July 2018

Vox

The amazing true story of a sex ed outrage

By Fiona Katauskas
Why did a children’s book published three years ago suddenly go viral?

I was working on an illustration when an email arrived from a well-wishing stranger extending sympathies over the “handwringing and chest beating going on in the media”. I had no idea what she was referring to, but suspected it was somehow related to another message I’d received earlier that day from a less-than-well-wishing stranger, angrily advising me to “STICK TO POLITICAL CARTOONING”. Distracted by deadlines, I didn’t pay attention to either. It was only when a neighbour approached me on the street to ask how I was coping with the “shitstorm” that I discovered what was going on.

It turned out that a few days earlier someone had been shopping at Kmart and saw a copy of my sex-education book for children, The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made (henceforth shortened to TATSOHBAM). This person was outraged by illustrations in the two pages of the book that cover sexual intercourse: one showing a naked woman lying on top of a naked man as they gaze into each other’s eyes, and another of a cross-section of a penis in a vagina, explaining how they fit together. These pages were photographed and posted on a community group Facebook page with the comment, “Okaaaaayyyy … can someone please tell me why the hell is this sold in Kmart Australia under the kids section? Look at the photos and the words!! Wtffffff???!”

To answer the question, TATSOHBAM is sold in Kmart because they think it’s appropriate to sell it. The book was published in 2015 and the following year was shortlisted for both a Children’s Book Council of Australia award and an Australian Book Industry Award. It has sold more than 30,000 copies. And up until that point had not been controversial.

TATSOHBAM is, however, frank and straightforward; to be fair, it’s not a book a conservative mother would buy. The Kmart shopper was perfectly entitled to an opinion, as were the handful of Facebookers who joined the original discussion, and whose views were evenly split between for and against.

Somehow, news site Daily Mail Australia got wind of the posts. Nothing keeps those readers coming like sex ’n’ scandal, and this non-story had them both: a picture of a man and woman in the act (albeit a screenshot of a Facebook post of a photograph of an educational illustration for children) and a torrent of moral outrage. Over two days the site ran three fevered pieces on the “graphic” book that “details the ins and outs of sex” and “has parents divided”. By the third day the “controversy” had hit the United Kingdom’s Mail Online.

More and more media outlets need a steady stream of clickbait to survive. And so it was that the beat-up spread across Britain, through newspapers like the Leicester Mercury (“Graphic Sex Ed Book For Five Year Olds Sparks Fierce Debate Among Parents”), The Mirror (“Graphic Kids’ Sex Education Book Includes Some Very Detailed Descriptions – And Parents Aren’t Happy”) and The Daily Star (“Kids’ Sex Education Book SLAMMED for X-rated Images and Descriptions – Is It Too Much?”). The Independent ran a piece and an online poll. I was interviewed for Irish talk radio. All of this over a book that wasn’t new and wasn’t even available in Ireland or the United Kingdom.

The drama returned briefly to Australia to be covered by Yahoo7 News, which was the first local media organisation to contact me for comment. The Daily Telegraph’s Louise Roberts contributed the best and least sensational report: “If the instruction to ‘Get a grip’ was ever more relevant,” she wrote, “I’d like to see it.”

Four days after the first article appeared, the scandal made its American debut, on BuzzFeed. And the clicks kept coming. Each morning I’d wake to find my Google alert, dormant for years, greeting me with panicked reports from publications including Hollywood Unlocked. Every piece featured the infamous sex scene. As TATSOHBAM was not available for sale in America, I found my book being judged not by its cover but by pages 23 and 24.

The palaver then crossed platforms, as the three hosts of the That’s Delightful podcast scrutinised my book … well, at least they thought they did. Unable to find The Amazing True Story of How Babies Are Made in the United States, the California-based podcasters turned to Google, where they found the similarly named animation The True Story of How Babies Are Made and spent 20 minutes accidentally critiquing that instead.

After 10 days the outrage, almost exhausted, found the strength to return to its natural home for one last hurrah. On Facebook, Star Trek legend and social-media elder statesman George Takei posted a link to yet another online article about the book. He asked his 9,532,754 followers for their thoughts, adding, “please, remember to be respectful”.

The resulting comments were overwhelmingly positive, but even better were the three emails I received soon after. They were all from American Trekkies and they all asked the same thing: are the couple in the sex scene Captain Janeway and Commander Chakotay from Voyager? The correspondents were all so keen for it to be true that I wanted to say yes, but I didn’t know enough about the show to fake it.

And, anyway, I didn’t want to create a scandal.

Fiona Katauskas

Fiona Katauskas is a cartoonist, illustrator and writer living in Sydney.

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