Sex education classes at school need to better represent the relationships and sex lives of average young people, according to Melbourne teenager Tamsin Griffiths.
“We need more information than just how to put condoms on bananas,” she said.
“It’s not all about babies and marriage anymore. [The curriculum] excludes topics like pleasure.
“One-night stands and casual sex are very common these days, but the [curriculum] reduced sex to its practical, reproductive function.”
Tamsin — from Mount Martha on the Mornington Peninsula — carried out a survey of 500 students at different schools for a Grade 12 project last year and found many reported sex ed classes that were antiquated and out of date.
“[The survey indicated the curriculum] didn’t represent the LGBTQI+ community appropriately,” she said.
“When I look around my friendship group and within society, so many young people’s experiences are just not represented in the curriculum.
Sex ed in Australia ‘a mixed bag’
Australia has a national curriculum, but because education remains a state responsibility, states and territories implement the national curriculum to differing extents.
This means the rollout of Australian sex education can vary depending on the student’s state or territory, school, or even teacher.
Latrobe University sexual health academic Christopher Fisher said this “patchwork” approach meant sex ed delivery in Australia was a “mixed bag”.
Dr Fisher leads the National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health, a five-yearly survey running since 1992.
“Some young people [told us] how amazing they found [sex ed], that they learned so much,” he said.
“But then down the street, someone else maybe isn’t getting as good of an education as the school up the road.”
Jacqueline Hendriks, who coordinates Curtin University’s sexology curriculum, labelled Australia’s sex ed curriculum “wishy washy” and “open to interpretation”.
“There is massive disparity across the country, within schools, across classrooms.
“At the moment, schools can get away with doing the bare minimum.”
‘Bugs and babies and bodies’
The most recent national survey, collected in 2018, found 47 per cent of Year 10-12 students taking the survey had engaged in sexual intercourse, and 55 per cent of Year 12s.
Tamsin said teenagers were generally having sex for pleasure, but many schools treated sex as a primarily reproductive activity.
“The pleasure aspect is quite a large reason for young people having sex,” she said.
Dr Hendriks said sex education should encompass a more holistic view of sex inclusive of pleasure, respect, intimacy, relationships and consent.
“[Young people] continuously tell us: ‘We want less around bugs and babies and bodies’,” she said.
“[They] want to know more about relationships. [They] want you to acknowledge things like same-sex attraction and gender diversity, because often it’s very focused on heterosexual relationships and people who are cisgender.”
A more ‘sex positive’ curriculum
Dr Hendriks said a more “sex positive” mindset was needed to move away from outdated concepts around sex.
“[The curriculum is] quite negative,” she said.
“Ideally, we want [to teach] young people to have really positive, enjoyable sexual relationships.”
Dr Fisher said teaching around consent was another area that could be strengthened.
“It’s been relatively consistent over the last 25 years that about a quarter of young people report some sexual event that was unwanted,” he said.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that it was a violent experience or an assault, although those do occur.
“There’s more work to be done around things like consent and negotiation in sexual relationships.”
Call for curriculum to acknowledge online sexual content
The national survey found the proportion of young people accessing sexual health information online almost doubled between 2013 and 2018, to 79 per cent.
Dr Hendriks said any realistic sex ed curriculum needed to emphasise digital literacy.
“It’s not a case of if your child is going to see something pornographic or sexually explicit — it’s a case of when they will see it,” she said.
Tamsin said many schools made only glancing references to non-heterosexual sex in their sex ed content.
“If the people in the LGBTQI+ community have to learn about heterosexual relationships, why don’t we have to learn about non-heterosexual relationships?” she said.
“It doesn’t really make sense. It’s kind of unfair. And I don’t think we should be living in an unfair environment like that.
Specific sex ed classes in Year 10, but related topics taught earlier
The ABC approached the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), which administers the national curriculum, and the Victorian Department of Education and Training for comment for this story.
We asked about how their curricula addressed non-heterosexual sex, pleasure, casual sex and consent, the challenges of designing curricula, and balancing the interests of parents, students and the community.
No officials or curriculum writers from either department were available for an interview.
An ACARA spokesperson said the national curriculum included specific modules on relationships and sexuality in Year 10.
However, the spokesperson said it was expected students would learn about relationships, biology, making safe decisions, and bodily changes at appropriate intervals throughout their education.
For instance, from Years 3 to Year 10, students learned about establishing and managing changing relationships, strategies for dealing with relationships where there was an imbalance of power, and changing personal, cultural, gender and sexual identities.
The ACARA spokesperson said the authority had also developed a resource teachers could access to determine where in the national curriculum lessons on online and technology safety, wellbeing, respectful relationships, and digital literacy could be incorporated.
Victoria mandates respectful relationships lessons
Victoria does not follow the national curriculum fully but rather implements its own curriculum, and allows individual schools and teachers to make decisions around what to teach.
“We provide evidence-based teaching and learning resources for teachers to use as they see fit, to support delivery of comprehensive sex education,” a spokesperson from the Victorian Department of Education and Training said.
“In the primary years, sex education focuses on understanding our bodies, how they grow and change, age-appropriate information on how babies are conceived, pregnancy and puberty, as well as help seeking.
Victoria has been implementing a mandated Respectful Relationships curriculum into all state schools, in response to a recommendation from the state’s Royal Commission into Family Violence.
More than 1,500 schools have signed up to the module, which helps children develop an understanding of healthy and gender-equal relationships, including an optional course for secondary schools on consent.
The ABC’s Takeover Melbourne program gives a voice to young people across Greater Melbourne. If you would like to find out more about the next Takeover Melbourne intake, which will open in late March, go to the Takeover website.