Vanessa Hamilton is the founder of Talking The Talk: Sex and Health Education. Since 2013, she has taught preps all the way through to university students about sexuality and consent, as well as guided parents, teachers and health professionals on how to effectively have “The Talk” with children. (Hint: it’s not just a one-off talk!) Australia could use more parents and educators like Vanessa. LBDO was lucky enough to have her impart some of her wisdom to us.
You call yourself a sexuality educator and not a sex educator. Could you explain why it’s important to differentiate the two?
So in my sessions, I ask adults to define the word "sex", and to define the word "sexuality". And when we break it down, broadly, when people hear the word sex, they think of penis-vagina, heterosexual intercourse. They'll often say, "doing it", "the deed", "the act of". They'll also say the word "gender" and we'll explore that too, male and female.
Sex is a very limiting word for what we know about human sexuality. It's very unhelpful. For example, when we use it in the context of sex ed, people think we're going to teach kids about penis-vagina heterosexual intercourse, when in fact, sexuality is so much broader than that. Human sexuality is relevant for people from birth to death. And actually, sexuality education for kids has hardly anything to do with what people commonly think of when they hear the word sex.
Why did you start Talking The Talk?
I'd been working as a sexual health nurse for nearly 20 years at that point. As a parent, my eldest child was five and I wondered if parents needed help having conversations with their kids about sex and sexuality. I was on my third maternity leave while I was trying to make that decision, and I got a question from my five-year-old that stumped me and prompted me starting the business.
What was that question?
“How does the man stop the wee from coming out when he's putting the seed in the vagina?”
I'd been fine with talking to him about seeds and eggs and sperm and how they get together. We'd obviously had that basic conversation, but suddenly he was talking about ejaculation and orgasm, and I thought, “He's five years old, I don't know where to go with this”. And from there, I started the business. The main aim was to teach parents and teachers, but schools soon approached me asking for a contemporary approach to sexuality education, because they weren't getting that from their current providers.
You tell parents that they are, or that they should make themselves, their child's main sexuality educator. What's the general reaction when you say this? Are parents ever surprised by this or reluctant to take on that role?
They're not surprised. They agree that they should be, definitely. Especially when I ask them where they got their information from, and to reflect on that experience. Most people say that they didn't have an adequate education, and they don't want that to happen for their children. Then we explore the fact that children are getting a sexuality education every day, whether we like it or not, from advertising, TV, social media, society and pornography. And then I ask them this key question: “Who do you want to be the main person who talks to your child about each topic of sex and sexuality?” And when they reflect on that, they realize they want it to be them. Some of them laugh and say they want it to be me, and I say you can't pay me enough because it's hard enough to do it for my own children. They realize it needs to be them and I say, "Well, what do you need to do to get in first, to make sure you're the first person?"
Parents need to be a key resource for their children for sexuality education. They need to be an askable parent. Their children need them to be that. And then we break down the fears and myths to support them to do that.
Why do you think so many parents are afraid to talk about sexuality with their kids?
Oh my goodness, so many reasons. There are so many fears and myths, but there are common ones. Essentially, our society and our background learning about sex and sexuality has been based on fear, danger and taboo, whereas we need to replace that with a positive joyful approach to empowering kids with information. We know that countries that give children information from a young age throughout their schooling—age-appropriate, accurate, comprehensive sexuality education—they have much better outcomes later on in life.
Parents are worried they're going to harm their children; they're worried they don't have the right language; they're worried that they're going to say the wrong thing; they're worried that they're going to put ideas into their children's heads, all of those inaccurate myths. And we can debunk all of those. We know that giving information is not permission, it's empowering, and with it comes values. Parents often don't understand that young people become sexually active and interested in experimenting, and this is typically-expected behaviour for young people from around age 14-15 onward, especially increasing with age. Children don’t suddenly become sexual beings, sexually active, the day they finish school, get out of the school uniform and turn 18.
Also, we're very conservative about talking about species reproduction because we won't talk about penis-in-vagina sex, sexual intercourse, when, in fact, it's an amazing story of human species reproduction. There's nothing shameful or taboo about it. Telling kids about it doesn't make them do it, doesn't give them permission. Parents have got layer upon layer upon layer of stuff in their head about sex and sexuality, a lot of it negative. And I say parents need to strip back those layers (excuse the pun) to just address the simple language and the simple question in front of us.
Global research tells us that it's beneficial to children to teach children about sex and sexuality comprehensively. The main reason is to protect them from abuse. This silence around teaching children the body part names, body safety and understanding what's happening to their bodies is generally beneficial for perpetrators. Whereas we know that perpetrators will generally avoid children who have that good knowledge.
Is there a difference between being really open with your kids about sexuality and having no boundaries on this topic?
It's got to be age-appropriate content and language. You do need to keep in mind a young person's privacy and boundaries, but at the same time, their health, safety and well-being needs need to be met. So for example, I say to parents, “What age should you tell kids about online internet pornography?” And the answer to that is that we should tell children when they have access to the internet. But you wouldn't tell a three-year-old about pornography, you wouldn't say the word. But you would tell a three-year-old that there are inappropriate images on the internet that might give them their early warning signs (because you've incorporated body safety conversations as well) and they need to turn the iPad over or turn the phone over and come and get you straight away.
As age increases, you increase the age-appropriate language: "There are fake images of naked people and people having sexual contact on the internet and they're harmful for kids and we're sorry that they're there, but you need to let us know if they are. You won't get in trouble and your device won't be taken off you." So that's age-appropriate for young ages. And even when they're older—13, 14, 15, 16—you can ask questions like, "Oh, you know, I read an article that 100 per cent of 15-year-old physical males have seen pornography. Do you think that's accurate? Is that accurate for your friends?" So there are ways of opening up conversation and having a shared mutual, consensual conversation.
So in your career, have you found that parents in Australia are generally becoming less shame-based in how they communicate with their kids about sexuality?
I think they are. I don't think they want to [laughs]. But I think they know they need to because pornography is so prevalent, and they're seeing the effects of pornography in the school ground. It's in exhibiting problematic sexual behaviour, the language that kids are using, the social media aspects of it. I think parents know that they need to do something about it. So they've been a bit more aware.
Are discussions about sexual pleasure with children and teens also an important part of this?
Very important and highly lacking.
How would that conversation go?
So pleasure needs to be seen not as something that's shameful or embarrassing or taboo. Pleasure needs to be talked about on all levels of conversation about bodies. So when you're talking to children, you use analogies in the sense of pleasurable touch. You know, "It's nice to hold your friend's hand, but only if they want to hold your hand and then it feels good for both of you and they don't feel bad." So the analogy for that is that you don't have sexual intimacy with another person if they don't want to do that. It should be pleasurable.
One of the things I tell university students when I get one hour with them on their orientation day is to raise the bar of their expectations of their sexual encounters for the future. They've been fed a dialogue that it's okay for it to be a negative experience, when it's not. It should never be harmful, painful or cause regret. It should always be at least fun, definitely pleasurable, maybe awkward and smelly and strange, but it shouldn't be a negative experience. We do not talk about pleasure enough. And if we're going to talk about consent, we have to talk about pleasure. Because why would you want to shove your penis in someone's mouth when they don't want you to do that? Actually, that won't provide you the best pleasure you can possibly have.
What did you think of the Federal Government’s infamous campaign about consent using the milkshake metaphor, which came out earlier this year?
I have no words. An appalling waste of public money, where experts were not consulted. I was shocked to be called from a radio station to be interviewed about the new resources that had just been released, and I hadn't even heard about them.
How would you have done the milkshake advertisement differently? What are the more effective ways to communicate about sexuality and consent with kids?
Oh there are so many [laughs]. I honestly think someone in advertising sat down and said, "How can we make it look like the person is ejaculating on someone's face without their consent?" And then they said, "Let's flip it to the female from the male so it's not so obvious." Ridiculous. Kids aren't stupid.
How I would do it? Well, for young teens, I talk about Lego, would you believe? I've got two stories that I utilize in the classroom. For the little children, it's about shoelaces and the bigger ones, it's Lego. The older ones, we actually talk about sexual consent. And you be honest, you say, "You don't do something sexually with another person if they don't give you enthusiastic, ongoing consent," We talk about what that looks like and it's just: complete, 100%, enthusiastic, ongoing. We tell the older ones they will have better sexual pleasure, outcomes, experiences, and they won't break the law. If they're unsure, as one student asked me one day: "What if you go along and do it and the next day she changes her mind and says she didn't want to do it?" I say, "Well go back a step. What probably happened there is he didn't have enthusiastic ongoing consent at the time because believe me, you would know about it if you had it.” And we're not teaching them how to look for those verbal and nonverbal signs of enthusiastic: "Yes, let's do this". If you have not got that "Yes, let's do this" verbally and physically continually throughout the experience, you don't have consent, simple as that.
So the Lego scenario is: if you invite your friend over to build the Deathstar together, and suddenly you're nearly finished and they say they don't want to play anymore, we workshop what you do, how do you react to that. And it's really interesting, the great peer conversation that ensues about feeling disappointed. Some kids will say, "That's mean of them, they should just do it because I want to finish it." One student in the classroom said, "I'd punch them". So then we go on to talk about how they have the right to change their mind, and how you should provide a safe space for the other person to change their mind. And if they've said to you, "Look, I really don't feel like continuing doing this," you should be proud of yourself that they feel like they can say that to you. Then we talk about what you could do. You could negotiate something else mutually enjoyable to do together. Or one person can "finish off" the activity while the other person goes and does something else. Or they can do it tomorrow, or they could change and take a break. All of those can be analogies related to sexual intimacy because consent is a decision-making process, it's not about actions. So those innate decisions should be made early on throughout their life for everything. Consent starts in the playground. And then they can bring those decision-making skills to their intimate encounters later on in life.
You can find more information and contact Vanessa here.