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Sex education in Australia

Worried parents complain that sex is everywhere, from music videos to car commercials. But there may be one place where there isn’t enough sex – Australia’s classrooms.

Submitted 11/10/2008 By katesteinweg Views 38558 Comments 6 Updated 7/24/2009


Photographer : ap.

Some (not so) sexy facts


  • 30% of Australian teens are not sure if they can contract sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from oral sex
  • 45% of teens are not aware that that they can be infected with Chlamydia but have no symptoms
  • 52% of teens think that by using a condom, they won’t contract herpes
  • 22% of parents think that their teen is sexually active, but in reality 31% claim to be.

(Source: Marie Stopes International)

What’s the issue?

More than half of young Australians are sexually active by the time they’re 16. Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are also on the rise amongst young people, as are teen pregnancy and abortion rates. Considering these trends it may come as no surprise that 69% of teens in Australia feel that sex education in schools is not up to scratch.

In Australia, there is no comprehensive sex education syllabus. This means that while there are broad policy statements that set curriculum standards, individual schools are given a lot of freedom to teach whatever they feel is relevant. There is also no requirement for when, and at what age, sex education should begin.

It’s more than just the birds and the bees…

Sex education means a lot more than just explaining where babies come from. It can involve information about safe sex practices, different sorts of STIs, female and male anatomy, and legal issues surrounding consent and abuse. Sex education can also involve a more general discussion about relationships. While sex is a physical act, there are emotional and psychological factors to consider.

Teachers all over Australia are feeling the pressure of having their lessons monitored by the government and the community. Some think that there is not enough time put aside to deal with such an important subject, and others seem relieved to sidestep the issue. Either way – there is no assurance that students will have sufficient sexual knowledge by the time they leave school.

A touchy topic

You may have noticed that sex education is a lot more controversial than other school subjects. The big problem is that there are loads of different opinions about what is appropriate for young people to be learning. Sex is obviously a touchy topic and it is often hard to separate education methods from moral or religious values.

In Western Australia in 2008, parents and community religious leaders were outraged to learn that students as young as 14 were being taught to put condoms onto plastic penises in sex education classrooms. Margery Evans from the Education Department claimed that it was consistent with the department's health and physical education syllabus.

At the other extreme, in 2006, representatives from Muslim schools spoke out against the overwhelming influence of ‘Western’ sexual values. Students in Muslim schools are taught that pre-marital sex and homosexuality are strictly prohibited by Islam. Catholic schools offer similar advice. Condoms, safe sex and STIs are strictly off the agenda because it’s believed that speaking about such issues encourages promiscuity.

Experts in teenage sexual health have expressed concern at this approach. They feel that without a universal sex education policy enforced by state governments, sexual diseases will become even more widespread.

What does the research reveal?

Many people argue that if sex education provides options other than abstinence (not having sex), more young people will become sexually active. Research has shown that assumption may not be as logical as it sounds.

In 2006, Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia (SH&FPA) released a position statement which called for a comprehensive approach to sex education in Australia. They published the following findings about sex education:

  • Comprehensive sex education increases knowledge of STIs and reduces vulnerability to abuse
  • Learning about sex does not promote earlier sexual activity
  • Sex education increases the use of safe sex practices
  • Education policies are more effective when they go beyond the promotion of ‘abstinence’.

Do schools and sex really go together?

With such easy access to magazines, books and the internet, is it really necessary to put such an emphasis on sex education in schools? What could you learn from a PE teacher that you couldn’t learn from Girlfriend or Ralph magazine in the privacy of your own home?

Apart from the moral objections to a national sex education syllabus, many people also believe that such a personal topic is best left to parents and guardians. Yet while 90% of parents rate themselves approachable on the topic of sex, only 74% of teens agree. It’s also a little unrealistic to expect parents to understand and explain detailed information on sexual health and disease.

With sexual health becoming such a widespread and risky issue, school-based education may be the only way to ensure that sexual education is covering all the essential issues. In the end, the embarrassment of speaking about condoms in classrooms could mean that all Australians stay sexually safe, informed and healthy.

Feel like your school is skipping some of the facts? Check out www.likeitis.org for some down to earth info.

How do I know this?

Marie Stopes International, ‘Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare’ http://www.mariestopes.com.au/news/136  

Milburn, Caroline, ‘Muslim sex education: just say no’, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 May 2006, http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/muslim-sex-education-just-say-no/2006/05/28/1148754873032.html  

Mindel, Adrian and Kippax, Susan, ‘A national sexually transmissible infections strategy: the need for an all-embracing approach’, Medical Journal of Australia, Vol.183 No.10, 21 November 2005 http://www.mja.com.au/public/issues/183_10_211105/
min10608_fm.html  

‘Position Statement: Sexual Education’, Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia (April 2006) http://www.fpv.org.au/pdfs/SHFPA%20Position%20Statement%20Sexuality%20Education%202006-04.pdf  
Welch, Dylan, ‘Let’s talk about it’, Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 2005, http://www.smh.com.au/news/Employment-News/Lets-talk-about-it/2005/06/10/1118347577924.html  

‘Stir over sex education in Australia’, The Times of India, 25 August 2008 http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/World/Stir_over_sex_
education_in_Australia/articleshow/3404327.cms  

Discuss Now

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condomsaustralia 25-Feb-2011

That is very true, sometimes sex is seen as a immoral thing to do especially by a lot of the religions and therefore sexual education are usually rushed over and not talked about in details.

The thing is that, regardless of our views and acceptance of it, people are having sex and its getting younger, I would rather they practice safe sex with a http://www.condomsaustralia.com.au">condoms then to not use one at all.

Its not condoning it but not having the education and information in regards to safe sex, can only do more harm then good

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RonPrice 26-Nov-2009

Here is a prose-poem I wrote on sex from a personal perspective. I'm not so sure this piece will help with the issue of sex-education per se but my post may be useful as part of a general backdrop of personal experience in the field/on the subject drawing on the ideas of one of the great/famous writers of the last decades of the 20th century.-Ron Price in Australia
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LESSING

A sizeable proportion of Doris Lessing’s(b.1919) devotees embraced her 1962 classic The Golden Notebook as their bible. This book has become her most famous and influential work, the story of a writer's divided selves: political, literary and sexual; an account of the breakdown of tradition and the importance of socialism and, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, of voting labour. "Everything's cracking up,” she wrote. The book sold millions of copies and anticipated the social shifts of the sixties. Her fans still look to her as some banner-waving outrider for the feminist cause with some words of wisdom on every issue under the sun.

But Lessing has grown very contrary in her late adulthood and old age, making statements and writing novels that have confounded her fanbase. Lessing says she plays with ideas in her books. “People are always asking writers for definitive answers,” she states, “but that's not our job." When asked questions she uses mischievous evasion tactics and iconoclastic stylings, signs of a mind that is restless, but not wandering, wrote one critic.

Lessing states that in the late 1950s there was an enormous energy in society. In those years communism began to shred before the eyes of its committed adherents. Her book The Golden Notebook was about this shredding and about feminism. She says that her overriding concern when she writes is to get to the heart of some matter. "Books have been my life,” she states simply and with emphasis, “I was educated on them.'' She is not one of those writers who sits around worrying about posthumous fame. Much of her work has aspects that are autobiographical and she has written two volumes of straight autobiography, Under My Skin and Walking in the Shade.--Ron Price with thanks to “More is Lessing,” The Daily Telegraph, September 25, 2004.

The first world you remember
in the twenties and thirties has
disappeared as you say; even
socialism and liberalism, as
C.Wright Mills added back
in ’59,1 have lost their power
to be the centre and to hold
the fort for a beleaguered
humanity doing battle with
the phantoms of a profoundly,
wrongly informed imagination
and sinking deeper into a slough
of desponding gloom & doom.

And me, a child of that first 7 Year Plan
and the dawning of the Second Baha’i
Century—as you were marrying again,
finding communism and that new hope
for the world which would last only 15
years—one of your abandoned hopes
which seems to still spring eternal in
your breast—and as if through some
fortuitous conjunction of circumstances
we the people would be able to bend the
conditions of human life into conformity
with our prevailing human desires.

Sadly, I feel the foundations of your
confidence are frail containing some
desperation to believe, but not really
understanding the meaning and the
magnitude of the great turning point
of history we have passed and are
passing through. But, as you say, Doris,
writers do not really have answers, and
it is high time people stopped looking to
them for their oft’ illusory prescriptions.

1 C. W. Mills, The Sociological Imagination, 1959.

Ron Price
18 October 2007





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Eliza87 12-May-2009

I believe more information needs to be provided to young people and decent information.

I work for a women's health centre and the questions we ask are sometimes beyond amazing. Two of my favourites in the past six months are 'does the cervical cancer vaccine stop you from getting STIs' and 'is it true drinking Red Bull stops you from getting pregnent?'.

Not discussion sexual health does not prevent young people from having sex, it just increases the likelihood of unsafe sex. All we have to see in the increasing levels of gonorrhea as proof.

We need to be up-to- date with the rest of young people's lives. If music and media increases their exposure to sexual ideas, then we need to increase our teaching of sexual health and sexual ethics.

Too many schools and youth programs limit the information given to young people. Our health centre have had much of our materials taken away from us upon entering a school as it mentioned the words 'penis' or 'vagina'.

It's time we get serious about the issue. We may not be able to prevent young people having sex but we can ensure they have happy and healthy sexual relations by providing adequate information and services.

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bethanyjbajnc 06-Dec-2008

At my school, we didn't get sex ed until the end of year 10. By then, we were 16 or 17. By the time we did get around to it, the focus was on saving sex until marriage (I attended an Anglican school) and while they did mention safe sex methods, it was rushed over.

Good on you Kate for addressing the issue. Unfortunately, narrow minded perceptions and over-sensitivity to religious demands will continue to inhibit any progress being made.

Young Australians need to be educated about the reality of sex, and an unwillingness to talk about it reduces sex to something dirty that we can't talk about. It might keep a few priests happy, but it puts young Australians at risk.

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