In the past few months, commentary on allegations of sexual assault and rape in our political and business institutions, schools, and universities, has consumed our airwaves, dinner party conversations and social media channels.
Consequently, the content of sex education being taught in schools has been brought into sharp focus. In response, the Australian government has announced it will distribute Respect Matters – a suite of educational materials about respectful relationships, consent, and sexual abuse.
But these materials too, have generated their own controversy. Largely in part, it would seem, because of the inability of adults in positions of power to engage in a contemporary, mature, and pragmatic conversation about young people’s relationships and sexual health education.
As with other areas of life, sexual health and safety is crucial to a young person’s development. However, many still seek to frame sex education as somehow being in direct conflict with moral, cultural, or religious values.
This means we can talk about biology and reproduction, but not what young people are actually calling for – more information and understanding about their bodies, their rights, gender equity, sexual and gender diversity, and informed decision making and consent in relation to their sexual health and relationship choices.
Decades of evidence from countries that embrace sex education focusing on gender, power and rights, shows us that young people have higher use of female contraception, condoms, reduced risk-taking, reduced risk of HIV, and reduced numbers of sexually transmitted infections. They also demonstrate delayed sexual activity and reduced numbers of teenage pregnancies.
If we don’t address current issues explicitly, and just continue to kick the can down the road, or tell young people to simply abstain from sex, we ignore the reality that one third of students in year ten and one half of students in year 12 are sexually active. They are therefore vulnerable to disease, harmful behaviours, and in worst case scenarios, sexual abuse.
For those who are sexually or gender diverse they continue to be ‘invisible’ in the classroom, causing these young people to feel shame and confusion about why their identity is still not being openly discussed, or their experiences ever considered.
As with most social issues, community understanding and knowledge about sex and relationships evolves over time. By looking at what is readily available on our screens and feeds, it is very clear that our attitudes towards sexuality and sexual behaviours have changed considerably.
In the past 10 years we have seen movies, TV shows, interviewers, entertainers, and influencers, all having more open conversations about consent, gender, sexual diversity, sexual safety, and sexual wellbeing. These conversations have extended into our offices and homes. Why then can’t we have them with young people at school in the subject they’re supposed to be learning about them in – not stigmatising these important topics so they become taboo.
For both adults and young people, technology has created a new set of pressures and behaviours they must navigate both online and offline. Young people are worried that the strategies being used for sexual safety in the technology space are overwhelmingly more often about protecting children from adults who might do them harm, than keeping young people safe and healthy in their interactions with each other.
The interplay of sex, relationships and technology, and the changing social attitudes toward pornography and the sharing of sexual images online, are some of the most pressing issues young people face.
They are calling out for support with a growing concern for how their relationships and sexual health education is falling behind what’s really happening in their day to day lives. This is particularly so in relation to the most challenging social issues of gender inequality and domestic and family violence.
Unlike the 3R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic) – where knowledge remains relatively stable over time – relationships, wellbeing, and sexual health, are more fluid. New platforms are challenging what is acceptable and what is safe, as well as what might have long term consequences for how young people’s sexual and physical boundaries are being respected or disrespected.
While families remain a significant source of information and support, not all young people have equal access to adults that they can turn to. To fill this gap, we know some young people are turning to online sources for their information. Whilst some of these can be appropriate and useful, the avalanche of information available means the quality of these online sources varies significantly.
This content can also lack accuracy, depth, and nuance. For example, online sexual material that normalises risky or violent behaviours, and which reinforces unhealthy or unrealistic expectations regarding gender, power, sex and relationships, needs to be balanced in the classroom.
There is a role and responsibility for education to lay the foundations for informed decision making and protection, to respond to the current realities, pressures, and range of behaviours associated with young people’s sexual lives, and empower capacity for safe navigation of ‘modern’ relationships and sexual interactions.
This includes understanding the social and practical complexity of consent – not just teaching the legal definitions. It includes providing information about where to access professional support, alerting young people to the potential for image-based abuse, addressing the damage that pornography and sexting between peers can have in relation to issues of respect and equality, and raising awareness around the inherent risks associated with interactions between sexual safety and excessive use of drugs and alcohol.
Leaders must show leadership in relation to young people’s sexual health. It’s time to move the conversation beyond rhetoric and opinion and more toward empowering a generation informed by sex and relationship education that is grounded in child rights and which reflects contemporary evidence regarding sexual safety.
If we are to address crucial issues of gendered abuse, violence, and inequality, then one of the strategies we must use is to provide young people with the foundations they need to make informed decisions. That is the only way young people will be able to protect themselves if it comes to the crunch.
Young people who are left uninformed are left vulnerable. As one 15-year-old put it, “Lack of education doesn’t mean lack of sex, it means lack of SAFE sex”.
Helen Connolly is Commissioner for Children and Young People SA
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