Sydney Catholic Schools
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Teen Matters: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 

Almost 2,000 students from 21 schools across the three dioceses in the greater Sydney area gathered at Olympic Park at Homebush Bay to spend the day with three inspirational speakers who were  keen to help steer them through the toughest of the teenage years.

The event, organised by the Catholic Education Office Sydney's Religious Education and Evangelisation team, brought the Year 10 and 11 students together for the 2011 'Sexuality and Relationships Day'.

Speaker Melinda Tankard-Reist
Speaker Melinda Tankard-Reist
The students listened to three speakers – Jason Evert, Melinda Tankard-Reist and Jonathan Doyle – who used humour, shock tactics, poignant analogies, real-life stories, as well as facts and figures to deliver their messages about the joys of living simply, purely and with dignity.

Jason Evert travels the world speaking to young Catholics, Christians and students at public high schools to deliver key messages for an easier and more fulfilling life that does not invite the complications that invariably go hand-in-hand with promiscuity and an inordinately strong focus on sex. "Purity is the super-glue that holds it all together," was one of his key messages to his 2,000-strong audience.

The charismatic Catholic speaker and author from the US was the first to take to the podium. His 'icebreaker' – which employed a lanky, male student in a curly blonde wig – not only held the students' attention, it underscored the need for young people to respect the dignity and wellbeing of every other human being. It also reminded the students that mistreating another person through selfishness and thoughtless gratification could have lifelong repercussions.

Mr Evert said many students who had heard his talks were surprised. "They think they're going to get someone standing up here who is like 'Sex is bad. Sex is dirty!' But that's all about guilt, shame and fear – and sex is none of those things," he said. His strong message was all about faithfulness and importance of waiting for the right person and the right time.  He encouraged his young audience to "be faithful to your spouse before you meet them".

He said young people must "think about what they are doing with their sexuality". His advice to boys was to develop strong discipline; only date a girl if you can see yourself marrying her; never leave the Mass and have a strong devotion to Our Lady. He implored both sexes to "find good friends and surround yourselves with good people".

To the girls, he said: "Teach boys about your dignity, girls. Do that and you will be taken seriously as a woman," he said. He also said both sexes had a role to play in educating and protecting the other. They needed to stop and think about the "priceless gift of their bodies" and to ponder "what they are really doing with their sexuality". He warned of the danger of destructive gossip and reminded his young audience that everyone deserves their care and support.

Melinda Tankard-Reist's topic was sexualisation, and its corrosive effect on both the female and male psyche, and the "adultification of childhood". Ms Tankard-Reist,  a 20-year campaigner against the 'sex sells' brigade, shocked students with graphic pictures of items of clothing, dolls, electronic games and music videos – all of which were readily available in mainstream media and from department stores. She explained that many of those items had now been withdrawn, thanks her organisation – Collective Shout – and its sustained lobbying.

Holy Cross, Ryde Year 10 students Brad Denlow (left), Liam Story and Nick Meredith soaked up the words of wisdom.
Holy Cross, Ryde Year 10 students
Brad Denlow (left), Liam Story and
Nick Meredith soaked up the words of wisdom.
She said boys had a "big role" to play in helping girls stay confident, safe and pure, and emerge from their young years with their dignity intact.

Pressures from modern media have a huge effect on girls' developing self-esteem and self-worth, she said, with one-in-four teenage girls keen to get plastic surgery. She also said that self-harm is the highest cause of hospital admission in girls 13 to 19 years old. "But are we surprised?" she asked. "Look at every magazine cover that encourages women to judge one another harshly." The magazines "make girls feel bad about themselves" and "girls are trying to aspire to something that doesn't exist in real life". It has got to the stage, she said, where even so-called super models do not recognise pictures of themselves.

She commented on the high incidence of sexual assault in Australia. "One-in-three girls in this country are sexually assaulted ... and everything I am showing you puts girls at risk," she said.

Canberra-based Catholic Jonathan Doyle also used humour, stories and colourful anecdotes to engage students throughout his presentation.

"How do you know when you are ready for sex?" Mr Doyle asked the students. "Well, that's easy! You look down at your left hand and if you do not see a wedding ring, then you are not ready!"

Most of the boys in the audience would be married with children one day, Mr Doyle said, "but how long they stay there will depend on the quality of their relationship."

"And some of you girls will be terrified of being alone," he said. "I have two words to say to you:  Risk it. Set boundaries and risk it. Girls, you have to help us be good men. A lot of women in this room have a great interest in social justice, in helping other women around the world, but you show a great injustice to yourself. You should all be thinking about what you can do now to maximise your chances of a successful relationship later on. Believe in 'the one'. That's the dream that won't die."

Throughout the day, students were encouraged to drop their hand-written questions into colour-coded boxes – three different colours denoting questions for each speaker – allowing some anonymity and truthfulness in their questions which were then put to the panel.

Education Officer, Secondary Religious Education, Louise Zavone, said she was delighted with the attendance from so many schools. "It was a very powerful event and we are so proud of how well it has been received by the students and staff of our Catholic schools."

Many parents had called the CEO Sydney following the day, requesting more information about how to buy speakers' books and DVDs, Mrs Zavone said.

She shared a message from the mother of one of the boys who attended. "She said that she had the most amazing and frank discussion with her son evening, and that he told her that he would have bought the books if he had had the money. She was very grateful that the day had made such an impact on her son," Mrs Zavone said.

The day ended with this prayer:  "Loving God, each day you choose to walk beside us, present in every aspect of our human existence. Help us at each moment to choose you, to choose life, and to find in your word and your law our deepest freedom, Amen."