Welcome to Sex: Your no-silly-questions guide to sexuality, pleasure and figuring it out describes itself as a “frank, age-appropriate introductory guide to sex and sexuality for teens of all genders ... inclusive, reassuring and all about keeping sex fun, real, and shame-free”.
The book has become the latest target for right-wing campaigners obsessed with children’s sexuality. To give you a sense of the content, topics covered include: “What is sex?”, “Parents and carers and awkward conversation”, “Getting intimate with myself”, “Orgasms”, “Labels: sexual and gender identities”, “What the outside world is telling us about sex” and “Reasons to not have sex”.
The tone is very much fun/cool aunty. The introduction encourages young people to “feel good about who you are”. As well as content addressed directly to young readers, quotes from qualitative research and “experts” in the field of sex education offer reassurance to adult readers that this is all evidence-based content.
Welcome to Sex is a useful contribution to comprehensive sex education, but the debate it has sparked demonstrates the need for a more combative approach to the conservative right. We should absolutely be talking about pleasure, consent and communication. If we don’t produce books, teach it in schools or talk to our children about sex, there are plenty of places where they will learn terrible lessons. The most significant of these is the increasingly violent world of pornography.
But if we want to win this battle, we must go beyond small-l liberal appeals to “scientific” research. Since the mid-1970s, more than 1,000 sex education books for young people have been published in English. The debates about what is “appropriate” are not going to go away just because the evidence suggests they should.
Welcome to Sex came under attack from the usual right-wing media outlets such as 2GB radio “shock jock” Ben Fordham, who did a punchy segment, News Corp, which ran sensationalist stories, and an army of online creeps were stirred into action. Sky News then reported random online comments describing Welcome to Sex as a “sick sexual book”.
Rachael Wong, CEO of “Woman’s Forum Australia”, did the rounds positioning herself as a defender of children. Wong, a regular contributor to the Australian edition of the right-wing magazine Spectator, last year defended transphobic Liberal candidate Katherine Deves and described abortion as not being “in the best interests of women”.
As a result of their campaigning, Welcome to Sex was removed from the shelves of retailer Big W and co-author Yumi Stynes received death threats. The book subsequently hit the top of the Amazon Australia bestseller list. You know what they say about publicity.
After being targeted by a sustained media campaign for my work leading Safe Schools, a program aimed at supporting gender and sexual diversity in education, the media discussion of the controversy surrounding Welcome to Sex is very familiar.
In 2016, News Corp, conservatives in the Liberal Party and online trolls published hundreds of homophobic and transphobic articles to try to stop teachers being nice to gay and trans students. Campaigners against Welcome to Sex have used all the same talking points of the misogynist right, including the nebulous idea of “gender ideology” and whipping up fear about grooming and paedophilia.
In response, appeals to evidence have been presented in defence of the book, just as they were raised in defence of Safe Schools—as if a lack of scientific rationality in educational materials is the main animator of the political right.
Yumi Stynes told the Sydney Morning Herald: “We really have a lot of credentials”. But an array of supportive doctors and professors are generally of zero interest to those on the right, unless of course they peddle conservative ideas.
The research on the benefits of sexuality education has been clear and unequivocal for decades. Emma Whatman from the University of Melbourne, summed it up in a piece in the Conversation: “Comprehensive and inclusive sex education that begins at a young age can prevent child sex abuse, decrease rates of domestic violence and intimate partner violence, and reduce homophobic bullying”.
Conservative campaigners couldn’t care less about this. They engage in moralising to generate emotional responses. During her 2GB interview, for example, Wong told Fordham that she “felt physically ill at the thought” of children reading Welcome to Sex. There were no references to research on child sexuality, the impact of sex education, or links between sexual knowledge and grooming.
For the right, the main aim is to whip up fear and disgust. This is why conservatives will always highlight what they consider to be the most shocking elements of sex education programs. The page of Welcome to Sex featured in most of the critical media shows an illustration of two naked people in a “scissoring position”. Shock horror!
Crucially, the right-wing campaigners are backed by personalities in the media and mainstream politicians who want only heteronormativity, “family values” and pro-capitalist ideas promoted. Who has time to worry about climate change or the cost of living when there are predatory cultural Marxists influencing your children?
That is why, when defending sexuality education, we need to go further than just pointing out the health and social benefits. We need to understand that the right is not interested in the welfare of children; its main concern is to create a moral panic to build a reactionary political movement.
We need to push back against the political right at every opportunity and, ultimately, reshape the system that operates to oppress our genders and sexualities.