Why we need comprehensive sex education in schools

By Erin Gillen
student and teacher

Formal sex education in schools is not meeting the needs of young women, according to a recent survey by the Equality Rights Alliance Young Women’s Advisory Group (YWAG). In doing so, it may also be denying them a human right to comprehensive sex education.

Seventy six per cent of survey respondents reported that they had not learnt anything from their sex education classes in school that had helped them when dealing with sex and respectful relationships. Less than two per cent of young women rated their experience of sex education in schools as excellent and nearly 50 per cent rated their experience as 1-4 on a scale of 10, where 1 was poor and 10 was excellent.

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights recently released a general comment affirming the right to sexual and reproductive health as an integral part of the right to health enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Crucially, the committee said that when combined with other parts of the ICESCR, including the right to education and the right to non-discrimination and equality between men and women, there is “a right to education on sexuality and reproduction that is comprehensive, non-discriminatory, evidence-based, scientifically accurate and age appropriate”.

Comprehensive sex education is also key to bringing about the health and education commitments that governments have signed up to in the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW)’s 60 Agreed Conclusions. These conclusions emphasise the promotion and protection of the human rights of all women and their sexual and reproductive health, and in the next paragraph affirm the need to promote and respect women’s and girls’ right to education throughout their life cycle at all levels. The Agreed Conclusions further include a recommendation for states to “mainstream a gender perspective into education and training programmes…and create conditions that facilitate women’s full participation and integration in the formal economy”.

YWAG’s survey found that formal sex education focuses on menstruation, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and contraception. Topics including consent, pleasure and LGBTIQ relationships were discussed much less frequently.

The Australian National Health and Physical Education curriculum (National Curriculum) includes content for students from year 3 to year 10 to learn about puberty, sexual health, reproduction, sexuality and relationships. This curriculum has been fully adopted by the Australian Capital Territory, and partially adopted by other states including New South Wales and Victoria. States and territories determine the timelines for any implementation, given education is a state responsibility.

YWAG’s survey showed that the quality of the sex and relationships education that young people in Australia receive varies significantly. The delivery of comprehensive education on this topic is largely due to the interest and investment of individual teachers, principals and schools. Teaching this topic requires specific training in accurate and age-appropriate content.

Given the disparate implementation of the National Curriculum, more needs to be done to ensure that states or territories, or at a more local level – individual schools, do not determine whether young women have access to important information about sexual and reproductive health, as is their right.

The goal of all sex education should be to provide young people with the knowledge and skills to manage their sexual health and wellbeing, and healthy relationships, throughout their lives.

One example of how comprehensive sex education can be included in the school curriculum is seen in South Australia. Community sexual health agency SHine SA provides support to schools to implement a whole school approach to relationships and sexual health education. This work is done under a Memorandum of Operational Collaboration with the Department of Education and Child Development. This approach recognises that teachers and other education staff need support to build confidence and capacity to teach sex and relationships education. The curriculum developed by SHine SA is mapped to the National Curriculum.

The goal of all sex education should be to provide young people with the knowledge and skills to manage their sexual health and wellbeing, and healthy relationships, throughout their lives. YWAG proposes the following eight core components, be embedded in sex and relationships education in Australian schools:

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

International bodies are recognising that comprehensive sex education is a human right, particularly aligned with the right to sexual and reproductive health. YWAG’s survey reveals that the Australian experience of sex and relationships education varies significantly across the country, and that there is much more to be done to ensure that all young people have access to comprehensive, relevant and age-appropriate information.