So, sex. You’ve probably heard of it and you might even remember how you found out what this whole secret taboo actually is. But what does the word “sex” actually mean to you? What it the first thing you think of? One of the wonderful, confusing and sometimes scary things about sex is just how diverse it is. Depending on who you ask, it can be safe, dangerous, fun, heartbreaking, scary, easy, awkward, exciting, intimidating or messy. But regardless of your personal views on sex, it’s hard to deny its constant presence in the Western world’s public conscience. We live in a society that has an odd relationship with sex – it simultaneously tells us to peruse it while never really wanting to have an open and honest conversation about what ‘it’ actually is. So, as young people transition from oblivious children to sexually aware teenagers (a trek we all awkwardly undertake), they grow up in a world that gives contradicting messages about sex that they’re unable to fully understand.
When kids first hear the ‘birds and bees, put this thing into that thing and a baby appears’ talk at the age of about ten or eleven, it’s usually all that they need or even want to know for the next couple years. But a few years later, when they start to think that interacting with naked people maybe isn’t so gross after all, it’s foolish to believe that a basic knowledge of mammalian reproduction is enough to arm anyone for the journey of sexual exploration that lies ahead. So, once kids are at the stage when they want to turn the whole ‘this thing into that thing’ business from theory into practice, they get curious about the mysterious world of sex and want to know some more practical information.
I got the basics of my sex-ed at school; what STIs are, how to stop yourself getting one, wanting to have sex with someone of your own gender is ok and girls are allowed to say no if they start to feel uncomfortable. For straight, cisgendered, 13 year old me, that was enough to keep me on track and confident that I had an idea of what the world was going on about. But recently I found out that not everyone got the same sex education at school that I did. When I hear people say that their formal sex-ed ended with biology, my overriding reaction is anger. Why? I’m angry that people think it’s ok to get though thirteen years of schooling without understanding what constitutes safe and consensual sex. It sends the message that peoples’ sexual experiences should be ignored, that they are unimportant or that they should conform to a very specific, repressive script.
Some people, for whatever misguided reason, think that even mentioning the word sex to teenagers is enough to make the classic Mean Girls prediction that “you will get pregnant and die”, a reality. But most of the time, if two people want to have sex with each other, they are going to do it regardless of whether they know the safety procedure or not. Thus, I can’t help but think if they’re simply told how to do the act safely, the world will not fall into sexually crazed mayhem.
Take for example, California. In a surprising turn of events, the teen pregnancy rates dropped by a massive 60% over twenty years after the introduction of a compulsory and comprehensive, school based sex-education program that, by law, had to be factually accurate. Surely if sex-ed isn’t turning Californian youth sex crazed, the rest of the world will be able to cope.
What people seem to be scared of is that talking about sex in schools will encourage more kids to have more sex more often, but this just isn’t true. Compulsory sex-ed in schools isn’t about enforcing a particular moral code, or talking about what sexual behaviours are right and wrong. It’s about giving young people the tools to keep themselves happy and healthy while they form their own sexual identity. However, one of the most important reasons for making sure that schools teach kids sex-ed is the fact that if they don’t, their students are either going to be uninformed when they become sexually active or go looking for answers elsewhere.
With access to the Internet, they are able to expose themselves to a myriad of websites that are more than willing to talk about it: some accurate, some not and some dangerously misleading. If we don’t have an open and honest conversation with young people about sex, how can they be expected to know which is which?
But something that frustrates me about most sex-ed programs, even those that are otherwise pretty good, is how they define sex as the penis in vagina act that can get girls pregnant. I’m not saying this isn’t sex, I’m saying it isn’t the only way of having sex. Though it is very important to inform girls how to prevent pregnancy, it is also as important to acknowledge that there are kids who will not define their sex life by a heterosexual act; focusing on it is lecturing them on an issue that is, to them, simply irrelevant. Treating sex that involves a pair other than a guy and a girl as ‘different’, ‘other’, ‘unusual’ or even as badly as ‘perverse’ is more than unproductive. It’s harmful. What the world seems determined to leave unacknowledged is that sex between two men, or two women or two people who don’t want to define their gender is just as valid as that one, singular act which has the potential to make a baby and educators need to acknowledge it as such .
So, what is the current state of sex-ed in Australia? La Trobe uni surveyed 226 teachers who taught sex-ed in schools all around Australia. Only 65% were certain that their school followed a policy on sex education; that isn’t to say that 35% of schools don’t require sex-ed, to be taught, it’s just a worrying possibility. Furthermore, 71.9% said that the school curriculum had “a lot” of impact on what they teach. Now, this makes sense and we can’t blame teachers for just wanting to stick to their curriculum, but we have to look at what they’re working from and decide whether it’s good enough. Now is the time to do it.
Currently, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) is in the process of writing a new national curriculum. When it comes to sexual education it is… well, not the best. The draft of the Health and Physical Education: Foundation to Year 10 section of the new Curriculum, while touching on issues of “exploring sexual and gender identities”, “managing intimate relationships” and “understanding reproduction and sexual health” is worded so vaguely that schools can easily sidestep any issues that they feel uncomfortable talking about or simply just want to ignore. Schools would be under no way obligated to teach their students about safe sex and barrier protection, what does and doesn’t constitute consent and understanding and being respectful towards LGBTQI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning/Queer or Intersex) individuals. It means that ACARA doesn’t think these issues are important and even if they do, they’re too scared of public backlash to ensure that all young people are getting taught the information that they need to know.
So, if this is the problem, how do we fix it? Well, the best solution would be to de-stigmatise and take the hetero-normative mindset out of sex to make a generally healthier, better adjusted and more accepting society. But, a slightly smaller step towards that is getting a basis for getting real, effective sexual education on the national curriculum. I’m not saying that schools should teach their students absolutely everything there is to know about sex. Apart from being impossible and inappropriate, it would be super awkward for everyone involved. But we do have to face some realities.
75% of STIs in Australia occur in young people. Feeling so awkward about sex that we tell young adults the bare minimum before burying our collective head in the sand is excluding, dangerous and negligent behaviour. I know there are a lot schools out there that have fantastic sex-ed programs and young people who were lucky enough to receive them. But getting a good sexual education shouldn’t be a matter of luck; it should be a given part of everyone’s schooling. Comprehensive sex education makes people and relationships safer and enables them to make informed decisions about their own bodies. It is an essential part of growing into a healthy, happy adult. So why are we ignoring it?
To sign the petition to get sex education into the Australian Curriculum, go to change.org and search “Sex education into the Australian Curriculum.”
To brush up on your own sex-ed check out “Sex+” and “Sexplanations” on YouTube.