If ever there was a time to strive for improved sex education in secondary schools, it’s now. Jenny Ackland and Justine Kiely-Scott report.
Any secondary teacher with an eye across the newspapers in this country and overseas will be aware of what seems to be an increasing need to have conversations about sexuality and human development with young people, both in schools and at home. Teenagers have long had a negative reputation with labels attached that run along the lines of ‘lazy’, ‘disrespectful’, ‘risk-taking’, ‘rude’, ‘too talkative’, ‘sullen’, ‘ sleep too much’, and are ‘too sexual’. It’s fundamentally a no-win situation for many young people, but teenagers need to be given credit for knowing more than their adults might realise, for knowing sooner than their adults might realise, and for making good decisions most of the time.
When it comes to sex and how babies are made, and love and relationships, nothing much has changed over the past decades if not hundreds of years. The basic principles of biology remain, however there is one domain of modern life where our young people have a new element to manage and incorporate, and this is technology. When we take the already tricky terrain of relationships and love and sexuality and add another layer on top – the internet, social media, the inclination for sexting and accessing sexually-explicit material online – it can render an already complex area of human development that is much more difficult to navigate.
Sex education must be factually sound, delivered in a non-judgemental manner and without fear-mongering in an attempt to scare young people into avoiding sexual activity. This approach doesn’t work and can be more damaging than leaving young people ignorant. When it comes to sex education, ignorance does not equate with innocence. Depriving young people of education about their bodies and potential future sexual realities does them a disservice and leaves them vulnerable to misinformation and confusion at best and ill-equipped to manage risk and health at worst.
Young people and access to reliable, accurate, direct information about development of sexuality
“Sexuality is a fundamental aspect of human life: it has physical, psychological, spiritual, social, economic, political and cultural dimensions.”
There have been recent newspaper articles calling for improved sex education in schools across the world.1,2 Sometimes the focus is on sexuality and relationships education in a general context, other times it’s concerned with specific areas of education that principals and educators believe should be implemented in as many schools as possible using a whole-school approach. We believe young people need to be encouraged to work out what they think about issues to do with their own sexual health and wellbeing, especially when it comes to issues around abortion, contraception, same-sex attraction, age for first time sex, and whether sexual activity is likely to be a part of one’s life at all. Such considerations will include their family attitudes and religious and cultural perspectives, along with personal ideas and beliefs. There will always be differences in opinions surrounding these topics.
Of equal importance to the ‘nuts and bolts’ of sex education (STIs and contraception) are the topics that most schools don’t cover, or don’t cover well. It is essential that conversations around pornography, consent, sexual assault, sexual pleasure and safety (physical and emotional) take place. If schools don’t provide quality and comprehensive sex education that includes these topics, and with many parents feeling ill-equipped to talk about these complex issues with their young people, students are often left to try to navigate on their own.
If ever there was a time to strive for improved sexuality education, it’s now. This isn’t alarmism. When 93% of 13 to 16-year-old boys are reported to have viewed online pornography3, as teachers and school leaders we need to ensure that they are as best-equipped to deal with that eventuality, and this means increasing a critical literacy in students to be able to be aware of and identify realities and falsities regarding sexuality.
The research is reassuring.4 Education of teenagers in these essential areas of human development leads to reduction in the likelihood of contracting an STI and less chance of an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy occurring. Research also shows comprehensive sex education will not make young people go and do what they learn about, such programs actually serve to help delay first-time sex and that they feel more positive about themselves and their bodies. They use protective behaviours when they become sexually active which results in increased protection, both physical and social/emotional. Age-appropriate education at the primary level, as well as being personally empowering for children, demonstrates inclusivity and the value of diversity, builds knowledge, and importantly also can increase protective behaviours and help safeguard against child sexual abuse. Young people are saturated with conflicting messages and misinformation from media and society and are in need of support and guidance to deal with these messages. Parents are a vital link in developing young people to be critical consumers.
Parents as partners in sexuality and relationships education
Parents are the first sexuality educators in their child’s life, but as a child grows older and develops a sexual identity this topic can be moved into the ‘too hard’ basket. Many young people don’t bring these matters up with their parents or caregivers, even if they have a very close relationship otherwise. During adolescence, discussions about sex is one area which doesn’t follow previous patterns. While parents might think they are doing the job – and a good one – evidence shows that there is a gap between this and what their young people say. For example, 90% of parents consider themselves approachable on the topic of sex but only 74% of teens agree.5
Other parents think that all that is required is a single chat about how babies are made, the old ‘birds and the bees’ conversation. Proper sexuality education is a series of talks over years, hopefully continued from when a child is young to when they develop autonomy from their parents.
It seems that parents are increasingly at a loss when it comes to establishing boundaries with their teenage children, and to discussing matters of sexuality. Parents would be horrified to know the stories we hear about sexualised behaviour, access to pornography, sexting and so on. Unfortunately, the sizeable gap between what parents believe their children know and are doing, and the reality, will only become more apparent. It’s time for parents to get real about internet supervision, laptops in bedrooms overnight, and mobile phones with internet connectivity. Their children are accessing sexually explicit material online. This exposure needs unpacking with an adult so the child can be reassured or corrected about wrong beliefs.
In secondary school it’s important to talk about what is seen in pornography and what is absent. One principal contacted us after she saw an article in the paper in 2012.6 The article was a call for education on pornography to be included in secondary school sexuality education. Now, we deliver sessions exclusively on the topic of pornography in an effort to help students develop a critical lens through which to view, or not view, such material. We let them know that pornography, especially commercial mainstream material, is often missing safer sex messages, the context of a relationship, or even the context of a casual flirtation. That often the sex is unrealistic, that consent is not seen negotiated, and that usually the focus is on male pleasure. That it’s a commercial enterprise and the people involved are professionals and performers.
In the ‘old days’, pornography was hard to find but now it’s hard to avoid. Back then we had to go looking for it, now it comes looking for us. It was expensive and now it’s free. Instead of young people fumbling their way delightfully to learning what they like and don’t like, want and don’t want, many young men are seeing repeated explicit online sex well before they’ve even had their first kiss and many young women are being asked to provide a ‘porn sex’ experience. Symantec’s 2009 study of children online showed that ‘porn’ was the fourth most popular search word for children ages seven and under. Some young boys are looking at pornography to ‘see what sex looks like.’ That’s a lot of pressure on developing sexualities and one thing is clear: pornography is not a good place to go and learn about sex, and neither is Google.
A top down commitment
Ultimately, it is schools that provide curriculum opportunities, whether through initiative or compliance, and with the widening scope of what young people are being exposed to coupled with trends towards greater social liberalism, so comes an increasing responsibility to respond with relevant and reliable education. Education needs to change, or broaden to include the topics that fall outside the basics of conception and transmission of STIs, and it needs to be a collective enterprise, a partnership between schools and parents. Often parents look to schools and the media for reinforcement or guidance in these matters. The more investment that is made in this domain of education, the better-equipped young people will be to navigate their way sexually, or not, to manage risk so its limited, to increase awareness about matters of choice and consent and to increase enjoyment and satisfaction of what is for many people, an important part of adult life.
At Sex Education Australia we believe that knowledge empowers all to make the best decisions, and being informed leads to better health and safety. SEA is pro young people. We believe young people make good decisions and responsible choices when given the opportunity to learn about and discuss accurate and current information regarding their sexual, emotional and social health and wellbeing.
At the primary level, quality sex education has been shown to:
• Help increase children’s personal safety;
• Help increase children’s confidence and self-esteem; and,
• Make children better able to make healthy decisions as they grow older.
At the secondary level, quality sex education has been shown to:
• Delay the first experience of sex;
• Reduce STIs;
• Reduce instances of unplanned pregnancy;
• Reduce instances of coerced sexual activity;
• Reduce instances of sexual assault; and,
• Increase confidence and ability to negotiate consensual sexual activity that is mutual, respectful, communicative and safe.
Department of Education and Early Childhood Development, 2011. Catching on Early: Sexuality Education for Victorian Primary Schools, Melbourne. Walsh, J, 2011, Talk soon. Talk often: a guide for parents talking to their kids about sex, Western Australia. Sexual Health and Blood-borne Virus Program, Perth.
In addition to matters of contraception and prevention of STIs (the ‘nuts & bolts’ of secondary sex education), discussions should be happening around:
• Respectful relationships;
• Respectful sexual conduct – regardless of context;
• Sexual decision-making;
• Consent (enthusiastic and freely-given);
• Coercion (what pressure looks like, how it can tip into a sexual assault/rape);
• The grey areas in communication and mis-matched expectations and how they can become problematic;
• Sex and the law;
• Sex and technology;
• Same-sex attraction;
• Transgender issues; and,
• Intersex condition.
Resources for secondary teachers
Catching on Later – sexuality education for Victorian secondary schools (follows Catching on Early – for primary schools)
It’s time we talked – supporting young people in an era of explicit sexual imagery
2. http://www.theage.com.au/act-news/better-sex-talk-needed-in-secondary-schools-say-womens-health-advocates-20150529-ghceg6 http://www.theage.com.au/national/sex-education-needs-radical-overhaul-say-experts-20140322-35abm.html
3. MJ Flemming, S Greentree, D Cocotti-Muller, KA Elias and S Morrison, ‘Safety in cyberspace: adolescent safety and exposure online’, Youth and Society, vol 38, no. 2, 2006, pp 135-154 UNESCO (2009). International technical guidance on sexuality education.
4. Telling it like it is: A parent and teen insight (2008) Marie Stopes International.
5. Teachers urged to address porn factor (Denise Ryan, 13 Feb, 2012 The Age)