Sex education and parenting: Great sexpectations
By: Jenny Hedley
Content warning: This article discusses sexual violence and assault.
“YES means NO and NO means YES,” my six-year-old announces.
The opposites game has infected the schoolyard again. As a victim-survivor of sexual assault, my son’s lilting taunt sets me on edge. I worry about games of pretend that derail decisions around boundaries and consent.
“No never means yes,” I growl.
I embrace this as a teaching moment, and also as warning: I might control the home environment for our family of two, but at school, peer pressure rules.
To encourage healthy decision-making, I stop labelling his actions as “good” or “bad”. Instead, by describing behaviours as “expected” or “unexpected”, we reason that the opposites game leads to unexpected, possibly hurtful behaviours.
I’ve been trying to teach him bodily autonomy, but the lessons don’t always stick.
Image by: Bethany Beck
As a lactating parent, there came a time when I wanted my body back to myself. My son was two – old enough to understand that the milk bar was closed for business.
For a time after, I had to remind him to keep his paws off my breasts. My mental health demanded it, and it felt appropriate to his stage of development.
“You drank all the milk,” I’d say, making him giggle.
Defending my sense of self, as a body independent from his, paved the way for discussions of how his private parts belong exclusively to him, and how no one is allowed to touch him without his permission – not even me.
Empowering him with knowledge about his bodily autonomy helped him respect mine. Although, at the start of this year, he came home from school and said, “Today I only kicked one person, and then I decided to do expected behaviours.”
We were getting there.
I turned to Katrina Marson’s book Legitimate Sexpectations: The Power of Sex-Ed to learn how to protect my son from coercive sexual activity and to teach him not to perpetrate violence.
I was close to his age the first time I was flashed at a library and couldn’t find the words to speak up. I carried that shame into the future, along with my Sweet Valley Highs and Nancy Drews.
One of Marson’s interviewees recalled being challenged by a parent who said she couldn’t teach consent to a 13-year-old. The interviewee responded, “That’s right, you can’t. It’s about ten years too late.”
As a criminal lawyer experienced in matters of family violence and sexual assault, Marson is well-positioned to deliver findings on what is needed to combat the epidemic of gendered and sexual violence, or what author Jacqueline Rose calls “crime[s] of the deepest thoughtlessness”.
It’s clear that the deficit model of sex education, which uses scare tactics and focuses on negative health outcomes, is less effective than taking a more holistic, positive approach.
Unfortunately, there’s no national curriculum of comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in Australia.
Marson’s book assures me that I’m on track with teaching my son bodily autonomy, as well as setting limits around behaviours and teaching acceptance of all genders.
She writes that age-appropriate RSE includes learning to identify feelings and body parts, knowing what types of secrets should never be kept and how to ask for help.
I worry that my reach doesn’t extend to school, where playground banter is tinged with sexual innuendo filtered down from older students and siblings, distorted and lacking context.
Despite special interest groups using fear tactics to persuade parents that certain education programs put children at risk of being sexually indoctrinated – remember Safe Schools? – outcomes for RSE include delayed sexual onset, reduced risk of teen pregnancy and better use of contraception (according to a recent study from BMC Public Health).
Teaching sexual wellbeing encourages bodily autonomy and confidence, safe and healthy choices, and freedom from shame, guilt and sexual distress.
I look back on my own experience of sex education in the early ’90s, when the boys were shooed outside so the girls could be taught about ovulation and abstinence.
We were sent home with panty liners, pads and pamphlets describing the changes our bodies would undergo. We never learned about healthy relationships, we never learned to recognise our own desires, and we never learned how to talk about sex.
The word “sex” was not uttered in my household growing up. The first time I learned about clitoral orgasms was listening to Dr Drew’s Loveline on KIIS-FM on a boombox the size of a toaster oven. Tuning in at midnight to learn about sex and romance made it illicit.
I think it’s due to this taboo nature that I started having sex indiscriminately, hitting a triple-digit body count and still not knowing how to articulate what I wanted. I was proficient at sex but useless at talking about it.
I’d also bought into the myth that men only want one thing – meaning I was only good for one thing – and found myself in a series of abusive relationships. I couldn’t see how my unconscious assumptions had clouded my perceptions of what was acceptable behaviour.
What if I had been taught to tune into my body, not as a site of shame but as a landscape for potential pleasure? What if I didn’t have to wait until adulthood – or even parenthood – to understand domestic violence? What if, instead of scrubbing the semen off me like my rapist demanded, I knew about rape kits and DNA evidence?
Rather than pointing fingers, Marson asks us to consider society’s unconscious attitudes around power, violence and sexuality.
Although we have a clearer understanding of sexual assault post-#MeToo, Marson’s work brings nuance to the grey area of “unwanted sex” that a person engages in – for example, out of a sense of obligation, fear of rejection or peer pressure. Equally as important to arriving at “no” is understanding what an enthusiastic “yes” looks like.
If we are taught to recognise healthy desire and sexuality, we learn not to settle for scraps.
As a solo parent, I will continue to help my child learn to distinguish between expected and unexpected behaviours and to empower him with age-appropriate knowledge. However, education is a team effort, and learning is best consolidated with consistent messaging between home and school.
Sex education can, and should, begin with our younger generation – with a national curriculum designed to overcome the embarrassment factor.
Jenny Hedley’s writing appears in Admissions: Voices within Mental Health, Overland, Cordite Poetry Review, DIAGRAM, Mascara Literary Review, The Suburban Review, Verity La and SCUM Magazine and is forthcoming in TEXT and Verge. She lives on unceded Boon Wurrung land with her son.
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