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Protecting young women from sexual harm requires a supportive approach

By Melissa Kang - posted Tuesday, 26 August 2003

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald on 5 August 2003 opened with the description of a product in the USA that enabled parents to detect the presence of semen in their daughters' underwear. Bettina Arndt, the article's author, inspired by this discovery, used it as a trigger for a discussion about parental supervision of their children's sexual activity. The article attracted national media attention, with numerous commercial and local ABC radio stations around the country jumping once again on the teenage-sex bandwagon.

How I long for a positive, innovative and thoughtful approach to teenage sexuality. And why is it the girls who get all the airplay - so often portrayed as either a bit too slutty, or as victims at the mercy of amoral, insensitive teenage boys?

We are all sexual beings. How we understand our own sexuality depends on an almost infinite set of factors, which layer and weave to form an exquisitely rich and complex tapestry. To see human sexuality, particularly in young people, repeatedly reduced to being equated only with (penile-vaginal) intercourse (subtext: unprotected, unsafe, risky, bad), not only discounts young people's potential to grow into sexually healthy adults, in spite of their behaviour, but actually sells us all short of who we are.


It's not a matter of what young people should or shouldn't be doing, but of whether we allow ourselves to see them for who they are. And they will be as diverse and interesting and wonderful as any other group of human beings. The difference is that they're young, and by definition, still maturing and learning about various things in life, including sex. Some will experience hurt or even trauma as they grow, though if we're talking sexual trauma, it is often at the hands of adults.

A civilised and caring society should seek to protect them from harm. By educating them about sex - and we are particularly interested in teaching reproductive sex and how to avoid its unwanted consequences - we are attempting to take steps towards this. Yet teaching young people only about the mechanics of sex and all its pitfalls does detract somewhat from its delightful mystery, not to mention a few other critical elements, such as self-esteem, self-expression, love, desire, intimacy and sharing.

Female sexuality has a long track record of being controlled within societies. This was for one of two reasons: either the threat to the economic stability of the wealthy classes (the need for assurances of paternity and sustenance of wealth and honour down the paternal line) or the belief that women were weak and sexually depraved because of the original sin committed by Eve, and therefore had to be carefully monitored.

Surely in contemporary Australian society, the changing status of women and the overlapping of gender roles across most classes in Australia has abolished the need to control female sexuality for economic reasons?

Are we are still hung up about Eve, essentially not believing that women can or should acknowledge, let alone celebrate, their sexuality? Most Australians don't practise formal religion in their daily lives. Young women who themselves have religious affiliations are more likely to delay intercourse but the key thing is that those religious values are held by them (and if they succumb it is often unsafe and unprepared). Churches around the globe are re-examining their views on homosexuality. Do we still honestly believe that female sexuality is immoral?

Are we only concerned about safety? Indeed, none of us wants our teenage daughters to experience the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy, or to acquire a sexually transmissible infection that could render her infertile, cause chronic pain or risk the health of her future children. We don't want them to be exploited, abused or coerced into a difficult situation.


All the research suggests that girls who delay intercourse, or have sex safely, are those who are well informed, well supported by adults, have close relationships with a parent, and can access appropriate services. So why then the interest in surveillance (particularly in secret!), prohibition or simply denial of a very normal aspect of growing up? Perpetrators of sexual abuse and assault among children and young people are most often adults who are known and once-trusted (pdf, 69kb) - if protection from serious harm is our motivation, why isn't more of our attention turned to this?

Which of these (or other) reasons is responsible for the histrionic responses of many parents, members of the community or the media whenever teenage sexuality gets mentioned in the public arena? Why do we still love to be shocked by teenage female sexuality?

Taking a positive view of teenage sexuality is not equivalent to promoting unsafe sexual behaviour, or in fact any sexual behaviour. It's about allowing each young person the right to discover, with our guidance if appropriate, who they are and want to be, sexually. For the most part it's about allowing them time, space and privacy, but with the sound knowledge of our interest and with access to our wisdom and support. If we are their parents, carers, extended family or community members we will also teach them our values and beliefs and hope or expect them to follow.

Finally, I take a broadly Western view of sexuality and gender roles. I am not only respectful of non-Western culture, but belong in part to it myself, having one parent who is from a non-English speaking, non-Western background. I believe that most young people find their place within their culture and community with relative ease, even when it comes to sensitive issues like sexuality. It is not the minority ethnic groups however, who jump up and down in mainstream media, about teenage sexuality - it's the mainstream majority.

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About the Author

Dr Melissa Kang is a specialist in adolescent medicine at Sydney's New Children's Hospital and a lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Sydney.

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