Sue and Debbie from Puberty Blues.
Without a doubt, one of the best Australian dramas on TV right now (and arguably one of the best ever made, period) is Channel Ten’s Puberty Blues. Based on the 1979 eponymous book by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, it tells the story of two teenage girls growing up on the beaches of Cronulla where sex, drugs and oppressive gender warfare dominate.
The early sexual experiences of protagonists Sue and Debbie are characterised by pleasureless ‘roots’ administered for the most part by boys with no concern for their consent or mutual pleasure. Which is why it’s been so fist-pumpingly wonderful to watch as season two of Puberty Blues sends Sue on a path of sexual self discovery. Portrayed beautifully by Brenna Harding, Sue’s upbringing has the edge on Debbie’s due to the liberal mindedness of her parents.
After a frank discussion with her mother (Susie Porter) in which Sue confesses that “sex is like homework - you hate doing it, but you have to”, she is given a copy of ‘The Joy of Sex’ and told to find one boy who she can discover what to do with together. “Okay,” her mother Pam says. “Now you’re going to choose one, teach him to listen, and then you tell him where to go.”
Puberty Blues's Sue on orgasms, "Like Rice Crispies exploding on top of a rainbow/"
Watching this tender interplay between mother and daughter reinforced to me just how important it is for us all to be as encouraging of sexual desire in girls as we are with boys. The sex drives of the latter have never been in question; they form the subject of storytelling narratives, jokes and even defences against bad or criminal behaviour.
But girls are given short shrift when it comes to hormones and sexual curiosity. Overwhelmingly, the social message that girls hear is that sex for us is meaningless without love. Rather than choosing a boy, teaching him to listen and telling him where to go, we’re told instead from a young age to be wary of who we ‘give it’ to because ‘boys don’t respect girls who don’t respect themselves’.
All of that places girls in the position of passive bystander to sexual activity. Because what’s not to respect about a woman who knows what she wants, who isn’t afraid to ask for it and who understands that the world of pleasure has more for her than simply negotiating the exchange of sex (a secondary activity) for the receipt of love (the primary goal)?
One of the best ways we can encourage young girls to prioritise their sexual pleasure above that of a wishy washy notion of ‘love’ is to once and for all lose the whispered stigma around female masturbation. The biological aspects of sex education are necessary, but they have to go hand in hand with lessons on pleasure - both the mutual exchange of it and its solitary pursuit. I have hopes that this is changing already, but I still hear far too many women eschewing masturbation, claiming either that they get bored or that if they’ve got the horn they’ll just find someone to have sex with.
Such an exchange happened recently on MTV’s Awkward, a TV dramady that follows the misadventures of high school senior Jenna and her friends. In the season 4 premiere, Jenna is caught masturbating by her parents, both of whom handle it with a healthy mix of embarrassment and encouragement. Later, Jenna’s best friend Tamara asks her if she was really caught ‘tiptoeing through the tulips’ and if she has orgasms. “Why else would I do it?” comes Jenna’s response.
I liked this scene because it normalises masturbation for girls while making it clear that there’s no shame in seeking orgasms. But it’s powerful as well because Tamara’s vocal distancing from the act isn’t enough to mask the fact that she feels like she’s missing out on a fundamental aspect of sexuality.
When she later establishes that her boyfriend has had a 100% success rate with orgasming together, she gets agitated by the fact that her own ‘half-orgasms’ have been accepted as good enough. By the episode’s end, she’s figured some things out with the help of her friends (not to mention her electric toothbrush), and the message is clear - masturbation and orgasms good, repression bad.
Sex with another (or multiple) partners is very different to sex alone - the latter isn’t just a whizzbang way to entertain yourself for a few minutes (or hours, depending on your preference). It’s also a perfect celebration of sexual selfishness and exploration without pressure - two things essential to women to not only understand the ebbs and flows of their bodies but to become more attuned to how to stimulate those things with a partner. After all, if you can’t figure out how to get yourself off, how can you expect someone else to?"
Like Tamara, Sue also goes on her journey of sexual self discovery. As her mother instructs, she finds a boy (Woody) and together they explore open, respectful and adventurous sex together free from judgment or shame. After Sue has her first orgasm, she walks home along the beach contemplating the shift of understanding that’s just happened; her face erupts into the most joyful of smiles, and not a dry eye was to be had in any woman across the land. I wept again when she describes the feeling to her mother - like Rice Crispies exploding on top of a rainbow.
Why wouldn’t anyone want to get all up on that, especially if they can do it alone? We’re packing major heat in our pants, ladies. There’s no shame in spending time tinkering with the engine. Besides, from my many years of experience, I can personally guarantee that a well oiled machine doesn’t take much revving to turn over.