Pamela Denoon Lecture 2016

Nelly Thomas
Sexual equality: negotiating a modern minefield

Pamela Denoon Lecture 2016 from Mosquito Productions Pty Ltd on Vimeo.

Thank you to Mosquito Productions for your generous contribution.

ABC Big Ideas, Radio National

In 2016 we know everything there is to know about sex. Sex is available on a screen or through hook-up apps that allow us to find sexual partners. We have school-based sex education – though not yet universal – for young people, Respectful Relationships Programs, and celebrities galore wearing White Ribbons and talking about respect for women. Prime Ministers talk about ‘gender equity’ and yet, Nelly will contend, we risk being a fraud if we don’t start modeling equality and respect. She argues we are telling young people to do one thing but model another. We’re asking them to do as we say and not as we do. Hardly seems fair.

We’ve got sexual equality right? We can do whatever we want, with whomever we want, whenever we want and it’s all fine. Germaine told us to throw off our chastity belts, Chrissy Amphlet told us we could touch ourselves and Madonna showed us how. Literally, live on television. Gone are the days of Madonna (different one) and whore. Women are sexually liberated and completely free to make healthy, positive sexual choices. We’re all much more sexually fulfilled and the negative aspects of sex have been neutralised by access to contraception, abortion and condoms. We are all thrilled. Sound accurate? Yes and no.

Before I get into the notions of sex and equality themselves, I first want to preface my remarks by addressing the notion of choice. If there’s one thing we urgently need to do as modern feminists, it’s to interrogate the notion of choice. In contemporary discussions about almost everything, choice is spoken about as both the ultimate virtue and an end in itself. To put it simply, you can win almost any argument these days by saying, “it’s my choice” or “that’s their choice” or, if you’re my mum, “fine, your choice” (which means it’s neither fine or my choice). In an age where the individual reigns supreme, limiting a person – a woman’s – choice, is sacrilegious.

Except that some women choose vagioplasty.

You know vagioplasty? That’s when you think your vagina is ugly and so you jazz it up with a bit of plastic surgery. On the one had – go for it. Your body, your choice. If you want a symmetrical vag with a cross-stich design and some diamantes, it’s none of my business. But as a feminist – or as anyone really – aren’t I compelled to ask why? Especially – and this is key – when it is pretty much only women doing it. I mean no disrespect, but if we’re talking “unusual” genitals, I’m yet to see a pair of testicles that are going to end up on the cover of Vogue. In short, I don’t care what the context, but when there’s an actual or cultural rule for one gender and not the other, my waters get unsettled.

I’ll still give you the choice.
I will not ban your vajazzling.
But I will ask why.
As a feminist, I must.

Choice and sex are interesting and complex notions. It’s important to distinguish between legal concepts of consent and choice and cultural ones. Unhelpfully, definitions of legal consent vary from state to state in Australia (and across the world) and ethical notions of choice and consent are even trickier. The Fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health by La Trobe University (the research that everyone in this field relies on) showed that “unwanted sex” is a big deal for boys and girls. Unwanted sex is sex that may not have been technically illegal, but where the person felt they hadn’t really had the choice or made a good decision. Basically, it’s the kind of sex where you’re left feeling like crap. It found that about one quarter of the 1000s of young people they surveyed had had unwanted sex. This experience applied to boys and girls but the results were gendered – many of the girls were apparently being pressured by partners for sex and a third of them reported being actually frightened. For the boys it was more peer pressure related (in some kind of intriguingly postmodern homoerotic dystopia, lots of the boys are apparently having sex with girls to please their mates).

Doesn’t sound that liberating.

Of course, it’s important to point out that the majority of young people surveyed didn’t have an experience of unwanted sex to report. Presumably they are either not having sex or they’re having wanted – very wanted – sex, but the individual, peer and perhaps cultural pressure – and in some cases outright coercion – are concerning to say the least. And that’s without considering the sexual assault and family violence stats that don’t bare repeating here.

What’s the solution? There’s many, but I think it’s pretty clear we’re not going to police or shame our way out of this situation. Frankly, policing hasn’t worked and shame should never be a health promotion tool. Instead, we must have – and I’m certainly not the first person to call for this – meaningful discussions about sex and relationships both at school and at home as minimum. At the moment there is no nationally mandated sex-ed curriculum for schools and some schools – about ten percent – offer no sex education at all. Personally, I would suggest that if a school takes a cent of public money, they should be required to offer a sex education that is designed by health professionals, is comprehensive and is based on quality research. (Hint: it won’t involve the words “just say no”).

The Equality Rights Alliance Young Women’s Advisory Group surveyed over 1000 young women last year. They found, among other things, that 76% of young women reported that they had learned nothing from their sex education classes in school that helped them deal with sex and respectful relationships. That is, 76% didn’t get the information they most wanted. There’s other research that could be quoted but suffice to say, a lot of young people are not learning what they want or need to know about sex.

And, this despite the fact that sex is ubiquitous! We are culturally schizophrenic about it! We can talk sexy – The Kardashians, Miley, Nicki, Manus – but can we actually talk about sex and sexuality in a calm, reasoned, reasonable or open way? I would say not often.

So, imagine being a young person: sex is like, the most exciting thing ever, the physical and emotional stakes are very high, your parents may or may not be talking to you about it, your sex-ed classes at school might be ok – might even be good – but it’s a very big might (and you might not get one at all) and outside of porn (which is clearly a great influence when it comes to respectful relationships!) no-one is telling you how to do it. It’s like you’re surrounded by something you’re supposed to know about and be good at – and if which you get “wrong” is a really big deal – but hardly anyone talks about it.

This whole area reminds me of so many other major societal issues that we deem too “complex”: we keep asking the same questions over and over again, not because we don’t know the answer, but because we don’t like it. If we want a society of people with healthy, happy sex lives and relationships, we NEED TO TALK ABOUT IT. All of it. Yes, pregnancy and STIs and all the stuff that traditional sex-ed focuses on, but also consent, pleasure, respect, gender equity, gender roles, porn, culture and sexual and gender diversity. What is a positive sexual experience (both inside and outside of a relationship)? Who deserves to be treated well and when (we all do, in all circumstances).

If the ridiculous blow-up over the Safe Schools Coalition Program can tell us anything it’s that the sex education space is still a minefield. The modern-day book-burners would have us believe that the world is ending and we’re all going to hell in a highly sexualised hand-basket. They make it very difficult to talk about sex and relationships in general, but also to tread that very line between warning young people of the potential dangers of sex while remaining sex-positive and living in the real world where sex is great and lots of young (and not so young people) love it. One thing is for sure though, informed consent – really informed consent – is a precondition for sexual equality and until we insist on it properly and universally, we’re part of the problem.

Nelly Thomas

Nelly Thomas is an award-winning comedian, author and health promotion ambassador. She has toured nationally and internationally and performed in over a sixteen festivals in Australia and around the world. Nelly’s first book What Women Want was published in 2012. She has made a sexual health and ethics DVD for teens, directed numerous shows (including by Maria Bamford and Stella Young) and is a regular guest on Radio National and 774 ABC Melbourne. Nelly also writes for Daily Life, The Age and The Curio.

Nelly Thomas is well known for custom shows in health promotion and social change, most notably the No Means No Show for teens and Smokes and Jokes as part of Close the Gap for Indigenous Victorians (among many others). For this work Nelly was listed in The Age Newspaper’s, The Zone as one of Australia’s “most innovative thinkers” and she was featured on ABC’s Big Ideas: The Smartest Stuff on TV, Radio and Online.

Nelly has grown two humans of her own. She was once an under-13s girls BMX champion and she longs to be on Dancing with the Stars.

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