In a world where Tinder, sexting, Skype and Grindr make it easier than ever to hook up, how do teens learn to navigate the world of sex?
By
Stephen A. Russell

18 Nov 2016 - 1:03 PM  UPDATED 18 Nov 2016 - 1:03 PM

We live in a world where teenagers can Google sex education on their smartphones, yet it’s still a taboo conversation, with many parents hoping to ignore the inevitable for as long as possible.

Tinder, sexting, Skype and Grindr make it easier than ever to hook up and explore one's sexuality, but what are the boundaries? How do teenagers learn to navigate the realms of porn, consent and body image?

This question is at the heart of F. a new play by youth theatre company Riot Stage. Drawing on the ideas explored in German playwright Frank Wedekin’s controversial 1906 play Spring Awakening - which questions the wisdom of sexual suppression - directors Katrina Cornwell and Morgan Rose have updated the subject for the cyber age.

Involving teenagers from several Melbourne high schools, F. will close out this year’s Poppy Seed Festival, a platform for the theatre-makers of the future. Amelia Newman, F.’s assistant director - who is 19 and on a gap year - was asked to join the directorial team after appearing in Riot Stage’s previous performance Forever City.  

“In Wedekin’s time, young people had no information about sex, but the conflict now is that we’re over-saturated,” Newman says. “Where is that middle ground? The kids back in Wedekin’s time needed information and guidance from adults, young people now have all the information, but they still need guidance.”

Developed through drama games, group discussions and online surveys, F is a fictionalised account of how teenagers tackle the F-word that’s based on very real experiences. 

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“I started thinking about my attraction to women when I was about 11 and it’s always been a part of my life, but I’ve also been attracted to men, and for a long time I had this pretty present bi-phobic rejection of that,” Newman says. “I felt like I needed to be one thing and one thing alone, and got very fixated on having a label. Now I’m older I feel like I have come to accept that there isn’t one label, and that’s why I really like the term fluid.”

Sitting in on a rehearsal of F. in Brunswick Secondary College’s gym hall, the camaraderie between the young performers is evident. The LGBTIQ cast members have no issue identifying as such, a far cry from my school days almost thirty years earlier. As far as they are concerned, sex and sexuality should be out and proud. They hope F. can help to break down barriers.

Bonnie Brown, 15, goes to Princess Hill Secondary College in Carlton North and appeared in The Bacchae at last year’s Melbourne Festival. “F. is very real, it’s come from what teenagers think,” she says. “It gives us a platform to say things we want to say and that’s so important. Adults are like, ‘teenagers and sex, that’s so confronting', but this is the reality of what it’s like growing up and it’s good to be able to say that.”

Brown identifies as gay but, like Newman, believes sexuality is fluid. “Kat and Morgan talked about portraying diverse sexuality in a way that wasn’t like super-big drama,” she says. “It was just, ‘this is what I am and I’m going to go about my life'. I mean, we do live in a very accepting, amazing pocket of the world where you can just be, and it’s not a struggle, although obviously it’s not all perfect. Representation is important. When I was growing up, gay just didn’t occur to me as an option.”

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Cornwell and Rose provided created a safe place to explore. “If we didn’t want to talk about something, we could opt out at any time and for me personally, that made me want to take more risks,” Brown says. “No one ever teaches you how to talk about things like sexual assault or suicide, and those conversations need to be happening.”

Sunny Chiron, 16, goes to Northcote High School and this is his first leading role. A thoughtful young lad, he’s a little quieter than some of the others in the group. “I’m not a big extrovert,” he says. “I don’t really go to parties or drink a lot or do any drugs, so while I don’t personally relate to a lot of the characters in F., I see a lot of my friends in them and, coming from an outside perspective, I really think it does represent teenagers as a community.”

His mother’s first serious partner came out as gay and the pair stayed best friends, so Chiron was used to having him around growing up and was unfazed when he started to feel attracted to both men and women around the age of 12.

“It’s never really been a big deal for me, but even in this pocket of the world, there are still some families in my school where I’m like, ‘if that guy told his parents he was gay, that probably would be a big deal for him,’ but in my group of friends, at least half of us are bi.”

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He says his character Nick “is a bit of a dick,” and that it’s refreshing to have a queer character who doesn’t have to be the sweet best friend. “Now that there are a lot more queer characters out there, it can be kind of difficult to portray them across the whole spectrum, because if they’re really bad, they’ll say, ‘oh, you’re demonising gay people,’ and if they’re too nice, then they’ll say, ‘this isn’t real.’ The greatest thing is that he’s written well.”

Sarah Conroy, 18, graduated from SEDA Arts and has collaborated with Arena Theatre Company, Platform Youth Theatre and MKA. She has a very open relationship with her mum and says being bisexual was always a big ‘meh’.

“I think with a lot of people I’ve talked to about sexuality, we just embrace whatever happens. There’s definitely that feeling in the show, that sexuality is a very tangible, fluid idea. All credit to Kat and Morgan, there’s a difference between taking risks and just being risqué. We are willing to take risks, but it’s not at the cost of objectifying anyone in the cast or any sexuality. F.’s not for shock, it’s just truthful and honest.” 

Catch F. at Carlton’s Trades Hall during the Poppy Seed Festival from November 30 – December 11. Book tickets here.