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'We haven't been taught about sex': Teens talk about how to fix school sex education
Last week, the Albanese government announced an expert panel to support relationships and sexuality education in Australian schools.
The group is lead by the head of anti-violence organization Our Watch, Patty Kinnersly, and includes consent advocate Chanel Contos. It will do a "rapid review" into consent and respectful relationships programs to identify "opportunities for improvement."
This follows a new focus on consent and healthy relationships in Australian schools. The former Coalition government made consent a mandatory part of the curriculum.
We are talking to teenagers about the sex education they receive at schools. This research highlights several areas young people think can be improved. They are particularly concerned sex education most often does not discuss actual sex.
As part of broader, ongoing research into online sexual content, we interviewed 30 West Australian teens (aged 11-17), between 2021 and 2023, to explore their experiences of sex education and where they source information to answer their questions about sex and relationships.
Eighteen interviewees were followed up with 12 months after we had first spoken, to see if their perspectives had changed.
Interviews began as some schools started teaching consent in 2021, with sexual assault being widely debated in the wake of the women's March4Justice rallies around the country and a school sexual assault petition spearheaded by Contos. We have continued to gather young people's perspectives as consent education became mandatory at the start of this school year.
Only the basics
The majority of the young people interviewed told us they were only taught the basics about consent—along the lines of "no means no, and yes means yes." As interviewee Miles* (17) told us:
"It's always broadly talked about […] but it's never actually talked about what it means and what it actually is."
Nicola (16) added:
"It was more just like if someone says 'no," 'stop' or things like that and if you don't like it say 'no' and things instead of the depths of it."
Consent is complex, so teaching it without necessary detail or context can have devastating results. Some young people may feel unable to say "no" safely in unwanted sexual experiences, and others are genuinely unaware a sexual act occurring, may not be consensual.
At the same time, teens also felt like the focus was on consent at the expense of other information and topics. As Tiffany (14) said,
"The whole thing is consent, 'cos that's such a big thing nowadays […] we haven't been taught about sex."
A focus on 'what could go wrong'
Interviewees also felt current sex education was overwhelmingly fear-based and focused on safety. As 15-year-old Lauren explained, she and her classmates had been taught "what could go wrong and not anything else."
"They talk more about sexual violence and sexual assault than they do about sex itself and the benefits of sex and pleasure […]. It makes it feel like it's bad to have sex and that there's no pleasure in it and it's harmful."
The focus was on risk and biological aspects also left many students confused in terms of how to navigate real-life sexual scenarios safely. As Caris (15) explained:
"It's hard not knowing what to do and where to put yourself and how to move and all of that. It's hard for teenagers and they don't feel comfortable going to their parents."
Warren (17) said this meant teenagers were going online to find more information.
"The lack of education causes the younger generation to resort to online personal education therefore resulting in more negative or destructive sexual encounters."
This echoes a 2021–22 national survey, which found 95% of young Australians thought sex education was an important part of the curriculum. But only 24.8% said their most recent class was "very" or "extremely" relevant to them.
Teachers don't seem trained
Young people interviewed also felt like their educators did not have enough training to be teaching about relationships and sexuality, which is taught as part of health and physical education from the first year of school to Year 10. As Nicola said,
"It's strange they have sport teachers teaching it, it's not a designated teacher for that program. I think it makes a lot more sense if it's someone who actually is knowledgeable."
Although a number of teens experienced enthusiastic, invigorating teachers, other interviewees wondered why an outside expert could not be brought in to teach about relationships and sexuality.
What needs to change
Consent education is extremely important. But if there is an overwhelming focus on consent and risks, education programs can create fear around sex. This can lead to trauma and shame. A Rebecca (16) told us:
"It was called healthy relationships, but I reckon should just be called consent 'cos that's pretty much all we did the whole term."
Young people need be part of a culture that cares for and respect one another, rather than simply being taught to gain permission for sex. Young people need real-life strategies and communication techniques so they can talk about sex openly and clearly.
There also needs to be balanced information with discussion about the positive aspects of sex, such as building intimacy, communicating and pleasure.
This means consent education needs to be included as an important ingredient within a more comprehensive relationships and sexuality program.
We also need to ensure teachers are supported and receive appropriate training, working alongside visiting specialists as needed.
Learning about sex doesn't mean young people will have it
There's a common misconception that discussing sex encourages young people to have sex earlier. However, research suggests the opposite and information can actually delay sexual activity. Recent research also shows Australian parents want schools to tackle sex and relationships in more detail and from an early age.
Ultimately, schools need to be able to listen to the concerns of teens to meet their real needs around sex education in ways that are healthy, safe and relevant.
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