Australian author and podcaster Yumi Stynes’ latest book has prompted an avalanche of criticism countered by equally fierce support.
Welcome to Sex has divided society over its pertinence for pre- and early-teens.
How young is too young?
There is no universal rule about when to start talking to kids about sex. A child’s life experiences, educational background, maturity level and cultural background may all be influential factors.
The timing and content of sex education tends to create anxiety for many parents and guardians, who often fear stripping children of their innocence prematurely. While this concern is understandable, it says more about adult fears than the realities of children’s lives.
Choosing to speak about sex carries risks, but so too does delaying these conversations. The digital literacy of the current generation means that if parents do not exercise some control over their child’s sexual education, their peers almost certainly will, with children as young as eight now watching pornography.
Recent research by the Australian Communication and Media Authority found that around 50 per cent of children aged 6 to 13 years either own or have access to a phone.
Smartphones enable around 2 billion potential social connections, and for children, this can mean accessing all kinds of information via a variety of social connections as well as websites, advertisements, and even gaming platforms.
Safety measures can be implemented by parents who wish to stop their children from being exposed to certain websites or types of online content. But these are stop-gap mechanisms that do not create digital safety, they merely place limits around the access children have to specific types of online content.
Aside from this, it’s also important to note that children are not more likely to engage in sexual activity because they have been educated about sex, in fact, the opposite is true.
Sex education is associated with a delay in sexual activity and has been found to increase the chances of adolescents and teenagers engaging in safe sexual practices when they do become sexually active.
The pros and cons of starting discussions early
One of the arguments against Welcome to Sex is that it is not protecting children from learning about sex through pornography, but rather, that the book itself is a form of pornography.
The book contains images of sex acts that might be confronting for some, though possibly more for adults than for children and teenagers. What it does not contain are violent depictions of sex, misogyny, nor condoning of dangerous sexual practices.
How we teach sex education may be what matters the most. Poorly framed and delivered sex education that creates fear, anxiety and shame can be harmful at any age, but may have greater negative consequences for younger children than older children who possess more advanced reasoning abilities.
Sex positivity has also had a defining effect on the current generation – Gen Z are talking about sex far more openly than previous generations did.
Among older generations, there is still a sense that talking about sex is undignified, especially for women.
These social shifts are changing our attitudes towards sex, expanding our understanding of sexual health, and increasing our sexual literacy, which is positive, particularly for young girls.
Sex education’s role in safe relationships
Sex education is a widely overlooked part of building a social culture that challenges domestic violence.
Parents may fear that discussing domestic violence with their children may heighten the risks of them either perpetrating it or experiencing it, but in reality research suggests the opposite is true.
To target this through sex education, programs and books need to address not just healthy sexuality but healthy relationships.
Coercive control, for example, has its roots in patriarchal contradictions that are especially pronounced in the context of sexuality, where male expressions of sexuality are treated as an extension of masculinity, and female expressions of sexuality are treated as a threat to femininity.
Unfortunately, traumatic early sexual experiences are often normalised, such that it is accepted and even anticipated that sex will be a “traumatic” experience for teenagers having sex for the first time.
Welcome to Sex simultaneously acknowledges and challenges this issue in an important way.
While it is normal for early sexual encounters to be awkward, uncomfortable, even embarrassing, what is not normal is for such encounters to be fear-inducing, distressing, or unsafe.
Welcome to Sex challenges sexual practices and others? that can be harmful to all genders, including violent pornography and virginity-equals-purity narratives that single out girls but not boys, while the text also outlines some reasons not to have sex.
Helping lead scary, but necessary conversations
Sometimes we avoid the topic because we don’t know how to talk about it – so we don’t talk about it at all.
What the controversy about this book really speaks to is the fight for innocence. It seems detractors and fans of the book alike are concerned about the same thing – the wellbeing and safety of teenagers.
One group sees this as achieved by protecting them from sex education and the other sees this as achieved by providing them with sex education.
Ultimately sex education needs to prioritise the needs of the children and teens, not the reactions of adults delivering the education. And as adults, we can learn a lot about what children need by simply listening to them before engaging in conversations about sex.