Improving sex education

Researchers from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society have interrogated the gaps in school-based relationships and sexuality education (RSE) and explored how students understand those silences

School-based relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is a critical resource for secondary school students. But are young people getting what they need?

Studies say no, with young people reporting negative experiences of school-based RSE education as overly scientific and conservative, and not preparing them to engage in sexual relationships.

Researchers from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society have explored the issue in a new article, which interrogates the gaps in RSE education and explores how students understand those silences.

“Much of the research in this area has focused on curriculum, policy, teachers and schools, curriculum delivery, and young people’s experiences of RSE” says lead researchers, Associate Professor Christopher Fisher and Dr Andrea Waling, “but few studies have examined how the silences, or what is not said, are reflected in what young people want from school-based RSE education.”

Associate Professor Fisher and Dr Waling observe that while social commentary on sex, relationships, sexuality and consent is widely available, young people reported that key aspects of these issues were not adequately addressed in their experiences of school-based RSE education.

“Our research confirmed that young people are quite aware of the information they do not have,” they say. “They require knowledge about sexually transmitted infections (STI), HIV, and human papillomavirus prevention, how to engage in sex safely with partners, how to have healthy relationships, how to recognise the signs of intimate partner abuse, how to have mutually pleasurable interactions, and how to communicate sexual needs in a way that is respectful and ensures consent, as well as more focus on gender and sexual diversity.”

“While some of these important issues are addressed in recent updates to Australian RSE education guidelines, these guidelines are not consistently applied across schools in Australia.”

The research team has made several recommendations to improve the application of school-based RSE education, including clarifying the existing RSE national policy.

“We must address the impact that silencing can have on young people’s knowledge and safety in engaging in sexual activity,” say Fisher and Waling. “Studies have shown, for example, that it can result in higher rates of STI and HIV transmission, lower rates of contraceptive use and higher rates of unwanted pregnancy.”

“Focusing on the sexual rights of young people will be key to addressing these silences.”

The team will now gather more detailed data on what young people know, and don’t know, and what more is needed in RSE education, to provide guidance on curriculum, policy, teacher training and public health initiatives.

“Policy-makers in Australia and internationally need to engage with young people in order to ensure that programs are effective and target student needs,” say Fisher and Waling. “Otherwise, another decade of thinly veiled silence will continue to undermine young people’s desires for a robust, sex-positive education.”

Read the paper.