It's perhaps no surprise that in this day and age, when so much information is available, our teenagers are mostly receiving their sex education from the internet, television, magazines and their friends – not from school.
A survey of 1,219 15- to 29-year-olds showed that sexual education across Australian schools ranges from no or little education to more comprehensive lessons on the benefits, as well as the risks, of sexual relationships.
Most of the respondents considered sex education as inadequate and told the researchers the most important part missing from their sex education was learning about sex and pleasure, and diverse sexualities.
Sex education is something of a geographical lottery in Australia. A report by the Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition found that “basic sex and sexual health education in Australian schools is inconsistent and encumbered by different curriculum guidelines across states and territories”.
Another survey, headed by Professor Marian Pitts, from La Trobe University in Melbourne, showed that most young people in years 11 and 12 are sexually active and the rate of sexually transmitted infections is on the rise.
Young people have very little knowledge about common STIs, like chlamydia, herpes, gonorrhoea and genital warts. They also often do not feel comfortable seeing their GP for testing or treatment.
Chlamydia is the most common STI among young people. It is passed on by unprotected sex and affects males and females. It is easily treated but if left undetected it can lead to serious health issues, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and infertility.
Almost one in three Australian teenagers has had sexual intercourse without a condom by the time they reach year 12. What is alarming is that many teenagers believe that giving or receiving oral sex is not “real sex” - and most young people seem to be unaware that doing so can easily give them an STI.
Professor Pitts suspects public awareness campaigns on this issue are scant because it is not “a sexy subject”. People don't want to read about it, but the price of ignoring STIs can be high. The current generation may discover the damage STIs have caused on their health when they want to start a family.
In the Netherlands, a liberal attitude towards sex education seems to be paying off. Dutch sex education emerges from an understanding that young people are curious about sexuality and have a right to accurate and comprehensive information. Educational materials are characterised by clear, direct and age-appropriate language and attractive designs. The leading message is: If you are going to have sex, do it safely.
The Dutch philosophy is a simple one. Young people have the right to adequate sex education so that they can make well-informed choices in sexuality and relationships.
The country has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy in the Western world and the average age for their first experience of sexual intercourse is one year older than in Britain.
The average age for the onset of puberty has been dropping and there is a need for earlier sex education. We should not wait until secondary schooling.
Last month, a spokeswoman for the Education Minister, Peter Garrett, said the government had included the subjects of “sexual and gender identity” and “managing intimate relationships” in its new curriculum. Physical, social and emotional changes of puberty will be taught in years five and six. Sexuality will be explored in years seven and eight as young people “learn to recognise sexual feelings and evaluate behavioural expectations for different social situations”.
But the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority had to delay its plans for sex education after religious and conservative groups raised concerns.
Dr Steve Hambleton, the president of the Australian Medical Association, said talking about puberty and sex was “best done by family”, and it was important children did not hear it in the playground first.
The executive director of the Council of Catholic School Parents, Danielle Cronin, said the classroom lessons on puberty could “really freak kids out”.
It would be great if parents could sit down with their children and discuss sex-related issues. But 90 per cent of parents are ill-equipped to do that – they feel uncomfortable and embarrassed and they don't really have the knowledge, either. Things have changed a lot since they were young.
Children and teenagers should get age-appropriate information as part of their school curriculum. As a parent it is advisable to have back-up information ready to give them, and to educate yourself. Think of sex education as an ongoing project – when children know that they can talk to parents about issues that are important to them, they will.
A couple of helpful books at the Family Planning NSW website include:
• 500+ Questions Kids Have About Sex , by Lyndall Caldwell
• Let's Talk About Sex, by Robie Harris & Michael Emberley
And finally, The Talk by the Melbourne comedian Nelly Thomas is an excellent DVD for parents and their older teenage children. You will all enjoy this video!
Matty Silver is a sexual health therapist based in Sydney, www.mattysilver.com.au.