In the early 90s, my embarrassed Year 3 classmates were given permission slips for their parents to sign, so they could watch VHS copies of Where Did I Come From? and What’s Happening to Me? These were tame sex education cartoons, featuring footage of smiley-faced ovaries and cats falling in love. Personally, I found none of this necessary. My family was open about sex from Day One—possibly too open. We’d spend our evenings making pots of tea, before gathering around the television to watch informative segments about anal pleasure on Sophie Lee’s Sex. It’s what we called Family Time.
Being raised in a family like that, it’s difficult to pinpoint when I first heard about sex. My mother was the type of person who constantly outlined how reproduction worked—from the jolting discomfort of penetration, to the searing, flesh-tearing pain of childbirth—so the whole process was never exactly a mystery. If we wanted to see representations of how it all worked, The Joy of Sex was shelved in Dad’s study like an open secret, full of healthy, body-positive illustrations. The men had big beards, and the women had gloriously thick bushes. They looked like they were having lots of fun.
Beyond my family and school, my other main sex education provider was SBS, a channel that stands for Special Broadcasting Service, but may as well have stood for Sexy Banging Sluts. Back then, SBS’s programming was a solid mix of international news and ethnic pornography (moreso), and would even devote entire themed weeks to sex, screening back-to-back documentaries about penis size and the history of the vagina. Everything about SBS seemed sexual, even the name of their short film program—Eat Carpet—that sounded like a gritty Russian lesbian melodrama.
It was courtesy of SBS that I saw a fully-grown man’s penis for the first time, and I can happily report that this penis belonged to Javier Bardem. (Not bad.) He was starring alongside Penelope Cruz in Jamon, Jamon, a terrible Spanish film that literally translated to “Ham, Ham”. Its plotline that centred on a love triangle and ham. But watching SBS avidly as a child also came with its dangers. Because the movies were so warped and aggressively foreign, a lot of the sex I saw was also laced with an undercurrent of violence and cannibalism (The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover), Freudian breastmilk-drinking issues (The Tit and the Moon) or Japanese S&M (The Weatherwoman and The Weatherwoman Returns).
Really though, I had no one to blame but myself. As a pervy teenager, I’d scan and decode all the ratings for SBS films in the TV Guide. I knew M rated movies weren’t worth watching, but if it was rated MA and was followed by n (nudity), and s (sex scenes), you were guaranteed at least tits and arse and—if you were lucky—a representation of penetrative sex. But the holy grail were movies that looked like this: MA (asn). The “a” stood for adult themes, and if they stood first and foremost, it usually meant there were liberal doses of the goddamn jackpot: homosexuality. I’d set the video timer so I could watch movies like the French film Wild Reeds, My Own Private Idaho, or sordid prison dramas like Todd Haynes’ Poison.
I can’t honestly advocate that this constitutes a healthy sex education for youth. But when conservative “pro-family” commentators talk about kids being over-exposed to sexualised images, I feel like pointing out the difference between Bratz dolls and gyrating, shaved dancers in music videos, and healthy images of sex. Look at me! I was the worst kind of young pervert and I turned out okay. (Or, okay-ish.)
Either way, I’m glad my mother and my television programming talked to me about sex frankly, and didn’t speak in euphemisms. Parents who talk about birds and bees run the risk of confusing their children for the rest of their lives. The first time I heard the expression, I pictured swarms of bees flying out of a sparrow’s vagina. That’s not an image children should have to deal with. Luxurious European bushes and giggling couples in sexual congress? That’s something I could get behind. So to speak.