NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Why is it so tricky to talk about sex education?

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...

History is replete with attempts to control and limit our expression of sexuality, and yet I have always found it bizarre that something seemingly so normal, something we all do, something as a species we rely on for our very survival, should be so problematic.

Psychotherapists have been interested in sex since Freud, largely because the sex drive is one of the strongest instincts we possess, and it therefore motivates a lot of our behaviours.

Of course in Freud’s day, almost everything about sex was taboo, including talking about it in public.

The modern world is no less strange. On the one hand, internet pornography has made access to sexual imagery easier than ever before, yet on the other hand we’re still arguing about whether we should be talking to young people about sex in schools.

Unfortunately there are still those who advocate for repression of sexuality, believing the best way to protect young people from the “dangers” of sex is to not talk about it.

Or they recommend “leaving it to the family”, which really means “make someone else do it”.

What makes sex dangerous though, is lack of knowledge. Not about sex but about relationships, respect, and consent.

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Repression works as a way to keep unwanted, embarrassing or unacceptable thoughts and feelings out of conscious awareness. However, the danger is when we try to block feelings, they can surge back with more intensity. We risk acting the impulses out, in ways we aren’t aware of.

As a therapist, I’ve found the rise of internet pornography concerning and fascinating: for what it says about all of us. The internet can be understood as a reflection of our unconscious: it’s no surprise that so much of it is taken up with sex.

Despite many people’s attempts to repress, deny or control sex: there it all is. And you can moralise all you like about it, it’s unlikely to change.

Yet in this strange, split off world where sex is seen as separate, an act devoid of context, devoid of relationship, we no longer need to teach young people about sex: we need to teach them about love.

Respect, connection, vulnerability, conversations about consent, these are the things that are now hidden away, these are things we now repress.

And that is dangerous.

How? One in three girls and one in seven boys will experience sexual assault before the age of 16. Young people themselves are screaming out for help, help to have conversations about respect, help to be able to talk to each other about consent, help to be safe.

And we already have a world class curriculum that teaches young people exactly that. But it too remains repressed. Hidden away, presumably in a basket somewhere labelled “too hard”.

In response to the shocking stories out of Wellington college about the culture of bragging online and threatening to rape young women, young people want this curriculum compulsorily taught, nationwide.

And they are petitioning the Government to have this new, necessary, and very sensible sex education made compulsory. You can help to break though this repression. You can help young people talk about consent, and respect. Because only in expression can we truly find safety. Click here to support their call.

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