simon copland 420x470Complaints against the supermarket chain Woolworths have lead it to remove a vibrator it was stocking in its sexual health section. The complaints were pretty predictable – that stocking vibrators in a supermarket would lead to the ‘sexualisation of children’. For example, Roslyn Phillips from ‘FamilyVoice Australia’ said: “Society is already suffering massive problems with young children being over-sexualised … this move by Woolies just makes the problem worse”.

It’s an argument we hear a lot, and one that shows an ongoing lack of maturity in our society around sex. I appreciate the concern about the sexualisation of children, but there is a big difference between sexualising kids and talking about sex with kids.

We still seem to want to live in a world where we can hide sex from children – where we can shield their eyes and block their ears until they’re 18 and old enough to ‘have the talk’. It’s part of a mood in our society that still treats sex as dirty and therefore something we need to shield from children. As sexologist Nikki Goldstein argued about Woolworths’ sex toys: “We are taught to view such products as dirty, naughty, shameful and outside the boundaries of normality, and that’s wrong”. The controversy over the ‘rip n roll’ campaign in Queensland last year was another good example of this.

The problem is that this creates an idea that sex is an odd and bad experience – one we must hide from. This can lead to long-term negative perceptions around sex, harming what should be a positive experience for people. But it also means that kids start to get information of sex from other means – most likely exploring porn on the Internet. Growing up and not being out, it was often through porn where I explored the idea of gay sex. This builds unrealistic expectations and understandings of what sex is all about.

Talking about Woolies’ sex toys, Terri Kelleher from the Australian Family Association argued: “Do we really need to be explaining to our children what a vibrator is whilst walking down the supermarket aisle? It completely undermines that parental prerogative as to when and how you raise these sorts of things with children”.

The problem with Kelleher’s argument is that we seem to want to shut down those conversations whenever the opportunity arises. We use kids as a way to hide from having mature conversations about sex in our society – whether with children, or amongst adults. This doesn’t mean we should encourage the sexualisation of children. But we can’t hide sex either, and even if we could, we shouldn’t. Sex is a natural part of our lives, and one we should celebrate, not feel ashamed about. The conversations may be difficult, but as a society we need to have them.

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