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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).

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

Different strokes for different folks

Funny 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.

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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Review: I am EXTRA Special. An IVF Story.

My apologies that this post has taken so long. I was out of action for most of this weekend with an ovarian cyst rupture. The upside is that I got to go out for sushi afterwards. Turns out that sitting in hospital on a weekend afternoon makes you rather hungry… hmmm.

SushiToday’s reviewed book is one that I happened upon in my IVF clinic – how very fitting when you consider the theme. This particular title has been self-published by two Brisbane authors, Belinda Messer and Rosie Luik. Both of these authors have published numerous books on similar topics and I would encourage you to explore the resources on their websites. Belinda’s can be found here and Rosie’s can be found here. You can also buy a copy here. 

For those of you who have started on the journey of fertility treatment, you would understand how confronting it can be. For my partner and I, walking into a clinic for the first time and seeing folders filled with reams of research about infertility was…. well, rather upsetting, especially because I had issues with how IVF was going to fit into my working situation when we first started the process. I used to worry about how I could time appointments around limited leave time was hard. Additionally, knowing that needles, scans and the ‘waiting game’ were all on the other side of that clinic door was another level of tough. Rather than flicking through the asinine magazines or the clinic statistics, I found great comfort in noticing this beautiful book on the bench….

An IVF Story

Title: I am EXTRA Special! An IVF Story

Author/Illustrator: Belinda Messer and Rosie Luik, illustrated by Jessica Smith

Age range: 5 and older

Themes/genre: Fiction narrative, IVF conception

From the very start of this process, my partner and I were always of the opinion that full disclosure to our child about their origins was really important to us. Not only is this recommended by research, but trust and truth are two of our family values. We both wanted our future child to not only be given their truth from day one, but to feel proud and strong in it. We were a little bit lost about how we would actually achieve this, but figured we wouldn’t need to think about it for a little while. Actually getting pregnant was the first obstacle.

IVF Baby Soccer

Nonetheless, this book was a timely gift for our future. It uses simple sentences and accurate illustrations to explain, step by step, how IVF can help people become parents. There is only one sentence per page with a focus on illustration, so it is most suited towards parents who are ready to have the first conversation with their child about their conception. It also doesn’t completely explore sex, which may suit a younger audience. Overall, it is an easy read that is not overwhelming.

The two parents featured in the book are heterosexual, but it is still a story I will read to my child because it focuses on how this process can give two loving people the chance to be parents. It is presented in a very positive light which I believe is important for a child in developing a confident self-concept. I would highly recommend this book as a starting point for the important conversation about the extra special way some babies are made.

 

 

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Review: The Amazing True Story of How Babies are Made by Fiona Katauskas

When I first started to consider having a family of my own, the obvious question was, ‘How will I answer the inventible question…. where did I come from?’ It is a question that any parent ponders at the appropriate time (usually closer to puberty), but in the lead up to that, it is standard to use an age-appropriate explanation… you know, when a man a woman love each other, he will share his seed with her egg… At least, that is how my parents kept my questions at bay before I was mature enough to understand this combination of relationship and biology. When a child is IVF and donor-conceived in a same-sex relationship, it adds a whole other layer of creative explanation. I understood this from the moment I knew I would have a family and I made it my business to find out how I could go about it.

One of the first ‘birds and bees’ books I came across whilst I pondered this conversation wasn’t found in a boutique book store or in some obscure place – I came across it at a regular Australian retailer in the suburbs. At the time I saw it, I thought it was quite progressive that this sort of book could be found in a forward-facing bookshelf alongside The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Possum Magic (great books, by the way). It covers a lot of the standard topics, as well as some of the not-so-standard topics, and is beautifully illustrated to book.

Click the picture to buy a copy from the publisher, Harper Collins

You should also check out Fiona’s website here. Her art and writing is definitely worth a look.

HowBabiesAreMade

Title: The Amazing True Story of How Babies are Made

Author/Illustrator: Fiona Katauskas

Age range: 8 and older

Themes/genre: Non-fiction without narrative, puberty, early sex education, anatomy

Review: 

This beautifully illustrated book is intended as a child’s first exploration into body changes and how babies are made – it is a great bridging piece that is appropriate for children who are approaching the age of the tween, where they may be craving to take their first steps into understanding their body, but not quite ready for a textbook style education. The first pages of the book presents the varied myths about where babies come from, but implores the young reader to consider that the true story of how babies are made is much more interesting… 

 

The first few pages of the book explore anatomical differences between boys and girls. The joy of this is that a parent could elect to share just these pages, and share the rest of the book as their child is ready to grasp the various concepts.

The next part of the book explores puberty and how each sex plays a role in making a baby. The book initially acknowledges the trick language that is often used to name these parts and processes which helps to familiarise the young reader, but it introduces correct scientific language to clarify the appropriate terminology. What really stands out about this book is that the illustrations are beautiful, clear, concise, and accurate.

Eggs-

The author throws in a few jokes that appeal to the young reader (as pictured above), but  these clever puns don’t take away from the accuracy of the book, nor do they cast the topics as ‘taboo’, which is a balanced approach to a topic that can be tough to get right. It is certainly a challenge to appeal to a young audience through their sense of humour, while still using scientifically accurate language, and without instilling shame about the human body.

Throughout the book, it presents the differences between boys’ and girls’ bodies, the process of puberty, fertilisation (including male-female sex), gestation, birth (including caesarean section), breastfeeding, and IVF (including sperm and egg donation). The illustrations detail these concepts, but are very age-appropriate.

What sets this book apart from other early sex education picture books is that it is written for the modern age. It acknowledges that children are made in different ways, and normalises this process alongside all of the usual routes to conception. There isn’t necessarily a mention of same-sex conception and relationships, but it is still a progressive step towards comprehensive and age-appropriate sex and puberty education that is well-written, accurate, and helpful for parents.

 

 

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Review: And Tango Makes Three – By Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

As well as being an avid reader, I am also a lover of animals – all sorts of animals! Last Christmas, I was fortunate enough to travel in various African countries and I spent many a day on safari, taking in the sight of animals in their natural environment. I spent an afternoon in Capetown, viewing the penguins at a beach and was captivated by the way they congregate and spend time together.

When I found And Tango Makes Three, I simply had to order a copy for my home bookshelf. This book is the true story of Roy and Silo, two chinstrap penguins who live in the zoo at Central Park in New York City (a place currently untapped by my travels). These two penguins fell in love and were given an egg that belonged to a male and female penguin, who were having trouble hatching it. Roy and Silo then raised the baby penguin, called Tango. The practice of two same-sex penguins raising a baby is apparently not uncommon and it has occurred a number of times. The way this book presents the story is sweet, normalised and heart-warming. It introduces the idea of having two fathers within the context of a real-life animal story.

Click the picture to buy a copy from the publisher, Little Simon (Simon & Schuster)

Tango

Title: And Tango Makes Three

Authors: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Illustrator: Henry Cole

Age Range: Suitable for 3 and older – comes in board book and eBook format

Themes/Genre: Short story, narrative non-fiction, board book, fathers, families, diversity, same-sex parents, zoos, wildlife

Review: 

I have always been fascinated by how animals in the natural world form family and kinship groups, especially in ways that challenge the idea that certain roles or family structures are ‘not natural.’ The diversity of the animal world is a lesson to humanity in many ways, that we can thrive under a range of circumstances and one type of family unit is not necessarily superior to the other.

The two main animal characters, Silo and Roy, start off with a friendship that is illustrated by natural behaviours (bowing, swimming together, and singing to each other).

Bowing

The two penguins then build a nest, but are dismayed when they realise they cannot hatch a rock inside it. Although they are two male penguins, they still have a strong and natural desire to do what the other penguins are doing. They are given an egg by the zookeeper that cannot be hatched through the usual means, and the rest of the story follows the process of keeping the egg warm, watching it hatch, feeding the baby penguin, and teaching it penguin behaviours.

The book describes how Roy and Silo, as two male penguins, do the same things as the other families in the zoo and in the city around them. Tango grows up in the same way as her other penguin peers and all is well. At no point in the book is their family structure made into a big deal by the penguins, the zoo visitors, or the zookeeper – which is really how it should be. The book as a whole successfully portrays a same-sex family with two fathers within a real-life narrative context, and it is a story that I connect with as someone who desires for all family structures, including my own, to be viewed as no different.

My favourite part in the story is the final page; ‘At night, the three penguins returned to their nest. There, they snuggled together and, like all the other penguins in the penguin house, and all the other animals in the zoo, and all the families in the big city around them, they went to sleep.’ 

Isn’t that the sweetest?

RJ Miles

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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