How do young men learn to be healthy, happy sexual beings?

Khelan Morrey, 13, went camping with his father Nick to help with the transition to manhood.
Khelan Morrey, 13, went camping with his father Nick to help with the transition to manhood. Photo: Justin McManus

Sixteen-year-old Noah is a regular boy. He lives at home with his parents, goes to a co-ed state school in the inner western suburbs of Melbourne, and on Playstation it's a toss-up between favourite shoot-'em-up games Mass Effect 3and Battlefield 4. In the corner of his bedroom a table is covered with half-painted strategy and role-playing-games, his bed is an unmade tangle of doonas and an Avengers poster decorates one wall.

Tonight we're chatting at the kitchen table about sex. It's a little awkward - his mother is there, too - but he is honest, thoughtful and frank. He tells us how at school the tribes generally stick together: sporty types with sporty types, popular girls with the lads, and his tribe, the ''normal people'', with each other. He tells us of the three kids who got suspended last year for hacking into the school laptops and looking at porn and that there are ''three or four'' couples in his year (year 10) who say they are in a sexual relationship. And then, to his mother's muted surprise, he reveals that he's had sex too, recently, with someone he cares about. ''Interesting,'' he says of his first time. ''That's the one word I'd use to describe it.''

Teenagers having sex is hardly news. The most recent data - La Trobe University's fifth National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health - shows that a quarter of year 10 students, a third of year 11s and half of all year 12s have done it. Technology has brought changes, too, with sexting - sending explicit photographs by mobile phone - now ''a common part of teenage sexual behaviour and courtship''.

Some further reading and viewing…
Some further reading and viewing… 

But something is going wrong.

In May this year Elliot Rodger, a wealthy, educated but mentally disturbed 22-year-old college student, went on a stabbing and shooting spree in southern California that ended the lives of seven people, including his own. In a written manifesto and a series of video clips he uploaded to the internet, he spoke of a deep resentment towards women saying, among other things: ''For the last eight years of my life, ever since I hit puberty, I've been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection and unfulfilled desires, all because girls have never been attracted to me.''

Here are these big burly boys up there talking about desire, talking about sexual pleasure and how women experience sexual pleasure, talking about gender-based violence, talking about love - Dr Debbie Ollis

In the wake of the killings commentators speculated that despite Elliot's mental illness, the incident reflects a society that encourages both misogyny and a culture of instant gratification. Social media, easy access to violent and explicit pornographic material via the internet, and the increasing sexualisation of teenagers are also distorting healthy human sexual relationships.

So, in the light of all these new pressures, how are we preparing our boys and young men to become sexual beings?

In Noah's experience pornography, sexting (''dick pics'') and social media apps including Snapchat (an ephemeral photo messaging service) are part of the furniture. At school, sex education happens in PE. The teacher reads a book and asks questions and the students - boys and girls together - come up with answers in class. It's a work in progress, too, with last year's batch of students pitching in to fix and add things they thought were missing from the manual. ''[The school is] doing the best they can without knowing you on a personal level,'' says Noah. ''It's kind of one of those things where, if you wanted to go into more detail or depth or more understanding, you'd need to know the person on a personal level and talk to them one on one.''

Noah's not alone in his damning faint praise of sex education in schools. The La Trobe sex survey data indicates that half of young people are dissatisfied, ''citing irrelevance to their real experiences, lack of relationship advice and lack of discussion of same-sex issues as problems''.


Part of the problem may be that while the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development requires all schools to deliver some sex education, the content, form and intensity is left open. And without specific training it's understandable that many teachers would feel reluctant to take on the challenge, which is why sex ed is often outsourced to specialists.

Lynne Jordan is chief executive of Family Planning Victoria, a not-for-profit organisation that has been sending sex educators into schools for more than 30 years. In June, with the Department of Health, it launched ''Safe Landing'', a set of tools designed to tackle barriers inhibiting teachers from delivering sex education programs. It includes professional development plus a range of teaching resources. Jordan advocates a ''whole school approach'', which engages with school councils, parents, students and other people in the community to make it sustainable. ''Teachers move on, principals move on and the next principal may not have the same priority, but if you embed it into the ethos of the school it will keep going,'' she says.

At Deakin University, Dr Debbie Ollis is excited about health and physical education teachers. It often falls to these teachers to stand up in front of the class and talk about sex. Since last year, third-year Deakin teachers-in-training must do a seven-day intensive course with her on sexuality education.

''It has been fantastic,'' says Ollis, a senior lecturer in health and physical education. ''Here are these big burly boys up there talking about desire, talking about sexual pleasure and describing how women experience sexual pleasure, talking about gender-based violence, talking about love. And if we can get our young male teachers to have some sound theoretical and practical background in this then we may see some changes in schools because these are the men that a lot of our young men are going to look up to.''

In late December last year, 12-year-old Khelan Morrey went on a special trip with his dad and two uncles. Deep in the Tasmanian wilderness the four climbed a mountain, ate scroggin and slept under the stars. They also spent time talking about sex. ''I guess you could say they prepared me for manhood,'' says Khelan, now 13. ''They reinforced a few things, like you have to be respectful to everybody you meet and to women especially. And they were telling me that there are men in my life that I can always go to for advice . We also had a fire and they were teaching me how to spit.''

The camping trip was a ''welcoming to manhood'', a rite of passage designed to acknowledge and celebrate the transition of Khelan from boyhood to manhood. Khelan's father is a psychologist and Janoel Liddy, Khelan's mother, has been running Celebration Days for Girls workshops - a chance for mothers and daughters to celebrate and understand menstruation - for the past two years.

''It's a huge transition time,'' says Janoel of Khelan's experience. ''It's the most important time that you'll really come across in growing up because it's about learning about who you are and how you function in the world in relation to other people.''

Khelan now has a group of men - not just his father - who he can turn to for advice and support. That's something Andrew Lines, of The Rite Journey, a school-based rite of passage program taught in 60 schools across Australia and New Zealand, believes in strongly. Lines is a physical/outdoor education teacher and father of two boys and two girls. He's convinced men need to ''step up'' and have more conversations with boys in order to prepare them for adulthood. ''A really important and protective factor for young people is for them to have what an author called Brene Brown calls 'me-too moments', which is when an adolescent connects with an adult and says, 'oh yeah, me too'. And that almost empowers them to move into adulthood knowing that, 'yes, people have these experiences and survive'. The stories are important.''

But some subjects are trickier to open up about than others. Like porn. While previous generations of boys may have stumbled across a girlie mag in their dad's closet, their first sexual encounters weren't tainted by the kind of explicit, often violent and degrading pornography that is now easily accessible on the internet. In those pre-internet days young people entered into their first physical relationship without an explicit model as to what sex was, says Lines, and it became an exploration between two people as to how it might be. ''Now, one of the massive issues is that boys have a picture of what they think it is and what they think it should be and, therefore, anything short of that is almost unacceptable. That needs to be talked about.''

Steve Biddulph, retired psychologist and author of popular parenting books including Raising Boys and The New Manhood, believes we have to fight the worrying media trend of turning women and girls into items for consumption. The key, he says, is educating young people to see each other as people, with feelings, hearts and minds. ''The mass media commodifies women and creepifies males,'' he says. By ''creep'' he means that tendency in men to see women as just objects to be used. And it's a battle. We live in a world where everyday we are exposed to highly sexualised images of women in mainstream media - on billboards, in magazines, on television and, of course, on the internet. In a sexualised environment like this, says Biddulph, where sex is everywhere but warmth and connection are not easily found, men who are lonely or marginal start to turn angry. ''If their experiences of women, especially their mothers, has been poor, or their fathers have not demonstrated respect for women, then it's a perfect storm.''

Although the troubled Elliot Rodger left a lot of video and written evidence, it's impossible to know exactly what was going on in his mind when he went on his killing spree. Biddulph believes this kind of stuff starts early: raising little boys with gentleness and empathy; talking to teenagers about getting past the porn images to form real relationships; helping girls value themselves as people, not for their appearance.

''We have to stand against the flood of dehumanising messages that the world sends to our children. We have to make sure that everyone belongs and is treated with consideration. Adolescence can be such a lonely time. And young men are often the loneliest of all,'' he says.

It's interesting that despite the apparent openness and ''in-your-face'' nature of sexuality today, we are still prone to stumble over this very central part of life. But it's tricky. Handled correctly, says Biddulph, it should be about sensitivity and trust, not performance, image or comparisons - and certainly not at all about how we look.

''We learn to be human from other human beings and that means giving our children and young people lots of options to learn from good adults, as well as to talk more, and listen more, to each other,'' he says.

''It's surprising given the degree of sexual activity at younger and younger ages, how little actual conversation takes place in teenage relationships. Parents begin the process, skilled educators can add to that. Sex education is part of love education and it needs to go far beyond the plumbing and into relationships, values, choices and the vital place of demanding and giving respect.''

Back at the kitchen table, Noah and his mother are singing the praises of the BBC science-fiction series Dr Who (Noah has watched from Christopher Eccleston on). ''I believe he's totally helped, on so many levels,'' says Noah's mother. ''He's always got a strong female somewhere and just his way around sexuality is really open. He's one of the best role models and I was very glad to expose Noah to him.''

''He's amazing,'' agrees Noah.

It's been an instructive evening. Noah has been very generous and communicative. We've talked about a lot of things that don't come up in regular conversation. Sure, the circumstances are a little odd - it's not everyday that a teenager sits down to talk about his sex life in the company of his parents and a journalist. But it feels right.

Despite being strict when it comes to internet access, Noah's parents first discovered he had seen porn when he was 14. They were mortified.

''It's like a level-jump,'' says Noah's mother. ''This is for adults and he can look up anything.''

Noah's father says parents have to be vigilant. No computers in your child's room or at least no internet access except in a shared space. Despite his exposure to porn, though, Noah doesn't think his first recent sexual encounter was adversely influenced. In fact, he dismisses porn altogether. ''It's just violent,'' he says. ''It looks like a fight.''