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Sex under the Southern Cross – Six of the most interesting facts about Australia’s sexual history

I originally started this blog to share my book with the world, although it seems to have morphed into a space where I can talk about all things relevant to life and sex education.

As well as being an author, I am also an advocate for comprehensive sexual education and I believe that every child, regardless of their orientation or family structure, needs to be represented in these discussions. I have found that some people protest such openness. How can something that binds us all be so controversial? What I have learned is that these ideas have evolved over a long, historical journey. I predict that our responses to this topic will never stop evolving. I also firmly believe that we need to keep the conversation alive as the world changes.

The topic of sex throughout history is so complex, I could write a doctoral thesis about it. As tempting as that may be, I will stick to presenting six of the most interesting gems from my reading. I hope you find them as interesting as I do!

  1. The early 20th century was the silent era for sex in education.

Man sitting on bench watching exhibition film at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre

Although human physiology was covered academically, the reproductive system was almost completely disregarded in all classroom discussions. Sex was considered such a taboo that the directors of education openly stated that they could not bear the embarrassment of hearing female teachers talk about germination and pistils, let alone human reproduction. Likewise, they believed any educational programs would open the floodgates to immorality and detract from the teaching of the Three Rs. It was considered foolhardy to rush into the rabbits-and-butterflies chase of sexuality education. Nonetheless, these attitudes kept society in the dark for quite some time. The debate about who should be responsible for the birds and bees talk handballed back and forth between schools, parents, the church, and the medical profession for most of the 20th century. There were some early attempts to introduce handbooks and public lectures to educate school leavers, but these initiatives were always met with resistance and indifference from every direction.

  1. War comes, and venereal disease follows.

With no appropriate sexual education in their back pocket, Australian soldiers leapt into the shocking and destructive climate of World War 1. The trauma of war was so significant and widespread that it profoundly disrupted the traditional Christian values that represented most of the populace at the time. Facing their own mortality and being far from their family home, many soldiers chose to be adventurous and have sexual affairs during their service. In many ways, this was an outward expression of shock to cope with the reality that they might not come home at all. However, without being properly informed about their sexual health, around 60,000 Australian soldiers returned from World War 1 with venereal diseases. Rather than viewing this outbreak as an indictment of the taboos surrounding sexual activity, it was used as a yardstick to measure perceived immorality. Purity movements used the prevalence of venereal diseases to further the cause of abstinence and shame around sexual activity. Infected soldiers hung their heads in shame, rather than experiencing the appropriate honour of a hero’s welcome home.

  1. There’s a handbook for that.

Early in the 20th century, a purity movement swept much of the Western world in response to the rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases. A number of community organisations used public lectures and handbooks about sexual purity to educate adolescents about their body, but rather than providing comprehensive and accurate resources to all students, these booklets portrayed sexuality as a necessary evil for reproduction. The handbooks had titles like Purity and Impurity and The Needs and Methods of Purity Teaching. Sex was referred to as filthy and coarse, masturbation was termed ‘self-abuse’ and it was suggested that boys not engage in this, lest they stunt their growth or make themselves unfit for sport. As well as the teachings on masturbation (which we now know to be incorrect), the language used to describe sexual organs and functions was full of euphemisms – like ‘seed’ for semen and ‘involuntary passages’ for wet dreams, or ‘flower and fruit’ for the parts of fertilisation. Every sexual function was seen as related to God’s great plan and the teaching of correct reproductive health measures was secondary to preventing disease by not having sex to begin with.

  1. Leave it to the doctors and parents!

Most advocates agreed that sex education was necessary, but they also thought that it was the responsibility of parents. The problem is that these discussions were rarely had in the home in the early part of the 20th century because many parents felt that discussing sex would encourage it. The Teacher’s Union of the time felt that sex education was necessary, but the ‘ordinary teacher’ was ill-equipped to provide it. Medical practitioners were the next choice to parents, but when war broke out, doctors were tied up with other duties. The only other interest group was the church, and although they had a vested interest in spreading the purity movement, there was rivalry between the Protestant and Catholic churches during the war years. Much of the early debate was caught up in these religious differences. Eventually, the Catholics withdrew from most teaching on sexual education and Protestant groups such as the White Cross League created handbooks. This back-and-forth handballing of responsibility propagated the culture of silence about sex, which took the better part of a century to dissolve.

  1. Different strokes for different folksFunny sculpture of a male/female pair with electrical body parts

Prior to World War I, it was believed that male sexuality was highly aggressive whereas the female sexuality was passive and almost absent. This belief produced markedly different attitudes and expectations about the sexual behaviours and desires of males and females. Despite the Christian influence in Australia, there was a very tolerant blind eye towards a man’s supposedly unique natural inclination to sleep around before marriage. This was believed to be in the best interests of future marital success. By comparison, sleeping around would mean certain social ruin for a female. One must ask the question, though – if a man was expected to sow his wild oats before marriage, with whom was he doing this, if women were expected to be chaste? These sexual inequalities continued as history wore on and although attitudes towards female sexuality became more liberal by the 1960s, it has never really been quite as acceptable for a woman to enjoy sex as openly as men.

  1. Sex for pleasure, not just procreation!
    A large number of colorful pills and capsules

The contraceptive pill was introduced to Australia in 1961. No longer did Australian husbands need to sleep on the back porch to prevent pregnancies, an innovation that produced one giant leap for women in controlling their bodies and family outcomes. Having more control over family planning meant that women could participate in the workforce without restraint. This contributed to greater representation of women in the world outside the home. This life-changing invention wasn’t without drawbacks, however. Although the pills were inexpensive to produce, they incurred a 27% luxury tax and were only made available to married women. This just meant that some women would get their married friends to pretend they had lost their pills so they could obtain an extra packet. The doctors didn’t seem to cotton on. Beg, borrow, steal, have pre-marital sex…. No worries!

So there you have it – some interesting gems from Australia’s sexy history, though this blog entry really only touches the surface. It is clear that there has always been an incredible amount of ignorance, fear and shame surrounding sex – and although the situation has improved in a century, many people would prefer to keep some aspects of human sexuality in the closet, away from children in particular. Not talking about these important topics holds us all back and the lack of knowledge can inflict scars that define whole generations of people.

I want to live to see a world where inclusive, comprehensive education on sexual health is just standard operating procedure, and sexual activity isn’t used a barometer for immorality.

One can dream – but we sometimes need to look at our past to shape the future.

Sources

Greg Logan – Sex Education in Queensland – A History of the Debate 1900-1980

National Museum of Australia http://www.nma.gov.au/online_features/defining_moments/featured/the_pill

Stefania Siedlecki and Diana Wyndham – Populate and Perish (1990)

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