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Let's talk about sex

A survey of Australian teenagers has found most of them consider sex education to be inadequate.

A survey of Australian teenagers has found most of them consider sex education to be inadequate. Photo: Regine Mahaux

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,

33 comments so far

  • “best done by family” - hmmm - by guilt-ridden panicking parents who are freaking out that their baby might become sexual - yeah, that'll work - the same way my parental-provided sex education was a book left on my pillow, at about 12, years after I had already researched all the medical textbooks - never a word was spoken by my parents to me about it.

    “really freak kids out” - yeah that would be the Catholic way - just say no? (or actually - just get pregnant and add one more contributor to the offering box - is what I think they really want)

    +1 for the Dutch way - make clear information easily available about consequences to remove the peer pressure in the schoolyard - and also cover the feelings of those who are likely to feel pressured because higher status or bullying kids lean on weaker ones who just want to be liked, or come from abusive households, and perpetuate the cycle. This is where general ed can help to break the cycle of abuse from negligent or addicted parents, and avoid the BS from churches who benefit from keeping people oppressed

    plain and simple
    Date and time
    October 10, 2012, 11:53AM
    • My parents gave me nothing. School... well the teacher showed us how to put on a condom... on a chair leg. Which will come in handy if I ever have sex with a chair. Oh and we were given the rundown just once, cause heaven knows you only need to teach children things once for them to understand it!

      I always thought the government should make it compulsory and have the same set standards for every child - religious school or not. And get an outsider to do it. I'm 27, I'm sure me popping in once a week over a term is alot more useful, relatable and comfortable than my chair-leg-covering friend Mrs Hudd (age 65)

      Date and time
      October 10, 2012, 3:07PM
    • Better than mine. I got the book 'where did I come from' from my mother, and then the local catholic high school followed up with an abortion video and how girls who had sex out of 'wedlock' were 'sluts'...

      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 12:52AM
    • Your views about the Catholic church are really outdated.

      Keep up please!

      Read Theology of the Body.

      It has been modified so it is also accessible for Teens.

      Are you ready to learn?

      Get surprised about what the Church actually tells kids about sex.
      This is an excellent series you can listen to, but it has been televised on satellite tv so I have now got them on DVD too.

      Free Thinker
      Date and time
      October 11, 2012, 12:54AM
    • No, his/her comments about the Catholic Church not outdated. It is ridiculous how religious groups can impede the development of our education system like this. Teens need to know how to have sex safely, why people have sex, the consequences of not using contraception (using examples), about abortion, and about relationships and what happens with things like 'friends-with-benefits'. Once again its a simple matter of telling them the truth, and not hiding parts that leave them to make uneducated decisions later. Parents wont discuss it in full, they might give them some basics (or some nothing at all). We need comprehensive sex ed. All these religious morons just make sex seem like a forbidden prize and make teens pursue it more, but hey that doesnt matter, praise jebus. Its usually the catholic schooled kids without the info that become teen mums. My Asian girlfriend has the strictest Catholic asian dad in the world, and she started being sexually active at 12 because she wanted to find out herself. But me, i got sex ed in year 5, and i lost my virginity at 17, the average age. But hey as long these DARLING childrens ears are not tarnished with such filth that is sexual intimacy, it will all be amazing and well, wont it :D People need to grow up.

      Az Hunter
      Sydney, Australia
      Date and time
      October 15, 2012, 7:31PM
  • We need to be doing some better about sex ed in schools. Some teachers do a great job, but others don't have the time/desire to talk to teenagers about this stuff. Family is important too - but if we can get other organisations, like young people teenagers will listen too - the more the merrier!

    Date and time
    October 10, 2012, 12:04PM
    • Sex ed at my high school consisted of one lesson on contraceptives, then we spent the rest of the time watching episodes of Family Guy during our designated 'sex ed week'.

      Fortunately, the internet filled in all the gaps for me. But I still vividly remember having to explain to boyfriend in year 12, how periods worked...

      Date and time
      October 10, 2012, 12:14PM
      • Yes! Me too! Or having to explain that no, actually, most women can't reach orgasm solely through penetration - and definitely not after 5 minutes. Instead he feels like he's terrible, he further alienates me and I'm left to be the one digging out facts and figures which makes me further self concious and unable to enjoy myself. Sorry.. TMI?

        Date and time
        October 10, 2012, 3:11PM
    • The opposition to sex education in schools seems to come from an anti-sex position promoted by religious and conservative institutions. (We could argue why these institutions are anti-sex, but that’s another matter.) The opposition to sex education ignores the cost of leaving young people ignorant about the risks of STIs. Moreover, lack of proper sex and relationship education leaves young people without the communication and relationship skills to manage occasions where they find themselves not wanting sex. Sex if a wonderful thing. I’m all for sex. But it should only happen if you want it to happen. How do we empower young people to make those decisions and act on them? How do young people learn to negotiate with one another about sex? What do you do if you’re at a party and a boy you like the look of starts making advances on you; you respond encouragingly; but then you talk a bit and decide you don’t want to go any further? Mature adults can find it hard resisting the advances of men. (It can be women too, but more often than not, it’s men being sexually proactive.) How do our young people learn to negotiate these difficult issues? We should be teaching about sex and relationships in schools so that our young people learn the nuts and bolts (pun intended) as well as the more sophisticated communication skills required to handle sex in an informed and empowered way.

      And as for leaving the whole issue for parents – what an absurd proposition! Apart from the fact that many (probably most) parents lack the knowledge themselves, if left to parents, only the handful of parents willing and able to have meaningful conversations will do so. The children of all the rest will miss out.

      Date and time
      October 10, 2012, 12:31PM
      • "talking about puberty and sex was “best done by family”"

        Absolutely!! Who else can kids really run and cry to, and receive trustworthy advice from when things go pear-shaped?
        If the parents aren't well-equipped, then the schools should organise seminars,parent information nights, etc, to equip them and give them advice on when and how to approach the subject. This is obviously the far better approach to giving it to kids in a classroom environment where their response will be dominated by fear of embarrassment and charged-up with peer pressure.
        In fact there are some schools that go for this approach, educating and empowering the parents, recognising their primary role as educators of their children--not the state--and helping them to do their best at it. After all, kids don't stay in school forever, and may change schools, but family is there for the long-haul.

        Young parent
        Date and time
        October 10, 2012, 1:09PM

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