Equality Rights Alliance YWAG Report ‘Let’s Talk’: Young Women’s Views on Sex Education

Who We Are

The Equality Rights Alliance’s Young Women’s Advisory Group (YWAG) is an independent group of ten young women aged 18-30 across Australia bringing young women’s voices and perspectives to the national policy space. In 2015, YWAG conducted a national survey of women aged 16-21 who had attended school in Australia about their sexuality and respectful relationships education.

and image of the YWAG group members

icon of an outline of a female
YWAG BELIEVES THAT SEXUALITY EDUCATION IS IN NEED OF REFORM.

Why Sex Education?

We all want to grow up forming healthy and safe relationships with our friends, family, and partners. If delivered effectively, sexuality and respectful relationships education can help young people understand what healthy and safe relationships are and how to manage their sexual and reproductive wellbeing. The Australian Curriculum for Health and Physical Education includes content on sexuality and reproductive health and respectful relationships, however sexuality education provided in schools across Australia varies significantly depending on the jurisdiction and school.i

The Sustainable Development Goals 3, 4 and 5 highlight the importance of comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education in achieving good health and well-being, quality education and gender equality.

What Did We Do?

In 2015, YWAG conducted a national survey of women aged 16-21 who had attended school in Australia about their sexuality and respectful relationships education. Alongside the survey, three focus groups on young people, in particular, young women’s experiences of sex and relationships education were facilitated by self-selecting young women in their local communities and networks.


Key Findings

Young people’s’s experiences of sex education vary

Sex education in school is often a negative and outdated experience for young people

Young people find alternative pathways to sex and relationships education

Young people want their sex education in school to be more comprehensive and inclusive

Policy Recommendations

YWAG proposes the following 8 core components are embedded, in an age-appropriate way that is relevant to the lived experiences of students, within sexuality and respectful relationships education in Australian schools. Informed by the views of young women around Australia, these core components will work to empower young people to look after their sexual health and wellbeing, and build skills for developing positive and safe relationships:

  1. Informed consent
  2. Gender and sexual diversity
  3. Positive and safe relationships
  4. A healthy and informed approach to sex
  5. Bodies
  6. Reproductive health
  7. Sexual health
  8. Relationships and technology

What Did We Do?

Alongside the initial ‘Let’s Talk’ survey, three focus groups were held in which participants discussed their experiences of sex education. In the focus groups, young people were asked about their experiences of sex education, and had the chance to discuss and compare their stories through conversations with their peers.

One group was held in Canberra, and two in Brisbane, in collaboration with local youth organisations. The participants in the second focus group in Brisbane were LGBTIQ+ young people, some of whom identified as male. Some participants in the Canberra group identified as sex and gender diverse.

The focus groups included a range of backgrounds and experiences, with participants identifying as/with

icon of a globe representing culturally or linguistically diverse peoplesculturally or linguistically diverse

A greyscale image of the indigenous flagAboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

An icon of a figure in a wheelchair reprenting people with a disabilityhaving a disability

Icon depicting both female and male genders entwined together represrnting dender and sexually diverse peoplesdiverse genders and sexualities

Participants ranged in age from 14 to 22, and had received education at a mix of public and private schools, with one participant having attended an international school.

What Did We Find?

Young People’s Experiences Of Sex And Relationships Education Vary

While participants across the three groups reported receiving sexuality and relationships education on similar topics, the tone, depth and perspective varied considerably. Common topics included puberty and anatomy, basic contraception, and pregnancy and childbirth, but discussions around complex issues including consent, healthy relationships and drugs and alcohol were uncommon. The age at which participants received their first class also varied from year 5 to year 9.

All participants in all 3 focus groups reported that they did not feel adequately informed to manage their sexual health, or their sexual relationships, after participating in sex education at school. Across the focus groups, it was clear that young peoples’ experience of sex education at school varied considerably, and depended upon the nature of the school, the teacher as well as individual circumstances.

Young woman with a baseball cap on near railway tracks

What Did We Find?

Sex Education In School Is A Negative And Outdated Experience For Young People

“[For me it was] a whole generation out of date”

“One of my mates thought you get pregnant just by touching the belly”

“[It] made us feel bad about having sex”

“[It was] terrifying – I felt like I couldn’t be myself because of the risk of bullying”

“[It was basically] don’t have sex, but if you do, use a condom”

Experiences of sex education were negative, both in terms of the way it made participants feel and the content provided. Participants reported feeling unsafe because of homophobia and transphobia, and the exclusion of diverse genders and sexualities from their formal sex education.

Participants in all groups also provided examples of information being irrelevant or poorly communicated. Sex was also framed negatively, abstinence was promoted and pleasure was not discussed at all. Gender and sexual diversity was reported as being mentioned only or was negatively associated with HIV/AIDS and in some cases, immorality.

What Did We Find?

Young People Find Alternative Pathways To Sex And Relationships Education

Participants in all the groups informed themselves in alternative ways by seeking information about sexual health and relationships from

An icon of a circle representing the world wide webthe internet

an icon of three friends holding hands represrnting peersthrough their peers

an icon of a figure with a modern haircut and a tie representing a youth workeryouth workers

icon of 3 figures descending in size representing familytrusted family members

An icon of a doctorhealth professionals

An icon of a magazinemagazines, books and pamphlets

Participants in both the Brisbane groups emphasised learning about sex through intimate relationships and personal experience. On the other hand participants in all groups felt that sex was too awkward to discuss with their parents, and younger participants also expressed feeling awkward speaking with their friends about sex.

a young woman against a colourful brick wall

What Did We Find?

Young People Want More – A Call For Inclusivity, Information And Relationships

“If we do have sex, [we need to learn] how to be safe about it”

Sex education should teach… “that it is safe to express different aspects of a gender”

Young women want to learn about… “pleasure – that sex can be fun!”

“[It was] terrifying – I felt like I couldn’t be myself because of the risk of bullying”

“[You need to hear] it’s your choice!”

Across the focus groups, participants reported that sex education needs to be more inclusive, especially of diverse genders and sexualities.

Participants also felt that sex education needed a greater focus on the areas of contraception and STIs, respectful relationships, consent, and where to access help and information around sexual health and sexual assault. The young women also called for sexuality and relationships education to shift away from promoting abstinence, shaming and victim blaming, and toward exploring safer sex.

Policy Recommendations: It’s Time To Bring Sex Education Into 2016

The stories of young people who participated in the ‘Let’s Talk’ focus groups provide insight into the ways that sex and relationships education in Australian in schools is currently failing young women. While the focus groups show that young people do have, and enact, agency to build on their knowledge of sex and relationships beyond the classroom, it is also evident that school education has many areas to improve on to fulfil its role in the sex and relationships education of young women and people.

YWAG proposes the following 8 core components be embedded, in an age-appropriate way that is relevant to the lived experiences of students, within sexuality and respectful relationships education in Australian schools. Informed by the views of young women around Australia, these core components will work to empower young people to look after their sexual health and wellbeing, and build skills for developing positive and safe relationships:

A photo of a young woman on a a swing

Policy Recommendations: It’s Time To Bring Sex Education Into 2016

A thumbs up icon representing positive consent

1. Informed Consent:

It is crucial that young people understand the definition and complexities surrounding informed consent, building their capacity to navigate and communicate throughout their relationships.

2. Positive And Respectful Relationships:

An icon of a heart and a plus representing postiive relationshipsEvery person deserves the right to experience positive and safe relationships with their family, friends, and loved ones. Knowing the difference between respectful versus disrespectful relationships and behaviour, including early warning signs, is vital to helping prevent intimate partner violence, as well as making it easier to seek help.

An icon of an open book representing being informed

3. A Healthy And Informed Approach To Sex:

An emphasis should be made on young people having an informed, holistic view of sex through access to accurate, honest and neutral information. This information empowers young women to develop the skills they need to take responsibility for their sexual health and well-being.

An icon of the male and female symbols intertwibed representing gender and sexual diversity

4. Gender And Sexual Diversity:

There are many ways we identify with who we are and how we express ourselves. Young people should be taught that gender and sexual diversity are understood in different ways for different people.

Policy Recommendations: It’s Time To Bring Sex Education Into 2016

An icon of a smartphone representing technology

5. Relationships And Technology:

Supporting young people to foster respectful relationships, friendships and interactions online, including developing 21st century skills and knowledge for staying safe and informed in the digital space.

An icon of a figure doing a starjump

6. Bodies

Being comfortable in one’s own body is intrinsic to positive self-esteem, including having an understanding of the body and anatomy to comfortably explore sexual pleasure, self-confidence and identity.

An icon of the female reproductive system

7. Reproductive Health:

Giving young people the knowledge to take control of their reproductive health and wellbeing.

A heart icon representing health

8. Sexual Health:

A holistic view that incorporates social and cultural norms, beliefs, and the impacts of gender stereotypes on an individual’s sexual health, as well as knowledge of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), contraception, and access to helpful services.

All young people in Australia have the right to feel empowered to engage in sexuality and respectful relationships education that is relevant to the lived experiences of students, age-appropriate, and provides the foundational knowledge and skills required to define their own sexuality in ways that are safe, healthy, explorative, and informed.

Young women want sexuality and respectful relationships education to be reformed in Australia. Young women’s voices can pave the way to a more equal future, if we listen and continue to expand the space for young women’s voices to be heard.

Let’s keep building the diverse voices of young women in this area. Share this report and tell your story using #TalkSexEdu. If you would like to submit a story to be shared anonymously from YWAG’s social media, please message us at https://www.facebook.com/LetsTalkSurvey/.

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Emily Wilding

Hi! I’m Emily. I’m 23, I live in Perth, and I’m currently studying a Diploma of Community Services at North Metro TAFE. I have a strong passion for equality, justice, and providing advocacy for disadvantaged groups, and I’m looking forward to being able to use my qualification to achieve those things where I can.

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