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Photo: Trinette Reed Photography

As a non-parent, I accept that my views on adolescent sexual education might not mesh with people concerned about their offspring diving into experiences they may not be ready for. The advent and growth of sexting alone is a terrifying prospect for parents suddenly confronted by their child’s burgeoning sexual exploration, and it’s understandable - if unreasonable - that some people want to ignore it for as long as possible. But healthy sexual choices are best made by people who’ve been encouraged to have a healthy, open dialogue around sexuality in all its complexities. And unfortunately, this dialogue still appears to be largely missing in Australia’s education institutions.

Earlier this year, sexual health experts argued that Australia’s sex education system was in drastic need of an overhaul. Professor Catherine Lumby, who has spent the past two years working on an Australian Research Council project called ‘Young People, Sex, Love and Media’, expressed concern over the high degree of confusion felt by sexually active adolescents grappling with the issues of consent and pleasure. Professor Lumby’s research shows that girls feel pressure to be sexually active from a young age while boys have different anxieties about sexual expectation and appropriate behaviour.

In the same article, journalist Jill Stark spoke to Stef Tipping from the Centre Against Sexual Assault. Tipping is the co-coordinator for CASA’s secondary schools program. Tipping says staff involved with the centre’s six week sexual assault prevention program still encounter the kind of double standards which see sexually active girls and boys separated into ‘sluts’ and ‘legends’. She says these attitudes still lead to confusion around matters of consent.

Worryingly, new research coming out of UK shows there’s also an inadequacy around sex education in a world where hardcore pornography is easily accessed by teenagers. Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine interviewed a sample size of adolescents across three British locations for a study which focused exclusively on the ‘expectations, experiences and circumstances of anal sex among [heterosexual] young people’.

In addition to concerns around the lack of discussion about anal sex in general sexual health education, researchers found that many adolescent girls felt expected to do it while boys felt pressure to persuade or coerce them into it. While some young men said they avoided anal sex out of concern for their partner’s comfort, others admitted to pushing for it despite believing it would probably hurt her. In fact, researchers found that girls’ pleasure was “often absent in narratives of anal heterosex” and that this was seemingly accepted as normal.

Issues of pleasure and consent should be considered central rather than peripheral to comprehensive sex education. Gone are the days when parents and educators could focus exclusively on the matters of biology and reproduction, leaving children to figure out everything else in the backseats of cars and in other people’s bedrooms. Sexual exploration is unavoidable in adolescents, and healthy teenagers are the ones who’ve been empowered to make informed choices. As uncomfortable as it might make adults to think about children having anal sex, the reality is that it’s not only happening, it’s happening with the absence of information and sensible instruction.

Practically speaking, anal sex is something that requires substantially more preparation than vaginal penetration because the anus isn’t self lubricating. It deeply concerns me to read via this research that some young heterosexual boys are attempting to ‘sneak one past the goalposts’ by claiming accidental penetration. Prioritising your desires over your partners to the point where you don’t seek consent for sexual activity isn’t just a jerk move - it’s sexual assault. Everyone - not just young people - needs to understand that this kind of behaviour isn’t okay.

But even if consent has been given, it’s physically risky to attempt anal sex without adequate lubrication or care. The tissue inside the anus is vulnerable to tearing, meaning it’s also vulnerable to the spread of infections and bacteria. Young heterosexual people who access their primary sex education through porn might not be aware that switching directly between anal and vaginal penetration can transmit bacteria from the anus to the vagina and increase the risk of painful bacterial infections.

The researchers conducting this study acknowledged that mutually pleasurable anal sex is possible for heterosexual couples, but like any sex related activity it hinges on issues of consent and respect.

These are uncomfortable realities for many adults to confront about adolescent sexual behaviour. However, it’s vital that we do so if we want to encourage healthy sexual relationships rather than coercive behaviour that has the potential to be both emotionally and physically destructive. ‘Talk to your child today about safe anal sex’ may not be something a parent ever thought they’d be advised to do, but it’s time that everyone face facts.

The kids are doing it, and we need to make sure they’re alright.