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IVF and assisted reproduction – 4 of the biggest challenges (and one positive!) that no-one talks about

If you’ve struggled to fall pregnant, you already understand the grief that can occur when it doesn’t happen according to plan. Infertility affects more people than ever. In fact, more than 200,000 IVF babies have been born in Australia and New Zealand since 1980. The process hasn’t been as uncomfortable as I thought it might be – in fact, there has been a great deal of joy along the way. With that being said, there are certain things I wish I’d been more prepared for that I’d like to share with you.

An expectant mother in a sweater affectionately touching her stomach

You may be judged – from a range of angles

With IVF being so common in the modern world, many people are compassionate to these struggles. Some people consider it their duty to say that you are playing with nature, to judge your faith, to tell you that they wouldn’t consider using assistive reproductive technologies because those fertilised eggs you’re freezing are real babies, or to offer endless reams of advice that may be well-meaning but difficult to listen to. There is an added layer of judgment if you are using donor sperm as a gay or single parent. Depending on how equipped you feel to manage this judgment, sometimes it can be better to choose your confidants carefully.

People feel like they are entitled to know your business

Before my egg pick up, someone saw me dropping a Berocca into a glass of water and felt that it was completely okay to ask me if I was trying to fall pregnant. The fizz hadn’t even settled in the bottom of the glass yet! I got a lot of intimate questions – even if I used an ‘out’ like saying that I wasn’t thinking about it (oh, really? Why aren’t you thinking about it?) Maybe because I’m too busy wondering why my pee is as fluorescent yellow as a disco glow stick from 2002. Cheers, vitamin B!If you are gay, you may be asked relentless questions like, which one of you is carrying? Who is the donor? Why aren’t you choosing a friend as a donor? Surely your child has a right to know who made them… and on it goes. If you feel unable to deal with this onslaught without raising your blood pressure, only share what you’re comfortable with. You aren’t everybody else’s science project.

Your employer may not be as supportive as you think they should be

Depending on which EBA you are under, your IVF days may not be counted as sick leave or you may be completely prevented from using any sort of leave for IVF. If you work for a religious organisation, they may be covered by ‘lifestyle clauses’ which can give them power to say no to requests that they deem as unChristian in nature. Some EBAs do not consider IVF appointments as making a person ‘unfit for work.’ Depending on your circumstances, you may have a chat with your employer or pursue alternatives that don’t involve disclosure.

Pregnancy vitamins are harmless but they can make you feel dodgy

Your doctor will prescribe vitamins that can help to prepare your body. While many people don’t have a negative reaction to vitamins, they can cause bloating, nausea, and vomiting. Although I was prepared for the impact of the hormones, I was in no way prepared for the nausea I got from taking a cocktail of vitamin supplements before my egg pick up. I wish someone had told me.

There are so many networks out there, you can find a supportive group of people who can relate to what you’re going through

In the Facebook world, there is a group for anyone under the sun – whether you do or don’t want contact with donor-siblings, you are a single parent by choice, a lesbian parent trying to conceive, or anything in between. These groups offer support, book resources, and comfort for what can be a difficult process. My advice is to sign up for one or two, as too much fertility discussion online can be an information overload – something that can be quite unwelcome when you are just starting out with it all.

 

 

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Social media and body image – it isn’t just magazines doing the damage these days

The reality of our Web 2.0 age is that social media is ubiquitous and not exposing our children to this technology robs us of the opportunity to teach them how to use it responsibly. Conversing about the content on these platforms also gives us a window into the world of the children we work with or parent, which we shouldn’t readily dismiss at a time when they might close off. Like with drugs and alcohol, we need to start this conversation and keep it going as our children grow up.

I love social media. I also love health and fitness. I have completed two marathons, lifted weights for six years, and played sports for my whole life. I tend to follow Instagrammers who share content related to this. I have an obsession with watching food preparation videos and my feed is full of people who create meals and snacks. A few years ago, I followed a girl who had her own business making protein balls and I loved trying to make them myself.

A few months after I started following her, she began posting about how to get a fitness model body. She posted pictures of her transformation from “fat” (she was never fat) to fit and started selling an eBook full of recipes and tips. She had tens of thousands of followers, mostly young girls, many of whom bought this book. It didn’t seem to matter that she had no qualifications in nutrition or personal training – her eBook was popular and made her a tidy profit.

Three years later, she fessed up about the eating disorder that had plagued her life throughout her fitness model career and how disheartening it was to eat chicken breasts and broccoli religiously. She talked about how limiting her food and exercising so much had altered her hormones. After recovering, she started eating with no limits and her Instagram demonstrated a very poor relationship with food overall.

Throughout this unhealthy process, she profited massively from the insecurities of young girls, all of whom still supported her after she came out as having an eating disorder. This is worrying. I understand that people have different journeys with food and fitness, but the danger of documenting them online is that impressionable young people can be influenced and some aspects of these journeys are not always positive and healthy. These trends affect both boys and girls, with so much content targeted at “fitness” on all social media platforms. Some of it is so relentless and influential that it is hard to ignore, especially for young people.

Image result for instagram fitness

When a teenager is bombarded by billboards and glossy magazines, it is easy to tell them that those images are not real – they are photoshopped, airbrushed, and enhanced by make-up. When the images are drip-fed to our teenagers via Instagram and they are posted by regular people who are similar to us (only behind a filter), it is more difficult to establish expectations around body image and self-love.

This is not a sit-down, quick-fix conversation to have all at once, but as part of an ongoing thread about staying safe online and body positivity. There are a few themes that should come up in these conversations:

  • We are all different – including our bodies
  • Even though Instagram is full of “real people”, they are still behind a filter and presenting images from their best angle
  • A person who promotes fitness food tips without any qualifications could just as easily be presenting habits that are disordered and unhealthy – be critical!
  • Subscribing to these users and filling your feed with their content will give you a skewed (but relentless) idea of how your body should look
  • As a teenager, the best way you can take care of yourself is to eat a range of fresh foods and participate in physical activity that is enjoyable for you – your body will become what it is meant to be

As we continue to live through the Web 2.0 age, it is really important to think critically about the content available to our children. That way, we can be empowered to support them in making healthy decisions that fuel positivity.

The beauty of our diversity and positivity towards our bodies is something that we should never allow popular culture nor social media to take away from us.

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Three key considerations for educating children and teenagers about pornography

I was discussing this blog with a friend and she asked for my opinion on pornography – do I think it should be banned? I would like to clarify that an adult has the right to choose what they access. However, I believe that an child without any conceptions of healthy relationships can have their experiences of sexuality permanently damaged by accessing pornography. We know that children and teenagers are being exposed to pornography through their devices and social groups. They are at a higher risk of being affected by this content if their time online is not supervised and if they have not been educated about healthy forms of sexuality. This situation is very different to watching sexual material as an adult with formed views. Even in an adult context, there are always caveats.

Burning Man wire sculpture with baby dolls in Black Rock Desert
We as educators, parents and adults have a responsibility to inform our children and teenagers about the risks involved and in the formative years of sexual development, it is up to us to educate ourselves on the consequences of allowing children to access pornography through lack of supervision.

Here are three key considerations:

  1. Accessing pornography in childhood can lead to inappropriate sexual behaviours or peer-to-peer sexual abuse.

Sexual acts perpetrated by young people (aged 10 and 19) increased by 36% between 2012 and 2014. The only way a young child can know about sexual acts is if they are told, if it is forced upon them, or if they view these acts in pornographic images, which as we know can be innocently accessed via platforms such as Instagram and YouTube in content suggestions. Even children’s games (such as Minecraft) have videos created by users that portray sexual scenes using the game’s characters. These videos appear on the side without a child needing to search for them.

If a child sees these acts portrayed without explanation, they become normalised and they may try to imitate some of what they’ve seen on their peers. This is not a sign that the child is a deviant, they are merely copying what they have been exposed to. Although none of us set out to allow our children to access this material, all it takes is five minutes without supervision. Close supervision can curtail this exposure, but if a child has seen this material by accident or through a peer, it is important to reinforce with them that these are private acts that occur between adults, and a child’s private parts are subject to very important rules:

  1. No one can touch my private parts (except for medical reasons, with consent), and you are not allowed to touch other people’s private parts
  2. No one is allowed to show you private pictures or movies
  3. No one is allowed to take private photos of you
  4. You are not allowed to take private pictures of yourself

I found these rules inside a useful resource that explores this topic, which is called Gary Just Didn’t Know the Rules. It is really important to understand that a child who sees pornography and then emulates it usually doesn’t know any better. These children need support and education, not condemnation.

  1. Accessing pornography in the years of early sexual development can lead to the formation of inappropriate expectations, issues with instant gratification, and pornography addiction.

Although some pornography portrays positive, consensual experiences between adults, there is also a significant amount of material (particularly online) that portrays sex with multiple people, anal sex without appropriate protection, ejaculating in a person’s face, sex acts involving bondage/injury, or other sexual acts that may be out of the comfort zone of an inexperienced teenager.

Young people exposed to these ideas may feel pressure to try them, even if they do not feel comfortable, as they are often portrayed as being what a stereotypical male/female should do. Further, if a teenager becomes used to being aroused by these forms of pornography, they may be dissatisfied with their first sexual experiences or disappointed when their partner declines to try what they’ve seen. Over time, repeated exposure to these images can cause addiction and issues with instant gratification, which can cause a person to struggle to enjoy sex or reach climax under regular conditions with a sexual partner. It is difficult for a teenager to understand these consequences because logical thoughts can be overridden by the instant pleasure that pornography can bring. We need to have conversations about these consequences with our children in the same way we would about the risks involved with alcohol and drugs.

  1. Some pornography shows violent or dominant acts that degrade the participants and demonstrate unhealthy relationships.City Protest sign reads "abuse of power comes as no surprise"

Although the causal link between high consumption of pornography and sexual violence has not been 100% established, some evidence demonstrates that there is a link between certain forms of pornography and the formation of negative sexual attitudes, particularly towards women. Many of the acts depicted in online pornography are not standard fare and can influence a young person’s view of what sex should be. Some videos also don’t make consent obvious, and certain acts are portrayed as non-reciprocal (e.g – a man in pornography may receive oral sex, but won’t give it to his female partner).

Some teenagers report changes in attitude after viewing pornography that aren’t necessarily problematic – for instance, that it is okay to enjoy sex or to have casual encounters in the right context – but many of the most commonly accessed forms of pornography put forward the view that men cannot control themselves once aroused, that women or men can be sex objects, that women need love to have sex, that women say no when they mean yes or that the way a woman dresses can invite consent. These messages can blur the lines of what constitutes a respectful, equitable, and healthy relationship for a teenager who doesn’t have a great deal of life experience.

Awareness by parents of what children are doing online decreases with age but their time online tends to increase. As children enter this developmental space, any generational gaps in digital literacy and awareness about the impacts of content available online need to be addressed with greater understanding of the Web 2.0 platforms and how they can be used safely. For children and teenagers, it is really for the best if they are not consumers of this material. Because we know they will likely be exposed to it at some stage, using these three key considerations is helpful in shaping our conversations around this topic.

Sources

Australian Institute of Family Studies

https://aifs.gov.au/publications/effects-pornography-children-and-young-people-snapshot

Safe4Kids

http://safe4kids.com.au/

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Let’s talk about sex – myth busters edition

As far as we’ve come, educating children about sex remains taboo. This was demonstrated by the national response to Safe Schools which, above anything else, brought anxiety about what children would be exposed to in the curriculum – gay and lesbian sexual health, masturbation, and reproductive anatomy were some topics that caused upset. I found the three most contentious myths, presented with a side of factual evidence. Enjoy!

Talking about sex will encourage it

A very common fear about introducing sex education early is that this will encourage children to do it. However, the most significant influencers for early sexual debut are:

  • Childhood sexual abuse
  • Exposure to pornography
  • Peer or partner pressure
  • Drugs and alcohol
  • Media
  • Volatile family relationships

Current findings have demonstrated that the majority (69%) of senior school students surveyed across schooling systems (including Christian schools) are sexually active in some way. This rate of sexual activity has remained fairly static over the last decade. As sex education and access to contraception has increased in comparison to previous decades, rates for this age group are at a historic low.

Rather than being morally panicked, it is worth understanding that sex will find its way into children’s lives whether it is through the media, their peer group, or worse, pornography. Less education, particularly when it comes from unreliable sources, is more likely to lead to risk-taking behaviour or poor preparation for eventual sexual activity, both of which can lead to the contraction of STIs, unwanted sexual experiences, and unplanned pregnancy.

Sex is an inevitable, natural part of development that, like driving a car, requires a solid base of knowledge for success. This will increase the likelihood of safe sexual behaviour and the understanding of how to confidently deal with situations that may arise. If knowledge is power, then conversely, lack of knowledge in this area is vulnerability and risk.

Learning about anal sex is an unnecessary minority group issue and it doesn’t need to be taught as part of sex education

Although less common (around 10% of students surveyed reported that they had tried it), anal sex does occur during the teenage years, and not just in gay partnerships. Various forms of oral sex are also common in teenagers, usually as a prelude to becoming sexually active. This may be surprising but anal and oral sex among teenagers and adults is nothing new and didn’t come about because of gay rights, as the Kinsey report on human sexual behaviour uncovered in the 1950s (yes – as conservative as this era was, people still experimented and disclosed this to researchers). This seminal report on human sexuality pre-dates Safe Schools, the plebiscite, and any significant gay rights action by more than half a century.

Many teenagers are experimenting with various forms of sexual activities, whether the matter is spoken about at school or not. Not educating them about the preventative measures against sexually transmitted infections puts them at risk. Even if anal sex were a ‘minority group issue’, being more educated on the whole picture of sexuality helps to challenge ignorance and there is no harm done by simply knowing more – in the same way that it does not harm boys to learn about menstruation. I dare say teenagers are not at risk of adding anal sex to their repertoire merely by learning about it, given that it is a fairly adventurous activity, even by adult standards.

And – as I always say – if two years of hardcore abstinence education in a fundamentalist Christian school didn’t turn me straight or abstinent, a few lessons about different sex acts given to senior school students will not force anyone to go out and try them.

My child isn’t watching pornography so I don’t need to educate them about it

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Pornography exposure (for boys AND girls) is far more common than most people would assume. Even teenagers (and children!) with the most vigilant parents had seen it at some stage. These images often contain violent, objectifying, unrealistic, and otherwise inappropriate depictions of sex. Repeated exposure to pornography as a teenager’s first experience of sex can cause their brain to be conditioned to instant gratification and unrealistic ideas of what can be expected from a sexual relationship. The real event can turn out to be a let-down because genuine sex lives don’t work in the same way as pornography. This can have life-long implications for a person’s libido and relationships, in the same way that excessive exposure to technology can harm a child’s social skills. Nonetheless, there is no getting rid of it so educating our young is our best counter-attack.

Taking phones out of bedrooms and changing the Wi-Fi password is no longer enough. If we don’t want our teenage sons and daughters to have their sexual peak in front of a smart phone with a handful of moisturiser, we need to ensure that we educate them about the long-term sexual risks of engaging with pornography. In the same way that we warn our children about photos in magazines not being conducive to healthy body image, we need to safeguard their expectations about what healthy relationships and sexuality looks like.

Quite frankly, it is about time that we all started talking about sex more openly with our adolescents and seeing quality sex education as a seatbelt, rather than a guidebook. That starts with educating ourselves and identifying, then challenging, some of the misinformation that is prevalent around these topics. Sexual health is as important as financial literacy, digital technology, and the core curriculum. We need to treat it with openness and be the grown-ups in getting the conversation started, including the parts we’d rather not talk about – so our children aren’t dealing with consequences they’d rather not deal with in their future.

Sources

Australian Institute of Family Studies

https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/2016/05/04/children-and-young-peoples-exposure-pornography

Amanda Dunn – The New Puberty (2016)

Anne Mitchell, Kent Patrick, Wendy Heywood, Pamela Blackman, and Marian Pitts (LaTrobe University)

http://www.redaware.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/31631-ARCSHS_NSASSSH_FINAL-A-3.pdf

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Six steps to recalibrating puberty education for the 21st century

I am currently reading and contemplating on The New Puberty by Amanda Dunn (great read, by the way), which has confirmed that the clutches of puberty are encroaching further into childhood than ever before. Some people believe that this early development is the end of childhood as we know it, as previous models of puberty education have been packaged with sex and relationships education more suitable for teenagers.

I don’t believe that this is the beginning of the end. Like anything that changes with time, it means that we need a pro-active strategy in how we educate and empower our children. A recalibration of our approach to puberty education with developmentally appropriate resources and conversation starters is what is really required.

Here are six ways we need to respond to our children, developmentally.

  1. We need to keep a check on our expectations.

If a child noticeably develops before their peers, different expectations seem to be applied to their maturity. Although the child may be taller and more physically mature than their friends, they are still exactly that – a child. They may not be ready for independent responsibilities that you would expect of an early teenager or older child. Socially, they will still have the same struggles as their age-related peers. It is really important to encourage them to act their age, and not burden them with expectations that belong to older children.

To give an example, I once overheard, ‘Should that child still be playing with Shopkins at her age?’ The child in question was eight years old – so, yes. Just because she is undergoing puberty at a younger age, does not mean that her desire for age-appropriate childhood play should stop. Some children may have the beginnings of an adult body, but they are still not adults.

  1. We need to educate about body changes before they happen, not in the midst of it

 Teaching children about the changes that they will go through at the same time we are buying them pads and razors is unlikely to equip them with success and confidence. The body education our children need should ideally occur before these changes happen, that way, they are not unexpected or difficult to deal with. Which brings me to my next step….

  1. We need to educate in an age-appropriate way, using correct terminology 

Many adults shy away from the puberty talk with younger children because they don’t feel their children are ready for the sex talk yet. Fortunately, there are many resources that deal primarily with puberty without any mention of sex or sexuality. This can be a great place to start the conversation. Some parents may want to introduce the sex talk at the same time, whereas other families feel their children would benefit from learning about puberty first. Fortunately, there are books that suit both purposes.

Two awesome starting points are:

Help! I’m a Tweenager – Rosie Luik (girls’ puberty)

I’m a Boy – Special Me and I’m a Boy – My Changing Body –  Shelley Metten (boys’ puberty)

These books require adult interaction, as the reading level of the content is not quite as simple as picture books, and there is some mention of puberty’s role in fertility, though not sexual content as such.

Or for the comprehensive, illustrated introduction to almost everything sex and puberty for younger children:

The Amazing True Story of how Babies are Made, which I reviewed here.

Unfortunately, this one doesn’t talk much about managing periods (which is very important for young girls), but it introduces all things related to puberty and sexuality and serves as a solid introduction. All of the above resources use correct terminology. It is really important that children hear the proper names for their body parts and not slang words, which can encourage shame and embarrassment.

Reading the books alone first can help with nailing the terminology and dissolving awkward feelings. The best place to start this conversation may be in the car on the way to school (for parents), and in the form of a Q and A dialogue (for educators). Have fun with it! After all, these changes happen to everyone, so we should be able to talk about them without feeling weird – this sets a positive example for the children in our care.

  1. We need to encourage physical activity and find ways to mitigate the sometimes-negative impacts of puberty on participation in sport and other activities 

A young woman in black boxing gloves kissing one of her gloves

Physical activity and other childhood hobbies have benefits for a child’s mental and physical health, although some activities can become difficult once children begin puberty, particularly if they are developing faster than the children around them. This is when we need to be pro-active and provide strategies that support continued participation, without the child needing to ask – this could include getting a quality sports bra fitted, teaching a girl how to manage periods in various situations, and discussing adequate protection for boys who play contact sports. It is really important to nip this one in the bud so children are empowered to continue participating without the awkwardness of needing to ask. Which brings me to my next step…

  1. We need to instil body confidence, relentlessly

Alongside the practicalities of helping children to stay engaged with their interests, we need to explicitly reinforce the idea that it is still useful for a child to be physically active, even as their body matures. Although there are many positive role models in every sport, it can’t be left up to chance for a child to realise that their bodies are amazing vessels that are capable of doing challenging things, even after they have matured. Body comparison will begin alongside these changes too, so it is important to explain (repeatedly!) that bodies are diverse and feeling confident in your own skin is what matters most. Drawing attention to a range of capable role models with different body types can help to dispel the myth that there is only one image to aspire to.

Shirtless boy squeezing and playing with large inflatable ball near parked car in Oceanside

The average timing and considerations of puberty may have changed over the last couple of generations, but that doesn’t mean that children should lose their childhood because we are scared to talk about it. We need to keep on reviewing our approach to ensure that our children receive the best and most age-appropriate education that will equip them to pass through these inevitable transitions with their confidence intact.

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You can’t be what you can’t see – why teachers shouldn’t live in the closet

When we first start to learn important life skills, our success hinges on watching someone else model the task before we try. Leading our own lives isn’t any different from mastering basic life skills; we all have the desire to form human connections that influence us and form our ways of being in the world. We know that young people look up to the world around them and so we try to steer them towards good role models to fight against the negative messages they will undoubtedly consume from the wider world.

Although there are positive role models everywhere, it is more meaningful when a child sees a person just like them in a position of success, in a place where they can connect with them. Young people adopt habits and attitudes by looking at people who share their gender, cultural background, or other life circumstances. When a child belongs to a group that is in the minority and over-represented in suicide and mental health statistics, knowing individuals who have succeeded in spite of stereotypes offers hope that their future can be bright. The most common place for a child to connect with a role model is at school.

This is why I find it so perplexing that being a gay teacher in Australia is still such a silent idea. To be fair, nobody is going to stop a gay person from attaining a Bachelor of Education, but implicit forces that propagate institutionalised heterosexual norms can crush an early career teacher into silence. It happens frequently in the independent sector where parental satisfaction = business and lifestyle clauses (aka religious “freedom”) can make it very easy to sack those who do not comply. Even if you don’t consider these factors, the impact of silence on teacher wellbeing and mental health can make some of these positions untenable. In many schooling contexts, there is an underlying message that having an out teacher encourages children to believe that it is okay to be gay. For some parents, this represents a fear of the unknown.

One of the most significant “no” arguments that got a lot of airplay during the lead up to the plebiscite was that gay marriage would pave the way for talking about homosexuality in schools. My question is, why aren’t we talking about it? In any classroom, there will be students who have homosexuality in their lives – whether it is through having a gay relative, gay parents, or even being gay themselves. At some point throughout their life, they will likely meet a gay person or work with one. For some students, they may not yet realise that they are gay, but are grappling internally with feelings that they can’t explain. They might be looking for confirmation that they are completely normal and loved regardless.

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Thinking about this takes me back to 2004. My family had relocated to a regional city in Queensland, and the intent was to lead a quieter life while my father developed his business. I had always known I had those feelings and had never said anything because I wasn’t certain that I actually was gay, because I lacked life experience. In my family and friendship groups, nobody spoke about it. Popular culture at the time didn’t contain many visible role models, or at least none that I had been exposed to. YouTube and social media were in their infancy and so I was somewhat in the dark. Furthermore, the Christian education program at my school had explicitly stated that being gay was not an option if you were to lead an acceptable, moral life.

Towards the end of that year, I developed a close friendship with a girl that turned into a somewhat-relationship behind closed doors. We never spoke to anyone about it because we attended a very conservative Christian school, and we knew there would be consequences. I finally plucked up the courage to pull one of my favourite teachers aside to tell her about what had been going on. I was not seeking spiritual guidance nor did I need advice about how to change my feelings; what I was seeking was reassurance. Instead, I was forced to see a counsellor and forbidden from telling my parents. When the ‘counselling’ did not produce the desired result, my parents were called into the school. I was asked to leave and walked out in a cloud of absolute humiliation.

After enrolling in a public school, I felt lost and scarred by shame. I never spoke about my past relationship and threw myself headfirst into dating boys, drinking, and other destructive behaviour. I went from being a straight-A student to barely handing in assessments. Towards the end of Year 11, I honestly thought that I had completely screwed up my future prospects. Instead of looking forward to graduation, I feared the future because I had been told that gay adults didn’t have functional relationships and I knew that my career prospects would be very dim considering how little work I had submitted towards my senior certificate. The most traumatic aspect was that I thought I would never recover my academic prowess because of the dark night that had descended upon my mind, sucking all the life out from the inside.

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During that year, my senior music teacher resigned and was replaced by a bright and talented teacher who played numerous instruments and rocked a shaved head like nobody’s business. She unabashedly wore jackets with gay patches stitched onto them, and considering where the world (particularly Bundaberg) was at in 2007, this was a bold move. Not only did she impart her amazing musical taste on all of us, but she spoke about the life she had built, complete with a career, mortgage, world travels, a dog, and a (nearly) wife. Suddenly, here was this person who profoundly disrupted everything I had been told at my previous school, who was living proof that I could have the aspirational life I dreamed of with a wife by my side. This realisation was the wind that changed the direction of my sails.

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Not long after I met this teacher, I came out to my parents. I wrote a song about a woman I loved and sang it on school assembly. I stopped caring what other people thought about my life and lived as my true, authentic self. A decade on, I have a successful career, an impressive passport, a published book, a dream home, plans to have children, and a beautiful wife, whom I will marry now that the laws are in place. I did not fall into some mythical drug scene. I did not catch a disease. I did not become an outcast of society because of who I am. However, it would have taken me a lot longer to figure this all out, had I not had a visible role model available to me at a very formative and vulnerable time in my life. Without a strong, like-minded influence to model the possibility of a good life, I could have become another statistic.

This is why the idea of silencing gay teachers is anathema to me. If we are to fulfill the mission of the Educational Goals for Young Australians as set out in the Melbourne Declaration, then we need to help young people find their voice. It is challenging to do that if we must cower behind our desks and hide our wedding photos from plain sight. Having a gay teacher will not make a child gay, and furthermore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with identifying as a gay person. What visible role models will provide are two very important messages to our young people;

  1. You are not alone.
  2. Those of you who identify as gay have equal worth and you have just as much chance of fulfilling your dreams as anyone else. Here are people who have walked similar paths to you and succeeded. It is possible for you. 

In the past, gay students have had to navigate these paths without any guidance and I don’t believe it needs to be like that now or in the future. By keeping our teachers in the closet, we are limiting our young people and contributing to a world that divides and separates people on the basis of unchangeable differences. Learning more about these differences will challenge the discomfort and biases that people have and in time, most people will realise that there is nothing to worry about in allowing people to be more open. A child can’t be what they can’t see and pushing their role models into the closet is sending the message that who they are isn’t part of the conversation.

I think every child’s diversity should be represented visibly in the schooling system, through teachers, coaches, parents, students and curriculum materials that acknowledge a variety of life narratives. Only then will we see change and open up a brighter future, not just for some students, but for every student. I think that’s worth standing up for, don’t you?

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YES! YES! YES!

This week has been a satisfying one. I have completed my report cards and am currently kicking back at the hair salon, getting my six-monthly cut and colour before I leave the country for six weeks. In just under a month, I’ll be setting off on a much-needed adventure to Sri Lanka, Qatar, and the Caucasus (Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan).

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I have also seen the first full-colour illustration from my book, One in Many Millions. It has been a very positive week for me. However, the highlight was being able to witness the YES vote ruling the same-sex marriage postal survey. What a glorious time to be alive. As unfair as the process was, the result is history in the making and it brings us one step closer to being a more just, compassionate society where people are not excluded from legal rights and privileges afforded to the majority. .

The ‘no’ camp has put forward the view that same-sex marriage will bring forth an ideological rampage in our schools that will see gay and lesbian topics explored in sex education. Personally, I think the time has come to ensure that every child is equipped with the knowledge to make sound decisions regarding their sexual health, regardless of their orientation. If history has taught us anything about disease and social attitudes, having a culture of silence can only bring negative consequences.

I say YES to love, YES to legal recognition of adult relationships and YES to comprehensive sexuality education!

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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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You can’t read that to your children!

As an educator, I have had many enjoyable conversations about children’s books with people who possess a wide range of tastes. I have found that when it comes to books in the home, opinions can be divided. It is quite a common school of thought that children’s literature should be light, fluffy, and full of happy endings. Parents especially feel that the time they spend with their children should be fun, not spent in unpacking difficult topics, particularly right before bedtime. I personally love the light and fluffy and get a real kick out of funny books with rhyming words, but I think there’s more to childhood reading than just the entertaining titles.

While heart-warming stories should have pride of place in every child’s reading routine, it is also important to remember that conversations about difficult topics can develop skills for dealing with tough situations. It can also help a child to live and navigate their truth, knowing that they are not alone in what they are going through. For a child who may not experience a lot of difficulty in the early part of their lives, stories about the tough stuff can sharpen a their empathy and sense of perspective, which helps in forming relationships with others. In my view, there is no better way to help  a child become well-rounded than to expose them to life through a different lens – but these conversations are often difficult to start and even more difficult to explain in kid-language.

For any trial a child may come across, there is likely to be a book that covers it. I have seen exceptionally well-written books about divorce, death, having a parent in jail, experiencing childhood illness, homelessness, being a refugee, knowing someone with a mental illness, and just about everything in between. Some books even look back through history at some of humanity’s darker times, with stories about wars, September 11, and even the Holocaust. The topics may be deemed dark, but these narratives represent the lived experiences of real people and for some children, it may be a part of their life. If we hide their truth away by discouraging engagement or conversation about it, we prevent that child from coming to terms with what they are going through and making peace with it. Put simply, we shouldn’t be uncomfortable about the things that make up our lives. Modelling a closed mindset to children about the bumps in the road can send the message that some things are too difficult to overcome, let alone talk about.

I will never forget one of the first books I read independently about a tough topic. It was called Pink Balloons by Beverly McGregor and it told the story of a girl my own age (9, at that time) who had succumbed to the AIDS virus through a blood transfusion. The story was weaved with tragedy and ultimately had a sad ending, but I felt a connection to the life of this little girl who had hopes and dreams so similar to my own. All she had wanted was to ride a motorbike, spend time with her siblings, and to live to see enough birthdays so that she could collect 100 pink balloon cake ornaments. Fortunately, I grew up with parents who never censored my reading material, and I feel that these experiences helped me to see life from a different vantage point. It isn’t always easy to relate to that which we have not been through ourselves. Books can bridge that gap.

There should always be time for humour, whimsy, fairy tales, and rhymes, but there should also be opportunity for children to explore the more complex narratives of life with guidance. Some stories may provoke feelings of sadness in children, but the emotional highs and lows are a natural part of the human experience. The more we talk about tricky things, the more we can be empowered in overcoming them. Books send a powerful message to children that they are not alone; that other people (even little people) have slayed the particular monster that looms in the shadows of their lives, waiting to bother them. What an empowering notion.

Just to get you started, here are some excellent children’s book titles that can help in exploring both the ups and downs of life.

Quotefancy-208432-3840x2160

Image sourced from www.quotefancy.com – check it out for lots of cool literary quotes with pictures.

 

 

 

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Welcome!

RJMiles

Hi there! I’m RJ Miles and I would like to welcome you to my blog.

I published a picture book in a dialogue narrative style that aims to explain IVF and IUI with donor sperm to children in families where there are two mums. This became my passionate project when I personally started the IVF journey in mid-2016 with my wife. The book is called One in Many Millions. 

I noticed that there were a number of appealing and well-written picture books to explain IVF to children in the clinic I visited and I bought all of them. I also found some titles in a big retailer here in Australia that broached puberty and regular conception. I bought these books, too. But I felt that something was missing from the bookshelf – a book that is especially for children with two mums that not only explains and celebrates their family, but how they came to be with each aspect explained in age-appropriate detail. I felt that these children deserve access to their truth as any child does and what better way to normalise a child’s truth than to portray it in a picture book?

This got me thinking and reflecting on the words of Harmony Korine, one of my favourite film makers; that if something you deeply desire doesn’t exist in the world, whether it be an image, a story, or a song, then you should feel compelled to create it. That is exactly what I did.

In the meantime, I am continuing to work in my classroom during the daylight hours and as such, I am preparing for the term ahead. I plan to regularly update this blog to share book news, relevant book reviews, and other topical anecdotes that I feel are of interest to relationships and sexuality education.

Life is busy, but it’s amazing. Thanks for stopping by. 

RJ Miles