The Women’s Forum of Australia, which has links to far-right politics, is behind the campaign pressuring big retailers to pull adolescent sex-education book Welcome to Sex from their shelves. By Claire Connelly.

The anti-trans group that defeated Big W

Two women smiling for the camera at a beach.
Women’s Forum Australia chief executive Rachael Wong and former Liberal candidate Katherine Deves.
Credit: WFA

The harassment of staff that forced Big W to pull the sex education book Welcome to Sex gained momentum following a social media campaign led by a conservative women’s think tank whose members have propagated unfounded theories about wi-fi and campaigned against abortion and transgender rights.

Largely unknown until now, Women’s Forum Australia is an organisation with links to religious groups and conservative politics. This month it launched a campaign to “stop sexualising kids”, collecting online signatures to protest against the sale of a “graphic sex guide” it criticises for normalising anal sex and promoting “illegal behaviours”.

The book, by Yumi Stynes and Dr Melissa Kang, is the fourth in a series on adolescent sexual health and consent targeted at 12- to 15-year-olds. It had been on sale since May, but the outcry about it began a fortnight ago, about the time of an inflammatory Instagram post by podcaster Chris Primod.

On July 17, WFA began mobilising against the book on its Facebook page. Within 24 hours – the same day WFA’s chief executive, Rachael Wong, appeared on Ben Fordham’s 2GB show saying she “felt physically ill at the thought of children reading it” – Big W announced it was shifting sales online, to “keep our team and customers safe”. WFA claimed a “win” and urged members to “keep the pressure on” other stockists, noting in one post, “Your turn, @ Target & @ Dymocksbooks”.

WFA did not respond to The Saturday Paper’s requests for comment or interviews. Nor did Wong.

On its website, the organisation describes itself as “an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy development on social, economic, health and cultural issues affecting women”. The biographies of its four board members each cite high academic qualifications, in the fields of education, law or business.

Based on their online profiles, many of its leading members are also connected to conservative politicians, religious organisations and other activists – in particular those campaigning against transgender rights.

Rachael Wong’s LinkedIn profile promotes panel conversations and events in which she participates with prominent anti-trans campaigners, including the failed Liberal candidate for the seat of Warringah in last year’s election, Katherine Deves, Anna Kerr of Sydney’s Feminist Legal Clinic and Stassja Frei of the Coalition for Biological Reality.

Wong has also repeatedly posted in support of exiled Victorian Liberal MP Moira Deeming – who was expelled from the party room for attending an anti-trans rally alongside Nazis who performed the Sieg Heil on the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House.

Two WFA board members have publicly aired concerns about the health risks of wi-fi. Chair Louise Brosnan pulled her sons from their primary school in Geebung, Brisbane, in 2013 over concerns about wi-fi. The same year, fellow board member Dr Marie-Therese Gibson resigned from her position as principal of Tangara School for Girls, after 19 years, citing similar health concerns over wi-fi radiation. A submission to the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2015 Freedoms Inquiry contains claims by Brosnan that “Australia is rapidly becoming like Europe where more than 3% of people (and the number is increasing daily) suffer from microwave radiation poisoning”. She claims to be suffering from radiation poisoning, says that her “Freedom of Movement” has been “severely impacted” and that “we are becoming refugees in our own country because of masts, smart towers, NBN wireless, smart meters and so on”.

A research fellow at WFA, Stephanie Bastiaan, regularly appears on Sky News, often with former Liberal senator Amanda Stoker, discussing gender and child safety. Bastiaan ran unsuccessfully for Liberal Party preselection in 2016 in the Gippsland seat of Narracan, campaigning as a pro-life candidate. She has previously said women should not have access to abortion, even in cases of rape. In 2015 she told online publication Vice that women could “heal from rape” and that “there is no situation in which a child should be killed”, describing herself as a “cradle Catholic”.

WFA operates under three distinct entities – the Trustee for Women’s Forum Australia Harm Prevention Charitable Trust, the Women’s Forum Australia Charitable Trust and the Trustee for Women’s Forum Australia Charitable Foundation – although its funding sources are unclear.

In spite of, or perhaps aided by, its vocal opponents, Welcome to Sex has now topped Amazon’s bestseller list and sold out on Big W online. Co-author Dr Melissa Kang tells The Saturday Paper she deplores the misuse of the words “grooming” and “paedophilia”, which have been used to describe the book.

“I have worked my whole career with adolescents who have been victims of child sexual abuse, and I am completely and utterly offended to be put in the same category as the perpetrators of those acts of violence and abuse,” she says.

“It’s irresponsible to have children believing that information, delivered to them by adults about their bodies, about consent, about what sex is, about feeling that you like someone or that you are in love with someone, or that you want to become intimate with them, and this all happens as they grow up – those adults delivering that information are not paedophiles and they’re not groomers. It’s really dangerous for children to think that that is the case.”

Dr Kang, a specialist in adolescent sexuality, sexual health and marginalised young people, has been practising medicine for 30 years and authored the health advice column for teen magazine Dolly for 23 years, until it folded in 2016. She says the book was inspired by the questions she received over decades from young adolescents about sex.

Her co-author, Yumi Stynes, says the book has been deliberately misrepresented as “a guidebook for how to do things”, rather than as a guide for parents to answer uncomfortable questions they will inevitably face from their children about sex. “If they want to provide an answer, we can help them with some answers,” she says.

Stynes says, however, she would trade her latest book’s success to feel safe in her own home. “I don’t feel well. I’m scared. Because you only need one cooker who’s a little bit pressed … one person who takes it too far because they’re mentally unwell or something, that’s all I need to be genuinely in danger.

“I don’t like admitting that because I don’t want to give them the satisfaction. But … I don’t take the threats lightly.”

Last week, New South Wales Police Force arrested and charged a 23-year-old man over threats made against Stynes. On Tuesday, she told The Saturday Paper she was on her way to the police station to report three more people for making threats against her life, in what she describes as an organised campaign. The Saturday Paper is not suggesting this campaign is connected to WFA.

“They come all at once,” Stynes said. “They know your handles on social media, and they’re all sort of parroting the same thing. It’s almost like they’re given a little guidebook on how to scare people, how to shut down debate, and what sort of accusations to level at those people they’ve got in their targets.”

Wong condemned the abuse against Stynes in a Facebook post, describing it as “utterly vile and abhorrent”. WFA posted: “It is our right to disagree with one another… But it must always be civil. There is never any justification for abusing those we disagree with.”

In a separate post, WFA said while it preferred not to censor comments, it would not tolerate comments that were abusive of others. Nonetheless, The Saturday Paper identified dozens of abusive and defamatory comments about the authors, made on the WFA page, including claims they were “maggots”, “groomers” and “pedophiles in high places” who should be “locked up”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 29, 2023 as "The anti-trans group that beat Big W".

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