What even counts?

I read a great book this week that got me thinking about penile-vaginal sex. Not in that way, you seedy beast, but in how much it rules what we do in terms of sexual health education, societal norms and perspectives.

at all good bookstores…

Please note – I’m going to use the term penile-vaginal sex a lot. If that makes you feel uncomfortable – I want you to know and understand that I could not really care.

Karley Sciortino’s book Slutever is part memoir, part sociological critique of gender and sexuality through a sex-positive lens. It is not for the faint hearted and not a perfect book – but I really enjoyed some of the questioning moments in the book. I particularly enjoyed the section on what is sex and what isn’t. It is something as a researcher I think about in terms of education and information. Its a fascinating thing we’ve constructed as far as our societal definitions and cultural norms.

As a society, we place such a misguided amount of weight around penile-vaginal sex. It is what “counts” in losing your virginity. It is all all our relationships and sexuality education in schools often dares to focus on. Sciortino talks about how it is often the “goal” in sex between cisgendered heteronormative couples. Its great fun, but is it all that sex is? We’ve been having different types of sex since time began, but rarely educate on it.

Within my own research (as in, published scholarly, not google/wikipedia), young people voiced a desire for relationships and sexuality education that acknowledged same-sex attraction as well as diverse sexuality – and they wouldn’t mind some information that they actually need. (gasp) In another paper about to be published in Sex Education, stakeholders I spoke to who deliver sexual health promotion in the community, either as a job or as accidental experts – also talk about the need for education that is relevant and meets young people’s needs [edit: it is now published. read it here]. There is also a fair bit about being afraid of stigma and backlash – but both groups agreed it needs to be more than cross section diagrams of genitals.

So much of our relationships and sexuality education focuses on biology. It targets penile-vaginal intercourse with laser like intensity. Heaven forbid we acknowledge that sex is much more than that. God only knows what would happen if we acknowledged in our education that lesbian, gay and bisexual people have sex that may not involve either a penis or a vagina. Or that penile-vaginal intercourse is just one way to get off. I know the sky would fall in if we delved in to the pleasure zone, so lets keep things functional for now.

We could start by looking at what young people are actually doing. We, as a society could acknowledge that more than 50% of young people in years 10 to 12 have received oral sex (surveyed as part of the 6th National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health). Or that 50% have given oral sex. Or that 65% have already been off touching genitals and/or having their genitals touched. Experience in penile-vaginal sex comes in a lowly 44% of all genders. So what counts as having sex? Does oral sex? What about a hand job? What information is important?

If we think of sex in purely pro-creative and biological terms – of the young people surveyed, 66% were still virgins. And their future partners will be so happy to hear that. Or something. No one wants to marry a sullied “non-virgin”. So with that in mind, how do you lose your virginity if you are gay, lesbian or bisexual and only engage in same-sex relationships? Are you always a virgin, regardless? Frozen in time.

barf

Maybe all these young people are just saving their “Technical Virginity” by giving handjobs, having oral sex and anal sex. If you’ve never heard of “Technical Virginity” – its where you abstain from penile-vaginal intercourse while engaging in everything else. For some reason. Morality probably. It ensures that when they hold your sheets up Day One of your honeymoon that the awaiting crowd can be reassured you were a virgin. If you were a women. Because guys can slut it up as much as they want. Cause that doesn’t matter. Duh!

I find the most confusing part about it all this, is the focus around this coveted virginity test (I am aware the sheet showing doesn’t happen now). Does counting your sexual partners in terms of penile-vaginal intercourse really make sense? Aside from the fact that counting sexual partners in some form of chaste morality contest is pretty strange – does it really make sense saying that giving blow-jobs doesn’t count? What is sex? If blowjobs and going doing aren’t sex, then we don’t need to cover them in education after all. Or, maybe our education can get with the program and start focussing less on preventing pregnancy, and more on giving young people information they need. Lets dump our societal baggage and get real.

To be clear – I think if you’ve chosen to safely and consensually enjoy your body and someone else’s – that is awesome! If that is with a heap of people over time – great. Seriously, who cares? If you’ve decided to wait for “The One” to have penile-vaginal sex with – that is really super too! If while waiting, you’ve decided to have oral sex with a heap of people – again – that is great. But can we please move on from defining sex in terms of penile-vaginal intercourse? Can we perhaps even move on from competitions that spring from maintaining “Technical virginity” and gate-keeping morality and get real?

To true Mr Badger

Sex comes in a heap of different sizes, shapes and styles. Its a heap of fun and it is for a lot more than procreation. Young people for ever and a day have been having oral sex and jerking each other off in the back of their cars/wagons/etc. It is all sex. If you’ve been having a really fantastic time with someone and engaging in oral sex (giving and/or receiving) – I don’t know or care if you’re a virgin (and to be honest, no one really knows – or cares – so get over it). But I do know that it is sexual activity. You are or have been sexually active. You have sexed with people/s. Surprise!

Now you’ve gotten over that shock – we need to think about what we can do about all this sex that is going on.

We all need to learn about sex, about being sexually active and about how to negotiate consent. Preferably before we start doing it. We all need to learn how to do it safely and hopefully well, so everyone involved has a good, wholesome, fun ole’ time.

As adults, we need to advocate for real relationships and sexuality education – stuff that will actually help. When it’s needed. Lets get real and give people what they want. Useful information with a lot less slut shaming.

Down and dirty in Lancefield – SexRurality 2017

This August I was lucky enough to pack my bags and head across the land to rural Victoria. Lancefield to be exact. I was heading to SexRurality 2017, a small but vibrant conference put on by the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Excellence in Rural Sexual Health. As a rural-based PhD candidate, researching how to improve the coordination of sexual health interventions in small rural towns – I’d struggle to find a more relevant conference.

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I arrived in Victoria tired, excited and unsure what to make of this conference. I’d followed the 2015 instalment via Twitter and had liked what I had seen. This conference is primarily pitched at workers, researchers and educators in rural Victoria – I was unsure how relevant I would be to them, and what would be made of my presentation. Getting away to Lancefield was the culmination of an absolutely desperate couple of weeks – busy family life, hectic work and a few curve-balls thrown in along the way. Funding my trip was a stressful challenge – as a PhD student that has the privilege of undertaking my research sans scholarship (APA or otherwise), I found myself in the position that my School would fund my trip – provided I was presenting. Except abstract acceptance took a little while. They would also fund certain things upfront, others I would need to claim reimbursement. After a fragile few weeks that bordered on financial ruin, my abstracts were accepted, money flowed where it needed and I was buckling my seatbelt and stowing my hand luggage.DGGWWBJV0AADfXU

Lancefield seemed nice. Nestled near the Macedon Ranges, it is a tiny country town, with a quiet main street. I wandered around the afternoon before the conference trying to get a feel for the place. It was so close to Melbourne (75kms), but felt so far at the same time. It was, thankfully close enough that coffee in the local cafe was good and cheap! SexRurality was being held at a winery conference venue. It was going to be a tough few days.

Our conference kicked off as any should – with a heartfelt, informative and challenging Welcome to Country. Given how we came to be in possession of this land, I have no problem when a Welcome to Country touches on the removal of land and property and makes you uncomfortable. How can we understand where we are going, if we cannot acknowledge the past? Perry Wandin delivered this Welcome to Country. We were meeting on Wurundjeri land – and from what I had seen of it so far, it was beautiful. Perry gave us a bit of history of the area, told us about the Healesville mission, about Coranderrk, its granting to the Wurundjeri people and its removal when local farmers decided the land was too profitable to be in the hands of Aboriginals. Perry’s delivery was relaxed, passionate and informed. He gave me a glimpse of what had come before us in the area, and a hope of what could come.

We had a solid opening session. Professor Bill Adam welcomed us to the conference and touched on the need to train rural health workers in the rural setting. In order to get people in to the country, you need to train them – but you can’t just drop them there as juniors or students and hope for the best. There must be training for the trainers. Centralisation of training not just an issue for rural Victoria – it is incredibly challenging to do post-graduate or doctoral study in rural WA.

MP, Mary-Anne Thomas delivered a welcome address and launched the CERSH online modules on Rural Sexual Health Care. Thomas is the Labor Member for Macedon – and I have to admit, gave an impressive address. I’ve seen many an MP “phone-in” conference addresses. There was, of course, a nod towards the work her Government was doing, but what I appreciated was the sincere engagement with the topic and the context – Thomas spoke like someone who understood rural sexual health, not just read a briefing note. Thomas encouraged everyone present to “keep making waves and ripples”. This I appreciated.

 

Louise Galloway spoke on strategy developments to address stigma and discrimination as part of State wide policy in Blood borne virus and sexually transmitted infection control. Galloway asked us – what target is acceptable for stigma and discrimination? Her team were trying to set an appropriate target and agreed, you must set a target of zero. Associate Professor Jane Tomnay, gave us an overview of the work that CERSH was undertaking – and highlighted that there was not a single piece of work that CERSH did on its own. Tomnay noted that a lack of specialisation is a key characteristic of workers in rural areas who address sexual health. This is a key component of my own research – it’s no ones job. While this is an issue, there will be no improvement in specialisation any time soon, so we have to find ways to harness this generalist approach and find intersections in roles and improve collaboration. Professor Chris Fairly rounded out the morning session giving a clear and interesting presentation on the importance of government policy in addressing sexual health; how policy is more important that individual choice in this area.

After the break, we heard from Deakin University researchers and peer educators on the Sexual Lives and Respectful Relationships project – a program focussed on intellectual disability and sexuality. We were asked if supporting people with intellectual disability part if your core business – and it was highlighted within the presentation that accessibility takes more than a ramp, but a whole system approach. The SL&RR project peer educators gave us an insight in to what the project was really about and the type of content that was delivered. The program isn’t about teaching slang for body part and sex, about setting the rules on who you can hug and how, or about condom use. Its focuses on conversations, facilitation and community connections.

Our next presenter was author, Clementine Ford. Now, Clementine is known by everyone to be a man hating femi-nazi that won’t rest until women are all that is left of the human race. She makes grown men cry on the interwebs; says really mean things; and spews streams of misandry laced with vitriol. This is according to the bands of MRAs on Twitter (they even sent ME a few tweets once they knew I was sharing a presentation room with her). I’m a big fan of Ford. Her book is excellent, challenging; uncomfortable reading – and I was nervously excited by what would have to say.

flagFord talked about many things. Reproductive rights were a key theme; reproductive labour and child rearing responsibilities; how women die from abortion when it is unsafe; that access to abortion is a fundamental right. Ford urged us to change the conversation and perception of who actually accesses abortion; and to stop fighting the pro-life movement using pro-life language. Ford spoke about how abortion is not a first line choice for contraception for people – but it should not be excluded from the conversation when we plan and talk about it.

The question time for both presentations was intense. It was interesting. It was challenging. And after everything that was discussed, I felt like I’d learnt many things. One of them was how poor post-partum health care is and how much better it needs to be. There was a lot of passion in the room about the pelvic floor and its recovery. I felt schooled. kegel-chat

The afternoon sessions were split streams. I missed a significant chunk of time from one session, having a great conversation with Ford in the dining room. I wasn’t kidding about being a fan, and the opportunity to have a conversation with an author I respect was not something I could miss (and an embarrassing request to sign her book). Ford was incredibly generous with her time, given the juggling of responsibilities and engagements, and I’m really grateful of the time she gave me. We talked about men, about empathy, about dance, about a few things really – and I have to say, its surprising (not surprising) how wrong MRAs (and a fair chunk of Twitter) are about Ford (given their views on feminism, maybe not a shock). Despite all the Twitter warnings that I would be dismembered or beheaded; I was left with a great appreciation of a hard-working author, a list of books and papers to Google, and a signed copy of Fight Like a Girl. I know right, who’d have thought.

I rejoined the conference and jumped in to learning about how people were improving sexual health through social media and digital technology. Anna Roberts gave us a run down how Gippsland Women’s Health had used their #areyoucovered campaign to let young people in their region know where to get their paws on contraception from condom vending machines. They even had local governments competing against each other to see who could move the most “units”. Way to go harnessing those small town rivalries. I say we do the same. I’m looking at you Mt Barker.

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Linette Etheredge explained her PhD project engaging young people on intimate relationships through digital technology. One of the things that stuck with me from this presentation was, aside from the content; it is so hard to explore what young people think about sex, sexuality and relationships when we can’t get ethics to study them. This group need protection from exploitation, but given how many young people are sexually active at an age younger than what we can feasible get ethics to ask them about it – how do we support them? Megan Lim from the Burnet Institute, delivered findings from their online survey on young people’s perceptions on the impact of online pornography. It was noted that watching pornography online was common and frequent in both genders – with both genders noting problematic use.

The afternoon was a fantastic panel discussion on diversity, equity, rural life and sexual health. From the provision of care to refugee women living with HIV in the rural setting, to dealing with female genital mutilation, to improving how we address sex, pleasure and diversity, to addressing the needs of queer youth, to using a consortium model to improve sexual health outcomes for young people. There were simple solutions to complex challenges – things as pure as being respectful and watching your language; finding solutions to clinic booking systems, from being flexible with bookings to code-words to improve confidentiality; to just being flexible in general. Franklin John-Leader gave a key quote for me in the context of finding solutions in your region- in that “you can’t wait for people with magic bullets”. My entire PhD project was started on that idea – there wasn’t anyone else coming to do this.

It was a huge first day. I was pretty nervous about day two – and my chance to speak. I was tired from hearing from such fantastic presenters. We headed off for the usual canapes, drinks and dinner. This was a sexual health conference, not a nutrition conference, so the food wasn’t too healthy, there was cheese and cured meat and fantastic local wine. Don’t judge me. I was self-determinating. We also had great entertainment from the very talented Benny Walker. Playing to a room full of networking delegates is tough, but this guy was great.

Day two kicked off hard and fast. Marilyn Beaumont, OAM and Buga Up Alumni, got us rolling with a stirring and powerful reminder of the importance of advocacy in women’s health. Beaumont gave us the history of improving access to abortion in Victoria and the incredible amount of sacrifice and effort that their group went to. There was a standing ovation. It was deserved. To hear from this person, and the amazing work she and her colleagues did to advance human rights in Victoria (and Australia) was humbling, inspiring and a privilege.

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Dr Paddy Moore followed to give the current context of abortion service provision and access in rural Victoria. Circa 2013, the single most common reason for women to travel to Royal Women’s Hospital was to access abortion with many women travelling from across rural Victoria to access abortion services at this central. Moore spoke of the need to continue to improve rural access to services – in town, not in the city; and how they had gone about doing this. Dr Alan Hulme Chambers followed, to explain systems, statistics and stories of medical termination of pregnancy – and highlighted the need to maintain advocacy alongside service and system development. Hulme spoke of the importance of building local networks and ties for improving on the ground intelligence; and trust. These things were critical in delivering services in rural area. All spoke of the complications of providing abortion services in rural towns with abortion provider stigma and community politic – and how despite overwhelming public support of medical termination, health services still don’t advertise due to fear of backlash.

The late morning session was sexual health research in rural communities. I was up. I tried my best to focus on my fellow presenters and tried my hardest not to break in to a large sweat. There was a presentation giving a comparison between metro and regional medical and nursing care; Stephanie Atchison stepped out of her lab to present on the (lack) of knowledge HPV in Australian Men; Emily Grant told us about her roving exploration of the Barwon South West region in search of condoms (to assess for young people’s access). Vendors hiding condoms above the cigarettes to stop them being stolen, condom vending machines in weird places and a general lack of access were the key themes.

Shannon Hill presented on the referral pathways and practices in rural Victoria – with a lack of clear pathways, confusions and inconsistent knowledge common. Next up, was me. It was a kind crowd and there were mainly positive reviews. A big thank you to Siobhan Bourke for snapping me, and thanks to everyone that didn’t leave. Declan McGavin rounded of the session with his presentation on practice nurse and practice manager perspectives on sexual health discussions with older Australians. We can’t forget “older” Australian’s are having sex. As one of my nursing lecturers once said to me – when would you like to stop, pick an age.

Lunch was eaten with the appetite of a man relieved to no longer have to present – a tired content that bordered on an inability to re-engage with the conference at all. If you’ve presented, you know what I mean – it’s not that you don’t WANT to get back in to it, it is just that the pressure is off, you can relax, and a nap would be amazing. I held off on the nap, ponied up and went back for more.

Jack Nelson, from CERSH, spoke about their SHOUT project. One of the things that really stuck in my mind about this presentation was the analysis of previous poster campaigns by young people. The language on the posters didn’t match with the young people’s own language – it was trying to be cool. That was lost on them. Anna Roberts doubled up to talk about trying to get schools to engage in collaboration to deliver relationships and sexuality education. Results hadn’t been amazing – and goes to show, even with incentives, sexual health can be a hard sell. It was also great to hear about things that weren’t working so well – we can learn from struggles as much as success. Eileen Berry, professional journalist come sexual health resource creator presented/was interviewed about developing her parent guides resource. As well as giving us a great insight into what is basically a passion project (of wonderful merit) and how it came to be, Eileen also gave us some great tips on dealing with the media, the best being:

“There is no such thing as a free lunch, if you’ve got a lot of secrets – don’t go lunch”.

We wrapped the conference with a review of all the sessions – there was so much great content. Then wearily, everyone headed off, back to reality. Back to places where sexual health is nobody’s job; where no one is that interested in young people getting condoms; where abortion is judged through a moral lens; were the world is binary and there is much contradiction. We’ll go back to worlds where people will want to argue the definition of rural. Where people will say, yes, ok, sounds important, but what about the ice problem? Where feminism is a dirty word.

I was going back to WA. Back to my little office. Back alone, muddling through a project that at times seems obvious and unwanted. At least we know, come 2019, somewhere in rural Victoria, we might all come back together again, to be around friends, to search for solutions, collaborations and ways to make sure sexual health is on the agenda. In the meantime, I’ll be here:

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