Sex Education…why it DOES matter.

Here is a piece I wrote during my Master’s degree at Uni of Sydney on  why comprehensive and age-appropriate sex education is essential. I was absolutely floored to find out that Sex Ed is not compulsory in all Australian schools, and religious schools can be exempt from teaching it on moral grounds. What startles me is that this information is in direct opposition to the terms set out by the World Health Organisation about what constitutes sex education as a basic human right. I wonder how it is justifiable that sex education could or should be denied to anyone in this day and age? 

Here in the state of Victoria, sex education is compulsory, but not enforced nor are teachers provided with time or incentives for adequate training. Sex Ed in Australian schools is often taught by the teacher that draws the shortest straw, and while an attempt is being made at addressing the topic on a very rudimentary level, an ineffective, poorly-trained,  judgemental or sexually traumatised teacher can potentially create even more problems for students in the long run. This of course is not the teachers’ fault, nor at times even the schools’ , but rather it’s a question of the distribution of resources and the emphasis within both the public and private sector on the importance of age-appropriate comprehensive sex education; who trains the teachers in effective sex ed when there’s barely enough money for basic supplies? In a country as bountiful as Australia, there is absolutely no excuse and this needs to change! 

 

When considering developmental approaches toward comprehensive child / adolescent sex education, a range of factors must be taken into account. Whilst sex education in many nations has traditionally been a contentious issue and riddled with moral judgement, mounting evidence reveals that denying young people access to sex-positive information and ignoring their own learning initiatives does nothing to serve the individuals involved, nor the community at large. Instead, young people should be primed for mature sexual relationships by exploring grassroots sexual health and reproduction information, alongside opportunities to develop social competence, emotional-processing and esteem-building skills. This paper will examine and address a range of sex education frameworks from around the world, and provide a rationale that calls for a holistic, multi-faceted approach to sex education from junior primary to senior high school years. This framework incorporates school-based education teamed with involvement from health and community care professionals and organisations, as well as parents and most importantly, the young people themselves.

According to the W.H.O, sexual health is:

a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.” (1)

This definition provides a solid foundation to measure the outcomes of not only good sexual health, but also a functional sex education framework. To support young people’s overall sexual health, graded age-appropriate programs should be implemented, taught and supported in accordance with the values as described by the W.H.O.

According to Massey, (2) sex education begins at birth and continues to be delivered by society, family, peers, experiences and educators throughout life. Hobbie (3) also notes that developing positive attitudes toward sexuality at an early age is essential if children are to grow up feeling good about themselves and in control of their bodies. Yet when young children engage in masturbation and sexual play for pleasure, adults place moral judgment upon this otherwise innocent behaviour.(4) A comparative study of sex education in several developed nations showed that children as young as 5 start asking questions about sex, and within a few years many have already begun to associate talking about sex with shame, fear of being punished or making their parents angry or embarrassed.(5) In contrast, it was noted that Swedish children were an exception and displayed more freedom in their approach to sexual enquiry. (5)This is reflected in a society that had comparatively lower teenage pregnancy and STI rates than most other developed nations across the world, until economic crisis meant cut backs on sex-education in the late 90s and rates of abortion and STIs consequently rose among teens. (6) Although young children’s needs around sexual knowledge differ vastly from those entering puberty, it is evident that children both younger and older need to have open enquiry about sexuality to facilitate their sexual choices and wellbeing.

Bearing this in mind, it is important to consider what some of the fundamental differences were between the way other developed nations approached sex education, and the way it was embraced in Sweden to yield such effective results. The Swedish approach extended beyond school-based programs; embracing sexuality as an essential part of life. Supported by a myriad of community professionals as well as parents, the programs provided a multi-faceted and comprehensive structure that was essentially an extension of Swedish culture. (7) Such a comprehensive sex education program requires not only teachers but parents to be better equipped to deal with children and adolescents’ interests, and be better able to assist when required. (8) Programs must also educate parents and community leaders on how to better assist young people exploring their sexuality. The proven effectiveness of the Swedish sex / health program lends itself toward encouraging Australian health and education developers, as well as parents, to consider Sweden’s holistic treatment of sex education in light of this affirmative data.

In stark contrast, teenage pregnancy and abortion rates are particularly high in certain parts of the USA where in many cases an abstinence-only approach to sex education is used. (9) Visser & van Bilsen note the puritanical approach to sex education in parts of the USA means it is difficult for young people to get access to information and contraception. (9) As a result, young people end up in vulnerable situations with little or no opportunities for recourse, which systematically violates of the principles of healthy human sexuality as outlined by the W.H.O.

A holistic view of sexuality understands that sex does not exist outside of one’s life but is part of one’s life. To better understand the complexity of the lives of young people, the impact of relationships, media, pop culture and the internet and their effect on sexuality cannot be ignored. Broader aspects of successful sex education programs around the world look not only at the fundamentals of basic physical sexual health covering details about STIs, how they’re spread and best methods for effective protection and contraception, but also comprehensive understanding about navigating human relationships (7), as well as the social and emotional aspects of sex.(10) Kirby extends this rationale to include awareness of socio-cultural factors influencing students’ self-esteem and ability to make smart and informed choices. (11) Many Australian secondary schools already employ programs that deal with sexual health and contraception. More are embarking upon education and support programs for students exploring same-sex attraction, whilst new research advocates additional programs that explore the broader social construct of gender and transgender education programs, (12) and recognition of family diversity, (13) all of which complement the W.H.O definition.

Further to this, it is important not to ignore the more confronting needs of young people by sticking only to safe prescribed topics.(2)Recent studies in Sweden revealed that 91% of boys and 57% of girls between the ages of 15-18 have seen pornographic films, and had mixed feelings about both the content and its effect on their sexuality.(14) By working with this trend (resisting moral judgement and seeing it as an opportunity for discussion and learning) rather than against it, (by moralising, similar to an ineffective abstinence-only focus,) programs and educators can widen the scope for educational opportunities to include addressing and processing uncomfortable emotions; both of which help develop communication skills that have significant bearing on healthy sexual function.

Evidence suggests that it is neither the source of information nor the methodology used to teach that has the greatest impact, but rather a multi-faceted approach to both content and process that yields the best results in terms of adolescents’ life decisions and wellbeing.(8) The effectiveness of sex education programs have consistently shown that a single-pronged approach to sex education is limited and less effective, especially if sex cannot be explored outside of school.(9) Furthermore, sex education programs in the USA have shown successful learning outcomes are achieved when they include a combination of clear messages around health, individual health clinic appointments, community-service learning programs (work experience / field trips) and longer-term life management programs.(15) (Emotional processing and communication skills)

Sex education is not something that should be endured, but rather something to be explored. The extent to which Australia embraces the values of the W.H.O definition of sexual health will determine the extent to which our young people will receive the best possible education regarding their sexuality. By accepting that healthy sexuality is a basic human right, and not something reserved for only a privileged few, we can confidently utilise proven approaches to work toward developing educational frameworks that are both relevant and effective.

References

1                    World Health Organisation. World Health Organisation International. 2010. http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/gender_rights/sexual_health/en/

(accessed November 16, 2010)

2          Massey, D.E. School Sex Education:  Knitting without a pattern?  Health Education Journal. Volume 49. No 3, 1990. 134-142

3             Hobbie, C. Sex education for children and adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. Patient Education Review. ( St Paul Children’s Hospital) Minnesota. (no date provided)

4          Kang, M. Age of Consent laws: Puritan notions of right and wrong. On Line Opinion, 2005.1-3

5          Goldman, R.J , & Goldman, J.D.G. Sources of Sex Information for Australian, English, North American and Swedish Children.  The Journal of Psychology,  1981:  97-108.

6          Edgardh, K. Adolescent sexual health in Sweden. Sexually Transmitted Infections. 78, 2002: 352-356

7          Pettersson, G. Why are you all so interested in sex?  New Statesman, June 2004: 27-28

8              Somers, C.  L. & Gleason, J.H. Does source of sex education predict adolescents’ sexual knowledge, attitudes and behaviours? Education ( Summer) 121 ; 4, 2001: 674-681

9              Visser, P. A. &  van Bilsen, P.  The effectiveness of sex education provided to adolescents. Patient Education and Counselling 23, 1994: 147-160

10           Blakely, V. & Frankland, J. Sex Education for Parents.Health Education, 1996: 9-13.

11           Kirby, D. The impact of schools and school programs upon adolescent sexual behavior. The Journal of Sex Research. 39: 1  February  2002. 27-33

12           Berkowitz, D. & Manohar, N.N. & Tinkler, J.E. Walk Like a Man, Talk Like a Woman.  Sage Journals Online. 03 May 2010. http://tso.sagepub.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/content/38/2/132.full.pdf+html

(accessed November 16, 2010)

13           Biblarz , T.J. &Evren, S. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered Families.  Journal of Marriage and family. Volume 72. Issue 3, 2010: 480-497

14           Johanssen, T, &Hammaren, N. Hegemonic Masculinity and Pornography: Young people’s attitudes toward and relations toward pornography. Journal of Men’s Studies, Winter, 15:1, 2007: 57-70

15           Kirby, D. Effective approaches to reducing adolescent unprotected sex, pregnancy, and childbearing. The Journal of Sex Research . February 2002. 51-57