Of course, sexual coercion happens to young males as well but a significantly lower proportion (2.8 per cent of those surveyed). More compelling still was the revelation that few victims had talked about the experience to others and even fewer to a counsellor. One wonders, then, how many of those surveyed didn't fess up at all.

No one who has ever attempted to speak publicly about sex would be surprised by this statistic. Ridiculous as it seems (considering our society's fixation with all things raunchy) many adults still cringe with ridiculously hypocritical, false embarrassment when discussing even the most straightforward sexual practices - let alone discussing the experiences which are decidedly less pleasant.

Then there are the so-called experts. During the 60 Minutes story, the editor of Dolly Magazine - a tome that prides itself on being responsibly unabashed about such matters - was completely unable to move her lips in answer to the question "what sort of unusual sex practices do teenagers write to you about?" This fully grown, supposedly intelligent woman, who represents a towering font of carnal wisdom to thousands of other people's children, could not utter one single syllable. She was completely stupefied with embarrassment.


When those of us with the privilege and opportunity to speak up on behalf of others can't bring ourselves to even open our mouths - what hope in hell do our children honestly have of developing responsible and healthy attitudes?

And doesn't this predominantly coy attitude continue to make the world a rather convenient, nay, idyllic place for perpetrators of sexual offences to reside in?


It's time for parents to wake up and be more realistic. Everyone's so het up about the supposedly hideous moral implications of two 10 year olds playing doctor - and the horrible threat this poses to their "innocence" that they keep overlooking one irrefutable fact: paedophiles have a vested interest in the ignorance and innocence of children. Every day, in so many ways, society gleefully plays right into their hands.

Whenever the subject of sex education is raised - the same asinine question is always asked: How young is too young to start talking about it?

Are we all in the grip of an amnesia epidemic? Doesn't anyone honestly remember those first, confusing feelings of sexual arousal? Those scary, oddly compelling feelings that pounce, unbidden and unexpected, can and do start happening very, very early on.

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About the Author

Rose Cooper is a freelance writer and actor who has contributed to many national publications over the past 20 years. She was Australian Women's Forum Magazine's most prolific contributor as well as their Sex Advice Columnist. Her areas of expertise include comedy, women's health and sexuality issues, relationships, theatre and pop culture. For more of Rose's articles visit:

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