‘An Education: A Review of Archer Issue #5’, by Kate Iselin


I was in my first year of high school when my Health and Human Development teacher, Mr. Hamilton, lowered the blinds, dimmed the lights and told the class it was time for Sex Education.

You were a responsible almost-adult who could be entrusted with the knowledge of where the ovaries were and what a vas deferens was.

For any high-school child, Sex Education was a highlight of the curriculum. Up there with camp, work experience, and even getting asked to the formal, Sex Education meant a whole lot. Firstly, it signified you were no longer a child. You were a responsible almost-adult who could be entrusted with the knowledge of where the ovaries were and what a vas deferens was. Secondly, it meant you were given official permission to put a condom on a banana. A condom on a banana! Was there any task more representative of an Australian childhood in the nineties—or any task more thrilling to the hormone-addled pre-teen mind—than unravelling a prophylactic onto a piece of fruit? But thirdly, and perhaps most importantly of all, Sex Education meant you were about to spend a small portion of your day having an official, school-sanctioned chat about dicks and bums and boobs and vaginas, which was usually a topic so fraught with teenage awkwardness that it was handled only with nervous giggles and derisive laughter.

A nervous energy spread throughout the class as we glanced side to side, meeting eyes with our desk mates. Finally it was time: the most hotly anticipated lesson of the year, perhaps even of our entire lives, was about to begin. Over the next fifty-five minutes, we imagined, the secrets of adulthood would be unlocked before our very eyes. We would shortly become masters of our bodies and minds, honing our intuition to decode every lump and bump, every urge and surge that had previously plagued us. This was Sex Education, after all. What we learnt here would surely stay with us for the rest of our adult lives.

We would shortly become masters of our bodies and minds.

It did, but not quite in the way I had imagined.

What happened first was that Mr. Hamilton wheeled in a television and played a video that was meant to depict, and explain, sexual intercourse. Two cartoon characters (shaped bizarrely like spiral pasta) met, courted, and fell in love on the screen before leaping into bed and disappearing under a blanket. As the blanket bounced and wiggled around, a voice-over explained what was happening underneath. The man—coloured blue for boys—would insert his penis into the woman’s vagina. After an indeterminate amount of time he would have an orgasm and ejaculate, and approximately nine months later the woman—pink, of course—would have a baby. There was no mention of whether or not the woman would have an orgasm, or even if she physically could. If the video were to be believed, sex was a bit of fun for the man, painful and possibly bloody for the woman, if it was her first time, and was something that usually resulted in a baby.

Following the video, a black-and-white diagram of the male genitals was projected onto the whiteboard, and Mr. Hamilton pointed out all the different parts: the testicles, the glans, the foreskin (where applicable). The female anatomy followed: a similar line drawing of the vulva and uterus, complete with fallopian tubes and ovaries that, quite frankly, made the entire package look a bit like a front-on sketch of an insect. “This is the vagina,” Mr. Hamilton said shortly, and cleared his throat once. Silence filled the room, and after a pause he flicked the slide away and informed the class that if we had any questions, now was the time to speak up.

I looked down at my own stomach, underneath my school shirt, and to this day I clearly remember thinking the whole image seemed quite gory and unlike anything I could imagine existing inside of me. I couldn’t find the words to put it into a question though: my cheeks flushed hot when I imagined asking daggy old Mr. Hamilton to show me exactly how the diagram on the screen was meant to fit inside me. There was a prolonged silence, and then from the back of the room, one boy spoke up. “Sir,” he began, and I could tell by the sounds of muffled laughter that accompanied his question he was being egged on by his mates. “Is it true chicks can ejaculate too?”

Mr. Hamilton sighed and rolled his eyes. “Christopher, I’d appreciate it if we could just be sensible and stick to the topic at hand.”

And that was Sex Education.

I know that, at least in most schools, Sex Education has improved since then; but that’s still quite a recent development. For anyone my age or older, school-based learning about sexuality and the human body was likely limited to conversations about the mechanics of sex rather than the broader, and equally necessary, subjects of sexual and gender diversity. Even topics like consent and sexual violence went noticeably unmentioned during my time at school, not to mention issues that have since received broader attention in the media and in public conversation: there was zero discussion of gender identity and expression, and as far as I can remember, no one even touched on what it meant to be attracted to someone of the same gender. The result was that conversations about sex were—and often still are—greatly limited, heavily stigmatised, and often surrounded by feelings of confusion and shame. One of the best ways to remove shame and stigma is to open these conversations up, to make them as honest and as public as possible; and that is one of the reasons why I love Archer so much. The self-described “Australian journal of sexual diversity” works incredibly hard to push the topics of sex, gender, and identity in to the public conversation and in this edition—Issue Five—it continues to do just that.

Wherever I took my copy of Archer, people would look once and then again at Kameishi’s brilliant smile, and I like to think that they fell a little bit in love with her, just like I did.

The issue’s drawcards may be the brilliant interview with bona-fide Australian treasure Magda Szubanski, who discusses her recent coming-out and her new memoir with Erin Stuchbery; and a whip-smart piece on marriage equality by Dennis Altman, who manages to be both level-headed and moving in presenting arguments from both sides of the debate. But as much as these are the big headlines, I want to focus on the cover model, Kameishi. Simply carrying around the issue this week has proven that it’s still a revolutionary act to be a plus-sized woman of colour in a state of undress on a magazine cover: wherever I took my copy of Archer, people would look once and then again at Kameishi’s brilliant smile, and I like to think that they fell a little bit in love with her, just like I did. I adore the warmth and confidence that she radiates; she is lush and golden and I am so glad that she is here.

Woven through this issue is the theme of Culture. There are stories and photo essays from all over the globe: “Faces and Phases”, from across Africa; “I Miss You Already”, from China; and from Malaysia, words and images documenting the struggle of the LGBT+ community against repression from the government and society alike. While many of the stories document the struggle for acceptance, inclusion, and even safety, the overarching theme is how important it is for these stories to simply exist. In environments where speaking out is sometimes dangerous, it’s demonstrably important to share our stories: when we do so, we inspire others, we make ourselves relatable, and we do so much to break down the shame and stigma frequently associated with the topics Archer covers.

Perhaps the sole misfire in the issue is LoAnn Halden’s piece on travelling through Africa as an out lesbian. Though Halden has thorough experience in the tourism sector as a director for the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association, she comes itchily close to White Saviourism by stating that, “we owe it to the queer people living in oppressive regimes … to experience the world.” While she has no doubt helped increase visibility by bringing LGBT+ travellers to countries known as being less than accepting towards queer citizens; it would have benefited the piece hugely to include some of the lived experiences of people in the countries she has travelled through. Halden’s intentions are admirable, but as we see elsewhere in the issue: there are amazing activists born and living in Africa as well, and I believe their tales are more important than a visitor’s reflections.

A few pages later Rochelle Siemienowicz relates her children asking her about butt plugs at the dinner table.

The issue is, for the most part, curious, provocative, and enlightening. Dion Kagan’s brilliant essay on Butt Politics effortlessly examines and then decimates the anxiety associated with anal pleasure; only a few pages later Rochelle Siemienowicz relates her children asking her about butt plugs at the dinner table. “In mainstream Australian society,” she writes, “It’s still considered radical to tell your youngsters that sex and pleasure are healthy and good for you.” Siemienowicz’s choice to discuss sex and sexuality with her children may be considered controversial by her parents’ generation, but if her experience of Sex Education at school was anything like mine, I understand her desire to be so open.

Archer shines light on important human experiences that many people consider embarrassing, scary, or shameful. For those reasons, sex and sexuality are often dominant topics in my writing: because I believe that our sexual wants, needs, and attractions reveal so much about who we are. They are big topics, and not always easy to speak around, but as Archer has proven to me they are crucial to discuss: not only to me now, as a reader and a writer, but to my younger self back in high school. I imagine her sitting at her school table, looking down at her unfamiliar body and attempting to make sense of all the organs and parts and feelings and thoughts contained therein. She is confused now, but will soon be grateful: to all the writers she will grow up admiring; to me, her older self, for participating in a conversation she was always too afraid to start; and to publications like Archer, with Kameishi’s smiling face on the cover: warm, open, and ultimately inviting.

Kate Iselin is a writer living in Sydney. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Spook, Archer, Daily Life, and Kill Your Darlings. She chronicles her sex and dating adventures at the blog Thirty Dates of Tinder.