I was reading Stephen King’s Carrie over the summer break. There is a fantastic line about high school in it: ‘High school isn’t a very important place. When you’re going you think it’s a big deal, but when it’s over nobody really thinks it was great unless they’re beered up.’ I didn’t have as bad a time at high school as Carrie – knowing I was a vegetarian, no one dared throw a bucket of pig’s blood at me. However, I’m certainly not one to reminisce about all the good times I had, even when I am ‘beered up’. There were some great things about it for sure and while the giving out of free green frogs on St Patrick’s day was a particular highlight, there were also many things I found to be severely lacking. At the top of this list: sex education.

Sex education in the 2000s at our school was brief, uninformative and (despite its brevity) highly biased. In year eight we had a couple of periods on periods, and then, in year ten, all one hundred and fifty off us traipsed off to a monastery for what would be the remainder of our ‘education’ on this topic. Here we watched a video where a lady who had had an abortion looked wistfully into the distance as she contemplated whether or not to throw herself off a bridge followed by break-out sessions that involved placing the stages of a ‘relationship’ in their proper order (‘no dear, kissing comes after hand holding’).

At the same time we were being indoctrinated and misinformed, the man who was to become my husband was learning about the ins and outs of sexually transmitted infections and how to roll a condom onto a fake penis. Surely this was far more useful than the advice we were given about condoms: ‘Why would you want to have sex with a piece of rubber when you could have it naturally, with your husband, when you are married?’

Fortunately for me the stint at the monastery was not the only sex education I had. My mother had taught the subject in a previous life, and so I had access to all the books, pamphlets, worksheets and CD-ROMs a girl could desire/ be horrified by. Many of my peers however were not so fortunate, and were left wondering what went where and who did what. Even through university and beyond, their queries to me ranged from what the correct scrotum to testes ratio was (one sack, two balls) to whether you could still use a tampon if you had an intrauterine device for contraception (just to clarify, a tampon is inserted into the vagina, while an IUD – as the name suggests – sits inside the uterus, so the answer is ‘yes’).

When I hear questions like these, or when I hear that half of young people are significantly dissatisfied with school sex education – a worrying statistic from the 2013 National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health – it makes me believe even more fiercely that a national sex education curriculum is well and truly overdue. All children and young adults deserve the right to decent sex education, no matter what school they attend. Ideally, this education would be comprehensive and inclusive, covering topics ranging from sexually transmissible infections (STIs), biology and pregnancy prevention to sexual assault, sex and pleasure, intimacy and diverse sexualities.

The idea of a national sex education curriculum is not a new one by any stretch. A 2012 report into sexual education across Australia conducted by Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS (YEAH) and the Australian Youth Affairs Coalition revealed that ‘basic sex and sexual health education in Australian schools is inconsistent and encumbered by different curriculum guidelines across states and territories.’ Based on their findings, the researchers recommended that a national sex education curriculum be introduced.

The following year, the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) announced that they had included a sexual education component in their proposed national ‘Health and Physical Education’ curriculum. While this proposal contained much to be applauded (‘sexual and gender identity’ and ‘managing intimate relationships’ are subjects I certainly wish my school had covered), many organisations, including YEAH, criticised it for neglecting to mention STIs, blood borne diseases and HIV. The most recent National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health has indicated that students nationwide continue to have low levels of understanding about viral hepatitis and STIs (including chlamydia, the most common STI amongst young people) as well as ‘very poor’ knowledge about Human Papilloma Virus, which makes these omissions in the proposed curriculum a particular concern. If young people are not being made aware of the risk factors, availability of screening and prevention methods, then they are putting themselves and their partners at great risk.

Another criticism of the proposed national curriculum has been that it failed to directly address the area of homophobic bullying. This too is of concern, and is part of a greater issue concerning sexual education and the LGBTI community. According to the 2014 report from the Young and Well Co-operative Research Centre entitled ‘Growing Up Queer’, sex education in Australian schools is overwhelmingly heteronormative and perceived as irrelevant to the needs of gender variant and sexually diverse students. This point was brought to my attention even more acutely when watching ABC’s Q&A last year. During the broadcast from the 2014 International AIDS Conference audience member Russell Harrower, a man who has lived with HIV for the past five years, stated that ‘The school system doesn’t work. They say sex education, which is straight sex. Gay sex needs to be educated on a school level.’

Sex and sexuality is an integral part of every person’s personality, and because of this, it is only right that children and young adults have quality information on this topic. If we cannot ensure this happens through measures including a comprehensive national sex education curriculum, then we are doing them a great disservice. Perhaps if poor Carrie had had better sex education, and knew she wasn’t bleeding to death when she got her first period, she never would have felt the need to go on her infamous telekinetic rampage.

Matilda Whitworth

Matilda Whitworth is a final year medical student who would like to combine a career in writing and community medicine. She has previously written for the Big Issue magazine about her work with Perth's homeless population.

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  1. Dear Matilda. What a wonderfully truthful piece of writing ! I could not agree more with your comments about the requirement for a national sex education curriculum that is unbiased and all inclusive. I’m so proud to know you and that you are continuing to be such a fantastic science communicator in addition to completing your medical studies ! You have my undying respect and admiration clever talented gorgeous lady !!! Pauline x

  2. My sex Ed was through a state school and did go through things like condoms and STIs. It was Hetero focused, which is an area which should be improved. Though the one thing it left me with was a conviction that getting pregnant would ‘ruin’ my life. years later I realised that they were talking about getting pregnant while still at school.
    It would also be good to see a discussion about what a healthy and respectful relationship looks like not just the mechanics of sex. The idea of sex within a relationship which is mutually satisfying, rather than the idea which is quite prevalent among young people that sexual activity will gain you a relationship, is an area which is missing.
    Going by conversations with my teenage cousin, the sexual relationships among her peers are a little too Puberty Blues, with girls cast as the givers of pleasure to gain boys attention and affection is something that should be addressed in sex Ed classes.

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