The Unfortunate Reality of Sex Education

Sexuality education is one of my biggest passions. Friends at school would often come to me for advice, as the “wise” and “experienced” one of the group. I remember being surprised at how much misinformation was out there among my peers, and soon realised it was due to a few key things – their parents and other adults weren’t forthcoming with information; they learned almost everything from other kids (who had no idea) and from the internet (read: porn), and the sex education classes at school were abysmal. All I can remember of sex ed was being shuffled into the library with all the girls in my year, a diagram of the female reproductive system shown briefly by a highly embarrassed woman we’d never seen before who rushed through the basics, slapped a condom on a banana, then rushed out the door before we had the chance to take it all in. Enter the unfortunate reality of sex education.

This, I thought, is unacceptable. They have treated sex like a disease; our bodies like unclean baby carriers, and people with penises like another species. I was shocked when I first saw the statistics on the widespread lack of knowledge; quotes from kids who just want to know more, and the awful, real-world effects of things like abstinence-only sex education and misconceptions about sex and sexuality.
Something needs to change, and it needs to change now.

Sex and sexuality are still viewed as taboo across much of the world. Talking openly and freely about sex, especially with youth, is considered inappropriate and awkward. This is extremely detrimental to the developing minds of our young people. Sex education, or more appropriately, sexuality education, is of the utmost importance, but is often and unfortunately neglected by educators and parents alike. The result is youth who are ignorant of an integral part of life and what it means to be human; a scarily high rate of STIs and teenage pregnancy, as well as worldwide discrimination against sexual and gender minorities. Adolescents have the right to know not only basic anatomy, but the comprehensive version of sexuality education which covers, according to Talk Soon Talk Often, “bodies, babies, growing up, being a boy, being a girl, love and closeness, sexual feelings, sexual expression, personal values and relationships”.
It is imperative to push past the awkwardness and have an open and honest dialogue in schools and at home to ensure the sexual health, physical and emotional, of future generations.

Sexuality education is one of the most controversial subjects taught at school, dubbed “a sensitive issue” and brushed under the rug far too often. Historically, the societal attitude towards children’s sexuality went through several major overhauls as prominent voices in both science and the church clamoured to be heard. Psychologists and sexologists such as Freud and Kinsey argued that children are inherently sexual beings, but the Roman Catholic church insisted that childhood is a time of purity and innocence. Only in the twentieth century did it become widely accepted that sexuality education should exist in some form. As for the content, that was (and still is) highly debated.

Much of Europe and North America used sexuality education as a way to preach abstinence to anyone outside of wedlock, and praise traditional family and gender roles, insisting that any sexual acts outside of the holy union of a man and a woman were immoral and sinful. As scientific thinkers gained a foothold, the attitude shifted to providing purely anatomical facts for children. What is needed now is a balance.
Authorities on adolescent sexuality today agree that young people’s sexual development is healthy and contributes to their overall well-being, and stipulate that sexuality education would be undoubtedly improved if it “treated sexuality as a positive aspect of our humanity rather than something that is wrong or shameful” (Our Sexuality). Learning to be comfortable with one’s body and one’s sexuality is a crucial step in identity development, and it contributes to the sense of where and how one will fit into society as an adult. Reports indicate that young people’s concerns about sexual health indeed arise in the context of “changing bodies and sexual feelings, perceptions of attractiveness, and pleasure and satisfaction within sexual relationships” (Sexual Health), but the system is letting them down – sadly, “less than half of students (45%) found their sexuality and relationship education to be ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ relevant” (National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health), as said “education” is often technical and patchy. UNESCO reports similar findings, stating that “too many young people still make the transition from childhood to adulthood receiving inaccurate, incomplete or judgement-laden information affecting their physical, social and emotional development”. It is clear that the interpersonal aspects of sexual health are highly valued by adolescents, but are often omitted from sex education programs.

Faith based communities and right-wing conservative populations have traditionally taken an abstinence-only-until-marriage (AOE) approach to sex education. The justification of this practice is that if youth are not exposed to sexual content, “the risk of experiencing negative outcomes would be eliminated”. For example, in conservative China where abstinence-only programs were prioritised, parents feared that sexuality education would teach their children “bad things”, and they were concerned that it would “encourage them to initiate sexual relationships at an early age”, when in fact the opposite is true.

AOE programs do not teach the use of condoms or birth control for preventing STIs or pregnancy. What this means is that certain populations like African American churchgoers and those who attend schools with AOE programs in many areas of the US, notably Texas, are experiencing an increase in that preventable pair, STIs and teenage pregnancy. Adolescent sexual activity does not vary considerably enough between those who receive AOE education versus comprehensive education for these groups to be treated differently. As such, it is the duty of educators to provide the information needed to reduce risk taking behaviour (such as the distinct lack of contraception) for all adolescents.
Religious beliefs aside, AOE programs, while heavily funded in the US, have a dismal record. In fact, studies of adolescents in Texas (which aggressively promotes an abstinence-only approach) have revealed that teenage pregnancy is the highest of all 50 states, and STI rates are well above national averages. The proof is in the proverbial pudding – leading researchers in the field have concluded that “comprehensive sex education has demonstrated its effectiveness in reducing negative sexual outcomes such as teenage pregnancy and STIs, whereas abstinence-only programs have not”.

Modern sexuality education needs to provide a standardised, comprehensive and all-inclusive curriculum so that adolescents can make informed decisions and form a healthy understanding of all types of sex, sexuality, love and relationships from a young age.

Was your experience of sex education in school as abysmal as mine?

Next week, check back for the second part of this series that outlines some goals and next steps for the betterment of sexuality education.

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