Comprehensive, inclusive sexuality and relationships education (“sex ed”) teaches children and adolescents in age-appropriate ways that sexuality is a normal, healthy part of life.
Good sex ed covers diverse topics such as human development, relationships and interpersonal skills, sexual expression, sexual health, society and culture, as well as how to prevent unintended pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV.
According to the United Nations, all young people have the right to information about sexuality. Without it, they’re vulnerable to coercion, unintended pregnancy and STI transmission.
The World Health Organisation agrees, arguing we all have a right to “a positive and respectful approach to sexual relationships [and] the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences”.
Opponents of school-based sex ed argue that educating young people about sex and relationships can lead to promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, increased rates of STIs and can even influence sexual and gender orientation. But this isn’t supported by the research.
Comparing sex ed programs
Opposition to sex ed in schools has resulted in an approach in some states in the United States known as “abstinence-only”. Young people aren’t taught about prevention, they’re urged to pledge to delay any sexual contact until they are married.
To understand the effectiveness of different approaches to sex ed, a 2005 study compared sexual health outcomes for young people in Australia and the Netherlands, where comprehensive sexuality education is taught, and the United States, where abstinence-only education was taught in some states. Researchers tracked rates of HIV and STI transmission, and unintended pregnancies.
The average age of first intercourse was similar in the Netherlands (17.7 years) and Australia (16 years).
But sexual health outcomes where abstinence-only programs were taught fell well behind. Teens in the US had an earlier age of first sexual intercourse (15.8), higher rates of pregnancy terminations and higher rates of teen births compared with the other countries in the study. Around 30.4 out of every 1,000 women aged 15 to 17 in the US will give birth.
The Netherlands stands out as having one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the world (2.2 births per 1,000 women aged 15 to 17).
The Netherlands provides high-quality sexuality education for both primary and secondary school students. But rather than imposing a specific curriculum, Dutch schools incorporate sex ed into existing subject areas. Schools are expected to include discussions about pregnancy, STIs, sexual orientation and homophobia, values, respect for difference and skills for healthy relationships in their curriculum.
In Australia, age-appropriate, comprehensive sexuality education is included in the NationalHealth and Physical Education Curriculum for children and young people from the first year of school to year 10.
But despite the national curriculum, there is a lack of consistency in the delivery of programs across Australia. The decision about how to approach sex ed and how to engage parents is generally left to individual school principals.
The Dutch approach to sex ed – which embeds the content across curriculum areas – is considered best practice internationally and should be adopted in Australia. Rather than relegating sex ed to health and physical education, content should also be incorporated into topics such as English, science and pastoral care.
Adopting a “whole school” approach to sex ed is not easy, and would require additional training and support to transition to this model, but schools that have done it have achieved great results.
Parents or teachers?
Some of those who oppose school-based sex ed argue it is the responsibility of parents to educate their children about sex. They’re right.
A child’s first exposure to knowledge about sex, sexuality and relationships comes from their own family, whether it is approached openly or not. Children quickly learn that some subjects are acceptable to talk about and others are not. Silence about sex within families, however, does not mean children are unaware of the issue.
In the absence of age-appropriate, accurate information, even very young children make up stories to fill the void. For some, sex becomes associated with fear and embarrassment. In adolescence, these children may be exposed to the very risks that opponents of sex ed believe it causes.
In my research, many parents report that their own first learning about sex was surrounded by shame and embarrassment. As a result, many feel ill prepared to talk about sex with their own children.
Most parents want their children to grow up to be sexually healthy adults and do not want their children to share their own feelings of discomfort when it comes to sex. They also want schools to provide comprehensive sex ed, with the proviso that they want know what will be taught, when and by whom so they can complement the factual information their children learn with their own family values.
This has implications for how schools communicate with parents about sex ed. Keeping parents informed about the curriculum can support high quality parent-child communication about sexuality that, according to many young people, has been missing.
Central to much of the debate about young people, sexuality and sex ed is that the focus is on sex as a problem rather than as a strength to be celebrated and approached ethically and responsibly. High-quality sex ed should support young people to learn to express their ideas, emotions, questions, values and concerns and with potential partners.
Sex ed should be the shared responsibility of parents and carers as well as the education system. It should be inclusive, empowering, and should facilitate ethical sexual relationships. This requires not only knowledge but also skills such as self-reflection, negotiating relationships with others and critical thinking.