What We Should Know: Sex Education In Schools

In today’s society, sex is everywhere. On our TV screens, on the radio, on billboards, on the internet, wherever you look, you can see sex. If it’s everywhere though, why isn’t more being done to educate young people about sex, the risks, the benefits and everything in between?

According to experts in the field, including professor Catharine Lumby from Macquarie University, sex education in Australian schools, while improving, is still lacking in providing students relevant, factual information about sex. After spending over three years interviewing teens, Professor Lumby has found that not only are schools lacking in providing practical, useful information, in many cases sex education is taught as an afterthought, and not in a way that is relevant to the modern adolescent. Lumby is pushing for a change in the message that is communicated to today’s youth, stating, ‘Our sex education needs to teach the “no means no” message, but we also need to teach what does “yes mean yes” look like? And how do you know when you want to say yes?’

Although the ‘no means no’ message is being delivered relatively well in the current curriculum, there is little emphasis on when it is the right time to say yes to sex. Rather than focusing on abstinence and safe sex (although these things are still crucial messages to deliver) it is important to be realistic. It is necessary to talk to teens about their thoughts, feelings and insecurities relating to having sex and being emotionally ready to become sexually active.      

For those schools that teach sex education, many use a highly risk based scope, focusing on safe sex, sexually transmitted infections and the biological and physiological aspects of sex. Katrina Marson, a sex education advocate, is one of many pushing for a shift away from the risk approach, calling for more emphasis to be placed on discussion surrounding desire and pleasure, in an effort to ensure clear communication between men and women. With the increase in technology—both in the classroom and the changing world in which we live—issues such as sexting, accessing pornography and contraception have become much more relevant, and need to be addressed in the safe space of a classroom environment.

Social media has made sexting a common practice for the average teenager and students need to be aware of the consequences of things like sexting and sending nude photos to people. Students should be taught that having revealing pictures of a minor, even if the person who has those pictures is also minor, is illegal, and is considered child pornography. According to federal government cyber safety adviser Susan McLean, ‘kids as young as eight are taking sexually provocative selfies and sending them to friends or posting them online,’ and the constant pressure on young people to be sexualised is causing children to forget about their digital footprint and the presence of online predators. Having and distributing child pornography can have severe legal consequences for teenagers. It can land kids on the sex offender registry. It can result in fines and even jail time. Students are often unaware of the repercussions of their seemingly ‘harmless’ actions, with the Australian federal police prosecuting eight children between the ages of 10 and 17 with child pornography offences in the last six years.

According to Lauren Rosewarne, a gender politics expert from the University of Melbourne, boys are viewing pornography at ages as young as ten, with most of what they are consuming involving violence and submissiveness. Sex education needs to involve more information about the realities of sex. The message taught needs to be more about mutual respect and feeling safe and secure—not only with the other person with whom you are intimate—but with yourself.  Teenagers are highly susceptible to outside influences and will often not speak to their parents about sex. Therefore, it is important that they receive the right education at school.

Consensual sex is also something that needs more attention because young people need to understand the consequences of their sexual acts. Domestic violence is becoming more prevalent in Australia. According to the Domestic Violence Prevention Centre, based in Queensland, almost ‘half a million Australian women reported that they had experienced physical or sexual violence or sexual assault in the past 12 months.’ Australian of the year, and leading anti-domestic violence campaigner Rosie Batty says that teens are misguided by gender stereotypes and violence in society, leading to domestic violence later on in life.  In order to truly combat the problem, interventions need to start early in the form of education. From a young age, it is important to educate kids in an age-appropriate manner about sexual assault to help prevent some of the atrocities that some children (and adults) are faced with. Through teaching kids more about their bodies, and empowering them to speak up, hopefully future generations can make a positive change in society.

The major overhaul of the national curriculum at the beginning of 2014 determined that there was no need to significantly alter the sex education curriculum delivered to students. It did however, determine that schools need to have more flexibility in the way they deliver the content, and at what age it is deemed most appropriate for specific students. One of the biggest issues with sex education is that teachers often have very little education themselves about how best to tackle a topic that can make students uncomfortable.. If teachers were educated in a way that focused on how to teach kids about sex, both primary aged children and teenagers, surely we would see the benefits in our students.

Words by Sarah Barrett