Fulfilment over fear: what SA students want from their sex education

South Australian high school students want more from their sex education, so what is missing from the curriculum and why is it so important in the first place? (Image source: One Medical)

By Beth Alderson | @bethalderson_, Helen Karakulak | @Helen_Karakulak & Nikita Skuse | @nikita_skuse

From awkwardly putting a condom on a banana to fear-based conversations about nasty infections, sex education can be overwhelming.

However, school-based sexual health education programs remain a vital source for South Australian students.

A report from the University of South Australia’s Emeritus Professor Bruce Johnson shows school education programs are the number one trusted source of information for boys and girls about sexuality and relationships.

The report, which surveyed 2000 students, also highlighted what the current curriculums could be lacking.

“We were surprised that the kids told us through our survey that it’s not just the ‘plumbing’ stuff that they want to know about, it’s more to do with respect in relationships, power in relationships and issues of consent,” Professor Johnson said.

The survey showed that girls wanted to learn topics of gender diversity, violence in relationships, staying safe online and ending a relationship.

While boys wanted more information on how to have sex, sexual pleasure, masturbation and pornography.

Sexual Health Information Networking and Education SA (SHINE SA) is the state’s leading sexual health agency, providing a range of services to support schools.

SHINE SA’s school’s program currently supports 93 per cent of government secondary schools, several non-government schools in South Australia and has most recently started supporting primary schools.

The program, Teaching It Like It Is, provides comprehensive sexual health and relationships education for students from grades eight to ten.

However, these programs have not yet reached all private schools and Professor Johnson expressed concern that students who attend public schools have an unfair advantage over those in private schools.

“We’re talking about a substantial number of kids in our schools—about a third—who don’t receive comprehensive [sex] education of the same quality as those in the state system,” he said.

The importance of comprehensive sex education should not be undermined, particularly with so few young people taking control of their sexual health.

A recent sexual health survey conducted by the South Australian Health & Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI) and Flinders University showed only 43 per cent of respondents had ever been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

STIs were found to be on the rise in South Australia, with chlamydia the most common among 15 to 24-year-olds,affecting 1 in 20 young Australians.

With sexual health risks becoming increasingly prominent, it is important that students are informed on how to prevent or take action regarding their sexual health, and to be taught so constructively rather than having health classrooms encompass outdated notions of shame or negativity around sex.

“Issues of testing and safe practices and so on, there has been historically an over-emphasis on the dangers and the negativity of sexual activity,” Professor Johnson said.

Unfortunately, this experience of negativity is not an uncommon one, with a group of recent public-school leavers of diverse sexualities agreeing that they felt their sex education was lacking in diversity and positivity.

Creative arts student, 19-year-old Cammie*, believes the sex education she received in high school was uncomfortable for all parties involved.

“So many things in sex ed didn’t have context or a detailed introduction, so it felt very confronting,” she said.

“Teachers are made to stand in front of a whole room of kids and talk about sex, so it must be confronting for them too, but it needs to be explained in a way that isn’t scary or something to be ashamed of.”

Performing arts student, 21-year-old Sam*, agrees, believing that STIs and consent should be delivered in a comfortable but direct way.

“Sex ed should be about breaking the cycle of assumptions and breaking the cycle of shame,” Sam said.

“When you make consent or STIs something that’s hush-hush or talked around out of fear you end up with uninformed people.”

Traditionally fear-based sex education, coupled with state-by-state differences, can lead to young Australians not feeling confident about their sexual health according to clinical sexologist, Naomi Hutchings.

Ms Hutchings, or as many know her from Instagram, @australiansexologist, is a clinical sexologist from Queensland who formerly coordinated youth work education at SHINE SA and taught a sex and sexuality topic at Flinders University.

She believes blatant fear-based learning is ineffective and should be critiqued.

“It was often that they’re [educators] just like, ‘Don’t have sex, you’ll have an STI and you’ll die,’ … instead of actually acknowledging that young people can make good decisions and be good critical sexual thinkers,” she said.

“It is normal for them to be feeling aroused and want to have sex and they can do wonderful things.”

Ms Hutchings said comprehensive sex education is important because it is known to delay sexual activity and increase the likelihood of individuals having safer sex.

“I see the other end of it, all I see is the people who haven’t had great sexual education and they’re struggling with ‘sexpectations’ and thinking they should be doing this, or this is the way they should feel aroused, or this is what should happen in the relationship,” she said.

When teaching the sex and sexuality topic at Flinders University, Ms Hutchings found students were learning things for the first time that she believed they should have learnt in high school.

“The topic coordinator was saying that my feedback was really popular … which is great and I mean I loved teaching that topic, but the feedback consistently said like, ‘I’ve never had sex ed like this at school,’ and, ‘This was the most I’d ever learnt about sex ed,’” she said.

According to Ms Hutchings, sex education in Australia still has “a long way to go” but South Australia is making progress in comparison to other states.

“I’ve come to Queensland and to be honest I’ve felt like Queensland struggled … It was a shock for me coming from South Australia, and I thought South Australia was a little conservative,” she said.

“I think South Australia is actually doing pretty well.”

Professor Johnson’s view was similar, stating that although there are some “socially imposed sanctions” on the curriculum, such as it being heteronormative and lacking gender diversity, it is otherwise “world-class”.

“If you line it up against curriculum from other places it is absolutely brilliant,” he said.

While positive changes are continually being made to the South Australian sex education curriculum through the help of research and experts like Ms Hutchings and Professor Johnson, it is clear the state still has a way to go before young adults are fully equipped to be aware and in charge of all the diversities and complexities that come with their sexual health.

 

*Names of people have been changed or omitted for privacy reasons.

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