THE BIRDS AND THE BEES AND HOW TO PREVENT STDS: IS SEX EDUCATION IN HIGH SCHOOLS FAILING TEENS?
WORDS | Alicia Scott
Sex education for teenagers is an essential part of their high school learning experience, as they deal with the pitfalls of puberty and teen angst. We all have vague memories of giggling over old-fashioned VCR programs or putting protection over fruit, knowing your PE teacher was more uncomfortable than you were.
Yet in the modern age, sex education often fails to prepare teens for real sexual experiences due to outdated material and teaching methods. With young people being increasingly exposed to sexually explicit content through popular culture and media, there is a growing need to provide teens with adequate and relevant information.
A recent survey found that almost half of Year 10 to Year 12 students thought sex education in schools was either irrelevant or only somewhat relevant to their lives. Students noted that important topics, such as relationship dynamics, communication with partners, and sexual pleasure were not covered in classrooms, leaving them ill-equipped for the complexities of sexual relationships.
The current risk-focused approach for sex education in New South Wales fixates on preventing unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Ninteen year old Cassidy thought the focus on safe sex practices was an important part of the curriculum. However, teaching methods needed improvement to ensure students were being educated effectively.
“The methods of teaching, if they remain the same as to how they were delivered to me (through find-a-words and booklets full of unhelpful questions), may be outdated and awkward for students.”
A major concern high school students voiced was that, directly or indirectly, sex education was designed only for heterosexual students. The latest study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer, Asexual + (LGBTIQA+) students in Australia revealed that less than one in five were able to access relevant information about gay or lesbian safe sex from school. Twenty-two year old Liam considered the lack of information on safe sex practices for LGBTIQA+ teens to be very problematic.
Liam said, “[In high school] same sex relations were not even mentioned in sex education, which I think alienates people who aren’t heterosexual and leaves them in the dark.”
Nineteen year old Maggie found it frustrating that sex education did not provide an outlet for her to discover or learn about her own sexual identity. She proposed that fostering discussion about same sex attraction and safe sex for LGBTIQA+ people could help create further awareness amongst young people.
“I was being told in [high] school that my default was heterosexuality. While the idea of same sex attraction may get a throw-away mention, this is not enough to bring it into the consciousness of teenagers.”
There are distinct parallels between Australia and the USA on this issue. A majority of states in America undertake a heterosexual approach to teaching sex education. LGBTIQA+ teens often face discrimination from the school curriculum, and by teachers, students, and conservative values prevalent in certain parts of America.
“I think it is essential that LGBTIQA+ youth are given the information that they need, even before they know they need it,” Maggie insisted.
As a result of the outdated methods in the classroom, more and more young people are getting their sex education through other means. Cassidy revealed, “I find myself relying on the Internet for sex education, as well as from older friends and family members.”
Liam and Maggie both noted that they obtained relevant information from the internet, movies, and TV programs due to the narrow scope of sex education in high school. The internet is a celebrated alternative that can provide teenagers, regardless of their sexuality, accessible information free of potential stigma or embarrassment.
Maggie further suggested, “Movies and TV aren’t ideal sources of sex education, as they are, for the most part, extremely heteronormative, if only slightly less than what we get [taught] in high school.”
Professor Catharine Lumby from Macquarie University has been conducting a joint research project on young people and sex education for three years. She recently stated in a Sydney Morning Herald interview, “The reality is we’re doing an incredibly poor and inconsistent job of delivering information to young people.”
The Federal government’s first ever national sex education curriculum has been developed, but has not yet been introduced in schools. There is hope that this will raise the teaching standards by covering modern and relevant issues, and catering towards diversity.