Survey reveals teens' attitudes to sexual health

While most sexually active Australian secondary school students report positive sexual experiences, condom use is falling amongst young people, a major new survey by La Trobe University has found.

The seventh National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health, conducted in 2021 and released today, found that more young people are sexually active now than in previous years, with 49 per cent of year 12 students reporting being sexually active in 1992 compared to 69 per cent in 2021.

Over that same time period condom use has dropped from 59 per cent to 49 per cent.

Lead researcher at La Trobe University’s Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society (ARCSHS), Associate Professor Jennifer Power, said while more than half of young people felt positive about their sexual experiences, low rates of condom use and STI screening was concerning.

“Overall, young Australians tell us that their sexual experiences have been positive, respectful and safe – and that they feel confident talking to their partners about sex and consent,” Associate Professor Power said.

“However, it is concerning that despite recognising the importance of condom use, regular condom use is low – and with high STI rates amongst young people in Australia, this is something we need to talk about more.”

Associate Professor Power also highlighted the high rate of unwanted sex reported in the survey, noting that nearly one in four young people surveyed had experienced unwanted sex. This figure was even higher among young women, trans and non-binary young people.

“Many of these young people had experienced unwanted sex in the context of an intimate relationship, felt pressured to have sex or were worried about negative outcomes if they did not agree to have sex,” Associate Professor Power said.

“Compared to previous years, reporting of unwanted sex has risen by over 10 per cent – which may reflect an increasing awareness of sexual violence and sexual consent – and suggests more education is needed around relationships and consent for young people.”

Respondents also reported that the internet is a significant tool for learning about sex and relationships, but many wanted better relationships and sexuality education at school.

Digital sexual practices have changed since the survey began in 1992, with the 2021 report finding 87 per cent of young people engaged in sending or receiving sexually explicit text messages (“sexting”) and 86 per cent had viewed pornography – though the majority they did not view it regularly.

Key findings of the survey include:

  • 61 per cent of young people were sexually active. The number of young people reporting that they are sexually active has increased over time
  • 94 per cent thought young people should use condoms with new partner, although only 57 per cent thought condom use with a new partner was common among people their age
  • 86 per cent had viewed online pornography at least once, 14 per cent viewed pornography daily or weekly
  • 80 per cent had received a nude or sexual photo
  • 96 per cent agreed that care needed to be taken when sending or receiving nude or sexual images, however over 60 per cent agreed that sexting helped them learn about their own, or their partner’s, sexuality
  • 24 per cent reported at least one experience of unwanted sex.

More about the National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health (SSASH)

  • The SSASH is a periodic survey of sexual health among school-aged young people in Australia.
  • The survey began in 1992 and reports on a range of issues related to sexual identity and experiences, STI and HIV prevention, and relationships and sexuality education (RSE).
  • In 2021, the survey asked 6841 Year 9 -12 students in Government, Catholic and Independent schools from each state and territory, about their experiences of sex and relationships.
  • The survey also provides information about the progress of key priority areas in the Fourth National Sexually Transmissible Infections Strategy (Australian Department of Health, 2018).

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