Many would have been surprised on Monday night when an ABC Four Corners episode reported that for some schools in Australia, their form of sex education included placing a piece of sticky tape on different surfaces around the classroom. An inspection of the tape after the experiment concluded that it had picked up dirt along the way; and it was no longer able to “stick” or “bond” with anything (anyone) any more. The schools have denied teaching misinformation and said they complied with the New South Wales curriculum.
Unfortunately, I was not surprised hearing these allegations as I’ve heard the same before. It would be nice to believe these lessons were limited to the four schools under investigation, but also seriously ignorant.
On Tuesday someone shared with me another disturbing teaching method they had witnessed when they were volunteering at a retreat day. The “sex educator” glued a pink and a blue piece of paper together and then ripped the pink away from the blue. The pink paper was left with holes in it; and small pink pieces were stuck to the blue paper. With enough gluing and ripping, explained the instructor, the pink paper would shred entirely.
When we consider that these lessons are being taught to children in schools, how can we be surprised that teens see sex as something that is an accomplishment for a boy, and is an embarrassment for a girl? How can we be surprised that young boys rape their peers for the social status?
We may as well replace the term “notch on your belt” with “pink paper on your blue paper”. These harmful constructs frame sex as a shameful act for women and girls and places boys and men in the role of having to convince or hoodwink them.
This framework, endemic across cultures and religions for thousands of years, is called purity culture. There may not be arts and crafts involved, but this discourse tends to permeate many Australian households, as we chant that “boys only want one thing” and that it’s a girl’s responsibility to not “give in”.
By positioning sex as a shameful act, purity culture ignores teenage girls’ own sexual desires and instead makes them pawns in a system seeking to “corrupt” them. It’s hard to shake this taught shame, and it often stays with a person throughout womanhood.
This is deeply problematic, and dangerous for women. On a basic level, it propagates the idea that a male’s pleasure should be centred during sex. On a deeper and more insidious level, it leaves girls exceptionally vulnerable to sexual assault.
By teaching girls that sex is always meant to be unpleasant and an act of capitulation, we make it harder for them to distinguish between consensual and non-consensual situations.
Indeed, this idea of sex as capitulation is a fundamental of rape culture, in which sex is something that a man takes from a woman. This narrative was clear from the pink and blue paper exercise: if a boy can convince a girl to have sex with him, he is left with more, and she with less. All ideas of healthy intimacy and mutual respect are disregarded when we view sex in this way, and it dehumanises girls and women as we place the value on their existence by a measure of their “purity”.
Instead, consent should be at the centre of teachings on sex. A recent survey in Australia found that 60% of students aged 14 to 18 are sexually active (defined by engaging in oral, vaginal or anal sex). If we are educating for the purpose of safety, then the central concern should not be whether students are engaging with sex at all, but rather whether they are practising consensual sex.
The current state of sexuality and consent education in Australia has meant that 40% of students aged 14-18 have experienced “unwanted sex”. This statistic is worthy of declaring a national crisis.
Ironically, not only is our current method of sex education unhelpful, but it is also actively making the problem worse. Regardless of an updated national curriculum on consent and respectful relationships, the reality of Australia’s sex education practices in classrooms uphold harmful ideas about sex. They too often promote a culture of shame that makes it even harder for affected students to come forward or seek help.
Countless people told me that the Teach Us Consent campaign, where I called for testimonies of sexual assault in Australian high schools, was the first time they had ever spoken about their experience of rape due to the embarrassment surrounding the experience.
If we are to fix the problem, we have to understand the truth at the centre of purity culture: In any community where sexual purity is an ideal, there will be fewer social repercussions for teenage boys who rape than for teenage girls who have consensual sexual interactions with different people.
Sex cannot continue to be a source of shame. Violations of consent should be.
• Chanel Contos is the Founder of Teach Us Consent. She is on the BBC’s list of 100 influential and inspiring women of 2022 and her book on consent will be published by Pan MacMillan in 2023