Sex, schools and students


Few would disagree that, at some point, children ought to understand how the human reproductive system works. It tends to be the case that children initiate this exploration, often prompted by increasing awareness of their private parts or the anticipated arrival of a younger sibling.

But discrepancies can arise between parental preferences and school delivery of such information. That was the case at Holy Name Catholic Primary School in Toowoomba, Queensland. Appalled that his children, aged seven and nine, were shown genital diagrams and a birthing video, Greg Wells transferred them to a state school.

The story highlights the contentious and complex nature of sex education: how much ought to be revealed at which age and by whom? The fact that sexual norms vary among communities naturally makes such curriculum problematic. In fact, there is no comprehensive syllabus being applied consistently across Australian states and territories. Inevitably, schools are being accused of either doing too much too early or not enough.

What is the place of sex education in schools, anyway? The answer lies in the context in which children and teenagers live today.

The latest report from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society reveals startling trends in the sexual behaviour of year 10 and 12 students. Its fourth National Survey of Secondary Students and Sexual Health, which involved nearly 3000 young people from 100 secondary schools, showed that 78 per cent have experienced some form of sexual activity.

There are also significant increases in the proportion of sexually active students reporting three or more partners in a year (rising from 20 per cent in 2002 to 30 per cent in 2008), as well as young women reporting unwanted sex (increasing from 28 per cent to 38 per cent).

According to Associate Professor Anne Mitchell, one of the authors of the survey, the reality is that 'puberty comes earlier these days and marriage or life-long partnering occurs much later, so young people have quite a long period in their lives where they are likely to be sexually active with different partners, exposed to STIs (sexually transmissible infections) and not wanting to become pregnant'.

In this light, she says, schools are best placed to cover sexual health not only because young people are a captive audience, but because it is where they can be supported in developing a mature sexual ethic. Outside of school, few such opportunities arise.

Christy Measham, an education officer at Family Planning Tasmania (who, incidentally, is the author's cousin-in-law), offers another argument — that children are already exposed to messages about sex from the media, most of which are misleading.

Thus, when parents protest that their child is not ready or doesn't need to know about 'such things', she often asks them if their child has a computer or owns a mobile. It may be that their child has already been exposed to inappropriate images and content without the mediation of an adult.

Mitchell agrees that the concern about protecting innocence can be misplaced.

'Parents do hold on to the fear that children will hear too much too early. This may have been an issue 50 years ago, but we only have to look around us — at the degree to which sex is used in advertising, at sexual explicitness in the media generally, and the wealth of opportunities that the internet provides to satisfy sexual curiosity — to appreciate that 'innocence' is destroyed very early.'

This sort of exposure can be offset by timely and appropriate information. According to Measham, for lower primary students, this means naming the human anatomy (with the aid of a basic diagram) as well as learning that there are rules concerning private parts and that it is important to talk to somebody about any concerns.

Evidently, sex education is no longer just about learning how the reproductive system works, how babies are conceived, STIs and contraception. While this may still be the case in some schools, there is now a distinct movement in sexual health literacy towards building lifelong, personal skills. These include paying attention to emotions, setting boundaries, acting within one's values, and using appropriate language.

Such skills are not necessarily associated with sexual intercourse, which tends to be the flashpoint. Instead, there is increasing focus on individual wellbeing and healthy relationship, which in the end is the correct context for talking about sex.

This, perhaps, can be the common ground upon which parents and schools agree. It is a collaboration that is essential for sex education to be effective, and is how Mitchell describes best practice. 'It should be based on a partnership between parents and the school', she says, 'each of them covering the territory that is difficult for the other.' She also advocates age-appropriate learning from kindergarten through to year 12.

Measham adds that sex ed is more than just the one-off 'talk' that parents feel obliged to give to their children. It is also more than the two lessons teachers think they can spare in a school year. 'Children learn about sexuality just from observing how adults relate to one another, and how they react to situations', she explains.

In this sense, it is worth wondering how Wells' reaction to the school's sex education methods will influence his children's understanding of sexuality.

'Teachers and parents often forget how much of a role model they are,' Measham comments. She remarks that it is nothing to be concerned about when children start giggling or making jokes about private parts, as was the case with Wells' seven-year old son, because it is a phase that they normally outgrow.

As Mitchell says, what remains important is 'that children and young people get reliable information to make sense of it all, and have a way of getting answers to their questions from someone they trust'.

Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a state school teacher in Victoria.

Topic tags: sex education, toowoomba, Primary School, Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society



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Existing comments

It's encouraging to read Fatima's report that Sex Ed is more than just the mechanistic bits, that children are learning about the entire context of inter-personal relationships.

(The major evolutionary advantage from having such unduly large brains is that humans can have complex societies).

Perhaps it'd help if attendance in such classes should be mandated for parents, so that they understand what is being taught to their children, to help fill in some of their own ignorance, and so they are ready when their children have questions.
David Arthur | 20 October 2009

The basic point, that early sex education is required now in a way that was not the case before, is sound. However, let us not forget that parents are the primary educators of their children in this as in every other area of life. It seems that Mr Wells was not aware of the material to which his young children were being exposed. Maybe it is better to provide parents with information and teaching programmes so that this kind of education can be carried out in the context where it belongs, the family. One notes that the present need for earlier sex education has been brought on by the sexualisation of society in general and children in particular by business, advertisers and the entertainment industry, aided and abetted by a mass media which, operating under a double standard, likes nothing better than to be self-righteous about stories of sexual misbehaviour especially where the very young are involved. As we saw in the Polanski case, Hollwood regards a 40 year-old man having sex with a 13 year-old girl as no big deal.

Sex education, whether at home or in school or both, must extend beyond instruction in plumbing and even beyond developing personal skills of communication and negotiation to helping young people to grow up with the understanding that the proper place for sexual activity is a radically-committed, stable interpersonal relationship open to love and life. Without that a lot of people are going to keep on being hurt.
Sylvester | 20 October 2009

When explicit sex education was introduced into a Catholic (Loreto-run) girls' secondary school some decades back, a sizeable group of parents removed their daughters in protest and enrolled them in a nearby Anglican school.

A doctor friend of mine, who has since become a devout Christian and who then worked at a family planning clinic, was appalled; the school to which they were moved was the one, he said, from whose students his clinic received the most requests for abortions. As often as not they had not realised how pregnancies were caused.

Drawing simple morals can be complicated, but it gives one to think.
john fox | 20 October 2009

I grew up in an era when sex education is hardly heard about in conversation and discussed openly among friends and family members within it's moral and educational context. There were some prohibition and hesitation considering the reaction of people around the conversation. It was more of a "hide and seek" situation, where one should be aware of who's looking around. To my surprise, I once visited my great nieces and nephews who goes to Catholic schools learning so fast and advance in all areas of sex education using technological presentation of human anatomy and etc. Amazingly, they were discussing and sharing inputs in the presence of their responsible parents. During that few hours of observation, at the end I reminded my nieces & nephews (children's parents) not to forget the good moral intention derived from the modern day sex education. Children could learn all the sex education knowledge that any schools could offer but may lose sight of it's importance in discerning the real, honest and true intention of why this is now becoming part of the school's curriculum. In parallel, we can ask them(parents and children)... "what is the cause and effect" ... in this too modern world we live in today.
Narcy | 20 October 2009

It helps me now to be 72 years old. I look at family records. Before 1900 most of my female ancestors were married when they were 16, 17, or 18 years old. Prior to their weddings they helped bulls mate with cows or rams with ewes. I remember standing with a young friend as we watched the copulation of two huge pigs. The result was several piglets. She and I did not need much more education about such matters. As is said, we knew the facts of life.

About the same time, a priest at a Jesuit primary school, tried to tell me that contraception was wrong. In the late 1940s he missed the boat. In the 1950s the Jesuit Rector of a secondary school which I attended blew up because his students knew about condoms. Of course we did. But we were not supposesed to do so. We were taught that masturbation was mortally sinful, but it got just three Hail Marys penance in confession.

However, we have made great progress since the 1950s.

Young children now rarely have the chance to watch pigs copulating. So they need the education about such things which, perhaps, I did not need.
Gerry Costigan | 20 October 2009

Whatever happened to the "Personal Development Guidelines" produced by a Task e of the Brisbane Catholic Education Office over 20 years ago. It was a group of school and parent educators. i believe most diocese of Queensland adopted it. There were steps to be followed including local parental consultation. Parents saw the material to be used in advance. Sexual biology and ethics and values were to be taught as part of a whole person education not in isolation.
Elizabeth | 20 October 2009

Children learn about sexuality from their parents, subconsciously mostly, about being a man from fathers, about being a woman from mothers, and about sexual intimacy from the most mundane of life's daily actions.

All schools and other organisations of intensive learning can do is to alert the parents and children to this, using well crafted resources and approaches which will engage the children and parents.

Gender confusion and single parent households need a lot of support to overcome the absence of either mother or father in the daily mix of life and then, in the case of gender confusion, some parents as well as the children will need whatever it takes to 'unconfuse' the children, if we're talking about justice for each child of course.
Fr Mick Mac Andrew Bombala-Delegate NSW | 20 October 2009


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