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A lot more to learn than where babies come from

By Nina Funnell - posted Thursday, 20 August 2009

As a youngster, my favourite book was Where Did I Come From? At age four I had developed a reputation for sidling up to unsuspecting adults, handing them a copy of the book, and asking them to read it to me. A sex-education aid targeted at children, the illustrated book doubles as a highly effective tool for embarrassing shy babysitters and elderly relatives.

By age six the novelty of the stunt had worn off but I had learnt an important lesson: sex was something taboo that children were not supposed to talk about.

I have other childhood memories of learning about sex. I remember pre-teen friends and myself poring over library books filled with medical diagrams of naked men and women. I remember sitting at the back of the school bus reading out Dolly Doctor columns to tittering teenage friends. I recall being shocked, and a little curious, when first shown a porno magazine that belonged to a schoolmate's dad.


Like most children of my generation, sex was something that I learnt about in the company of my peers through the limited resources that we could get our hands on. By the time I reached 15 and was formally introduced to sex education, I had already figured out the facts of life.

These days children are learning about sex earlier and earlier due, in part, to the internet. But gaining a sex education and gaining a sexual ethic are two wildly different things.

According to Professor Moira Carmody, the author of Sex & Ethics: Young People and Ethical Sex, teenagers receive a lot of biological ''plumbing'' information about pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and other risks associated with sexual activity.

But teenagers receive very limited information on sexual ethics, including matters such as how to negotiate consent, how to be aware and considerate of other people's needs in sexual exchanges, and how intimacy functions in relation to sex.

Similarly, while teenagers receive some information on how to negotiate the sex that they do not want to have (the old ''Just say no'' line), they receive virtually no guidance on how to communicate about and negotiate the sex that they do want to have.

No doubt there are many adults who would prefer that teens did not have sex at all. Then again, there are also plenty of teens who would prefer that their parents - and anyone over 60 - did not have sex. Ever.


Clearly, willing something does not always make it so.

The problem is that many adults who believe that teens should not have sex also believe the best way to prevent teens having sex is to deny them the educative tools that they need in order to have ethical, safe sex. This has resulted in serious problems. Aside from teens practising unsafe sex, teen attitudes towards sexual matters leave a lot to be desired.

Last year a study commissioned by the White Ribbon Foundation reported that one in seven teenage boys believed it was permissible to hold a girl down and force her to have sex if she had flirted or ''led the boy on''. Even more concerning, the study also reported that one in three year 10 girls had been pressured, forced or coerced into unwanted sex. Legally, this meets the definition of sexual assault.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on August 8, 2009.

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About the Author

Nina Funnell is a freelance opinion writer and a researcher in the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. In the past she has had work published in the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age, The Brisbane Times and in the Sydney Star Observer. Nina often writes on gender and sexuality related issues and also sits on the management committee of the NSW Rape Crisis Centre.

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