Dr Melissa Kang has been in the business of sex education for decades. Though she started out as a GP, many of you know her by another title, one she held for more than 20 years — Dolly Doctor.
Over the course of 23 years, Dr Kang helped a generation of teenage girls (and likely a few boys, too) navigate the world of sex and puberty; answering the questions their educators and parents had not.
While she’s no longer answering the burning questions of Aussie youth via a magazine column, Dr Kang’s interest in equipping curious minds with a robust sexual education has not waned. In fact, she’s co-written a book on that very topic.
Joining forces with Yumi Stynes, Dr Kang has helped produce what’s being described as “a funny, frank and accessible guide to understanding consent”. The book, titled Welcome to Consent, combines the expertise of both Stynes and Dr Kang to offer all Australians (but particularly young Australians) digestible information on the topic of consent and sex.
The book dropped in May 2021 and is reportedly being considered for school syllabi around Australia. Not too bad, hey?
Off the back of the book’s release, and Australia’s perpetually confusing approach to conversations about consent (remember the milkshake?), we chatted with Dr Kang and picked her brain on how things have changed over the years — and perhaps more importantly, how they haven’t.
Let’s talk about sex
If you were around for the Dolly Doctor era, you’ll recall that it was an extraordinarily singular thing in that there weren’t many other avenues available to young girls and women seeking to understand their bodies and sex lives (that’s true of boys and men, too).
Dr Kang highlighted that as the only magazine tailored to its demographic (teenage girls) at the time, Dolly had a captivated readership — something that former editor Lisa Wilkinson has echoed.
“The absolute uniqueness, I guess, of something like Dolly Doctor was the way they could interact with its audience,” Dr Kang explained to me over the phone.
“And, I mean, the kind of interesting phenomenon to me about the internet is of course you interact instantly with people over the internet; it’s much more immediate. However, it’s so infinite, in terms of its reach, that you don’t have just this one place that you go to.”
Dolly Doctor, by comparison, “had this kind of monopoly in people’s consciousness and memory, I think, for being the ‘Bible’ for sex education,” she said.
Dr Kang went on, sharing that while there is certainly no shortage of excellent information available on the internet, the experience is worlds apart. After all, researching sex online can’t offer the same sense of satisfaction as knowing “there’s a person there, behind the scenes, thinking about you and answering your question”.
The internet’s role as teacher
When I asked Dr Kang how questions on sex have changed over the years, she shared that the biggest shift came about once access to porn became readily available.
While it’s great that people have access to this kind of sexual entertainment (when it’s ethical, of course), wide access to porn online has altered the way many people, especially young people, see sex and their bodies.
We’ve covered this before in our interview with Cindy Gallop who highlighted there is no problem with porn as entertainment, but when it’s used as education, misunderstandings can ensue.
Dr Kang explained that “it’s not terrible” that young people experience so much online and have such ease of access to online pornography, but “it’s really changed the context and the environment in which young people socialise and interact and flirt, and …have sexual exchanges”.
Interestingly, she pointed out that closer to the end of her time as Dolly Doctor she noticed this shift led to changes in the questions readers asked about their physical appearance.
“Things like removing pubic hair, and how to do that [began popping up]. And that was never, ever a question for the first, I would say, almost 10 years. So from the early ’90s, to the early noughties I would say there was (sic) no questions at all, and then suddenly they just started coming through.”
This extended on into the appearance of vulvas even. Genital body image insecurities became more prevalent with questions about “asymmetrical vagina lips” and the like being sent in more regularly.
Beyond that, Dr Kang also spoke to the influence that certain examples of “easily accessible, heterosexual porn” can have in terms of sexual expectations. Of course this can’t be applied to all porn, but in terms of what her experience indicates, Dr Kang shared that what young people usually find “often it tends to be that very, you know, gender stereotyping: male is dominant, pulling hair, a little bit aggressive…”
“And I think that that is influencing some of the expectations that young people have, and young women not really being completely comfortable with that.”
It’s worth pointing out here that recent studies from NORMAL indicate that sexual insecurities (and physical self-consciousness) are often connected to porn for young Aussies.
And while porn certainly should not be considered a negative thing, lines do need to be drawn between entertainment and real-life interactions. As Dr Kang put it:
“It’s about saying to young people, this is just pretend and it’s not really modelling consent very well.”
This is why we need solid resources that fill the educational gaps
When I asked Dr Kang what she hopes the release of Welcome to Consent achieves, she explained that she hoped to see it used by young people, but also by their parents, their teachers “and goodness me, by politicians”.
The book, which “talks about consent from its definition,” seeks to highlight that consent is present in all kinds of everyday situations, not just in sexual settings.
It breaks down what Dr Kang refers to as the “golden rules of consent”, highlighting that “it must be voluntary; it must be enthusiastic and [it must be] freely given”. The book also touches on the significance of communication and power dynamics, and importantly, discusses how consent “can change, and it can be withdrawn”.
“[I hope] that it offers some really sensible, down to earth principles and some practical sort of skills for how to have these conversations. So, I guess what I’m saying is I hope it’s a conversation starter for all sorts of people,” she said.
Lastly, Dr Kang added that she also hopes the book helps start more inclusive discussions around consent. “Consent is for everybody,” she stressed. And improving our understanding of it is “really everybody’s responsibility”.
What’s most encouraging is that she feels the book has come “at a time when the country is ready to start having conversations and start doing some agitating”. So, let’s start talking, yeah?
Welcome to Consent by Dr Melissa Kang and Yumi Stynes is available for purchase now, and according to Dr Kang, is perfect for readers aged eight to 108.