#LoveOzYA Q&A with Dr Melissa Kang
WELCOME TO CONSENT is an inclusive, frank and funny guide to navigating consent for tweens and teens of all genders, from adolescent health experts Dr Melissa Kang and Yumi Stynes.
Here, Dr Melissa chats with #LoveOzYA’s A.B Endacott about the process of creating the follow up to Welcome to Your Period, and the timeliness of a book for young people all about consent.
You can also check out clips from the chat on our YouTube channel!
Congratulations on the launch of WELCOME TO CONSENT that you’ve co-authored with Yumi Stynes. My first question is: obviously, books don’t get made immediately, but it feels incredibly timely. What initially prompted you to start writing it? And did you change your like writing schedule or publication schedule in response to what has been going on in contemporary politics at the moment?
The short answer to the second question is no, there was no change.
To answer the first question: as you know, I’ve worked in adolescent health my entire career in lots of different ways as a researcher, teacher, educator, clinician, and answering Dolly Doctor questions for 23 years for that publication. And so consent to me is a no-brainer. It’s always been part of my work in all its different aspects.
For Yumi and me, we had written Welcome to Your Period together, and it was a really fun collaboration, and we just felt there were so many possibilities to sort of continue writing books for young people that could talk about many different aspects of their life to do with health and wellbeing.
Consent was just really important to both of us. So we set upon that task, knowing it would be really challenging and really complex, and it has been. And look, by the time media stories broke earlier this year — I suppose it started with Grace Tame being named as Australian of the Year this year, and things have flowed on from there — but by that stage, the book had already kind of gone to print.
I think so we had done our job by then! I think the book is now going to be a very useful resource for parents, teachers, and hope, really, hopefully, for young people themselves.
I’m really interested in the consent question because obviously, a lot of books and young adult books deal with questions of, or present narratives, surrounding first sexual encounters or even questionable sexual encounters. Do you think that what’s currently out there in terms of young adult literature does a good enough job with that?
The short answer is probably not. And that’s not the fault of writers and publishers: it’s a bigger problem than that in society. I think it’s sort of inexplicable, and yet, it’s really explicable how we’re still in the situation that we’re in with gender inequality, and particularly around gender double standards, in 2021, in Australia, because I’ve worked with adolescents for my whole career.
Because I’ve had insight into some of those anonymous concerns that particularly young girls have had over the years, I think I’ve certainly arrived at my own theory. (My theory is that) sexuality, and those early experiences of arousal and attraction occur naturally at the time of puberty, which can be as young as nine or 10, in some kids.
And I think that’s where we start to really see that gender double standard playing out — the sorts of questions that I was asked, and that I see in my clinical work as a doctor as well, are different for girls and boys.
I think, boys feel that they’re supposed to know what to do. They’re supposed to be across it all. And they’re just not. Whereas girls also don’t really know. But they also are socialised into thinking that, well, they’re there to please everybody — not just boys, but especially boys.
That’s a really serious problem.
I think there just needs to be a lot more conversation and discourse about that everywhere — in literature, in the arts bubble — but also in you know, in government policy and in the classroom.
Yeah, and I think a lot of books out there still don’t talk about the fact that female desire and female sexual agency exists. Still, females respond to male attraction as opposed to have their own sort of sexual attraction and sexual drive that they might be pushing as well. But WELCOME TO CONSENT provides a really good base. How would you like to see it disseminated? What’s the best way to put this hands of young readers?
As we wrote the book, and particularly as we came to pre-print, you know, final bits and copy it, copy editing, I really went, well, this is not just for adolescents. I actually think it’s really important for parents to read the book, almost as important as for their adolescent children.
In fact, I think it’s actually a really useful resource for teachers. And I say that because the first person I interviewed before I started writing the book before, Yumi and I had our first meeting to nut out the structure of it was, in fact, someone who is a teacher, and who is in a senior position, who is involved in writing curriculum and syllabus. And I said, what’s taught? Currently, what would be most useful? What do you think young adolescents need to know that they’re not receiving in the classroom? And I now know that there are many teachers that have said to me that they would find this book really useful.
I do think it’s going to be a useful resource, and that’s possibly become more critical in the current media, climate and the demand of young people really, that they want better education around sexual consent.
To come back to your first point about it’s for all the wrong reasons, that suddenly this book got some prominence, I agree with that. I have always taken what I call a sex-positive approach to childhood and adolescent sexuality. We demonise we stigmatise sexuality, particularly in young people, and it just doesn’t make sense to me. All the evidence is that being positive about sexuality, having conversations about it improves healthy sexual development.
I really liked the comment, which was, if you say no, it’s not a bad thing, it means that if you receive a no, it means someone feels comfortable enough with you to actually tell feeling and that’s a good thing to take away.
My final question is, what is your favourite part about collaborating with Yumi?
Yumi has the most incredible knack of finding ways to express ideas that talk to all sorts of audiences, but certainly for young people. I wrote for Dolly Doctor for so many years, in ways that were short bits of text that I think carried important health messages. And that was fine. But Yumi brings this whole other dimension to the written word.
I think the best part has actually been working with someone who’s really creative and fun, but also talking about serious topics. Whereas I’m someone who, you know, is kind of a boring old doctor, and academic. I just think we complement each other really well. I think the work I’ve always enjoyed the most in all aspects of my work have been where I’m actually personally challenged into thinking about something in a different way. And I think that particularly around this book, on consent, we had many, many meetings where we were trying to kind of understand each other, find common ground around, bedding down the main concepts and the key messages.
That in itself was hard, not because Yumi and I came from completely different points of view, but simply because the content is and the concepts are challenging. I think we came at that from different angles (and) I really enjoyed that process, even though it was very challenging.
We both came from this absolutely the same place in terms of our beliefs and feminist position as mothers. I will also add, though, that I was really keen to have the voices of people from different genders, and I interviewed quite a lot of young people. I also had a male colleague of mine who spent his whole career working with adolescents and doing training review the entire book. We’re clearly to women with very particular points of view, and I just wanted to have someone who has got a lot of expertise, but who’s not a woman.
So that was really good.
This is my favourite thing: all the best bits of academia in a really accessible format. This is a piece of work that is really thorough, that makes sure that it is accessible, and has taken clearly a labour of love and passion.
Thank you so much. That’s really, really lovely feedback. Because, you know, we were so immersed in it for two years, we almost went mad!
It’s been incredibly humbling to have the kind of feedback we’ve had from all sorts of people, including some young people.
One of the young people I interviewed actually, a couple of years ago said, ‘You know, I wish we had this, I wish I’d had this 10 years ago.’ It’s just lovely to have that feedback and to hope that it will contribute to the conversation.
I think that’s a beautiful note to end on. Thank you so much.