Opinion //

Sex (Mis)education by the Book

The book is a clear example of religion operating to the detriment of queer and young and queer people, emblematic of a rotten religious education system. Amazingly, it has remained in use despite a 2015 ban by the NSW Department of Education.

When I was in year nine at Trinity Grammar School, we had a sex education unit in our weekly compulsory Christian Studies class. This unit revolved around Patricia Weerakoon’s Teen Sex by the Book: A call to countercultural living, a text with a title that excels in deceptive irony.

For sex education — which should focus on helping young people be safe rather than promoting bogus information and fear — to be taught in a religious class is inherently objectionable. Even so, the content of Teen Sex by the Book is alarming. The book is a clear example of religion operating to the detriment of queer and young people, emblematic of a rotten religious education system. Amazingly, it has remained in use by the school despite a 2015 ban by the NSW Department of Education.

Towards its start, the book laments, “Instead of being confident in our gender identity as a male or a female, people are intersexed, transgendered and transsexual,” and, “Sometimes our desire is turned upside down and we become gay and lesbian.” Frankly, I could not recall anything from the book, other than that it preaches abstinence instead of providing helpful information for young people exploring their sexuality for the first time. After some more research, I discovered it also opposes abortion and instructs women not to dress in a way that might make men lust, nor to “start down the path of sexual arousal thinking that you can control the feelings and emotions before joining in sexual intercourse”.

A quick Google search revealed the book has an average of 4.2 stars out of 5 from five reviews on Amazon. According to the description, the book “answers your questions about teenage sexuality and relationships”. Immediately left out are homosexual, asexual and other queer relationships and sexual experiences. It goes on to say that Teen Sex by the Book “will inform and challenge you”. 

“Ultimately, it calls you to consider who you are and what you stand for. Discover how living God’s countercultural lifestyle leads to healthy, pleasurable sex and intimate, satisfying relationships that last a lifetime.”

The author is described as a “renowned sex therapist and educator”. Forgive my scepticism, for I decided against taking such a description of the author at face value. According to her Goodreads bio, “Her writing and speaking brings together her enthusiasm for sex and her love for the glory of God.” Although she isn’t lying by pretending she is objective, this is not a good start.

The book scores 3.94 out of 5 on Goodreads, an unmitigated shame given its content. Thankfully, the solitary one-star review hits the nail on the head with what is so disgraceful about this book.

“It’s a horrible book. The worst I’ve ever read! … Extremely homophobic and transphobic! This book could really hurt lgbtqia+ teens. Not to mention the amount of gender stereotypes mentioned! This book honestly disgusts me!” My condolences, Ella. Your frustration is more than justified.

With a few more clicks I discover that Teen Sex by the Book has already drawn the ire of Claire Bracken in Pedestrian and University of Pennsylvania student Mikaela Gilbert-Lurie in the American women’s magazine Bustle. Credit is owed to these two writers for tackling what should be a clear indictment of the way religious schools approach sex education, as well as any other writer who has done the same.

Aptly describing the book as a “boner killer”, Bracken’s article states that, as of the article’s publication in 2017, Teen Sex by the Book “is currently part of the Special Religious Education (SRE) curriculum for secondary public schools”. This would mean that public schools can use it in lessons, provided such instruction is organised by “authorized representatives of approved religious groups”. Although NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli in 2015 stated the book is not on the curriculum, Lara Wood of the parent lobby group Fairness In Religions In School said that Weerakoon herself was training SRE teachers. In 2020, the book was removed from use at Brisbane’s Moreton Bay Boys’ College due to an outcry over the problematic contents of the text. The school received $4 million in government funding in 2018.

From Bracken’s article, I am enlightened with a few quotes from the book, each of which makes for an alarming reading for their overt misogyny and homophobia. Weerakoon urges girls to recognise the “visual quick-fire potential of your male friends” in how they dress:

“Be kind in how you choose to dress and behave. It is true that you have the right to wear nice clothes and look pretty, but stop and think about the impact. Is it a godly thing to wear a short skirt and low-cut, tight top tempting your Christian brothers to lust? If not, don’t wear it.”

The sexist idea that women should have to bear the burden of male attitudes towards them is also evident in her commentary on casual sex, which effectively excuses sexual assault by emphasising the supposedly inevitable regret she claims one will feel for having casual sex and ignoring the critical importance of consent in any sexual activity:

“Sex will be a ‘heat of the moment’ action which, if you are not in a committed relationship, you will regret. And if you try to stop, your partner is likely to get just as frustrated and even angry. This is dangerous territory.”

As much as these last two quotes, her account of her own history of lesbian relationships as a teenager is telling. While it ends in the old style of using religion to shun homosexuality, it also proves that no one is inherently evil.

“Lesbian? I didn’t even know what that was … until I found out that’s exactly what I am – what I’ve always been. Around the age of ten, I started having feelings toward girls of my own age, but didn’t think anything of it. Then at 15, I started ‘dating’ older girls outside of school and discovered that I was actually a lesbian. But then at 16, I became a Christian and I knew that God didn’t want me to live this way.”

It is tragic the author feels she needs to reject her attraction to women to appease some cruel, misogynistic, queerphobic deity. It is also tragic that the book she wrote, despite being oppressed by this outlook, now puts young people at risk of the same sort of shame.

Sexuality educator Deanne Carson performed a critical analysis of the book, unsurprisingly finding it “does not meet industry standards or best practices”.

Other books contain alarming content as well. Your Sneaking Suspicion published by Anglican Youthworks claims that the Sydney Mardi Gras is “really promoting sexual selfishness, triviality and unfaithfulness”, and You: An Introduction by Michael Jensen states that “through submission to their husbands, wives will model the way in which God’s people yield to the headship of Christ”. While these two books were banned by the Department of Education at the same time as Teen Sex by the Book, Education Minister Piccoli unbanned them shortly after.

We still have a major problem with sex education in Australia. We’ve had countless instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault perpetrated in large part by young men, and content presently being assigned to students excuses the misogynistic attitudes behind much of it. Anything that spreads harmful misinformation to young people about sex has no place in classrooms.

Watch Sex Education instead.

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