Sex is universal. Most of us do it. Most of us enjoy it. Yet not all of us get the best introduction to it. Primary and Secondary school are where most of us experience our first encounters with Sex Education, but in most people’s experiences, it’s wishy-washy at best.
In my own experience, at an ultra-christian high school, Sex education was about abstinence and saving yourself for marriage. Apparently, even one sexual encounter could lead to pregnancy or an STI. The message was simple: Sex is bad.
The most recent survey on sex education in secondary schools in Australia, released in 2018, found that almost 79 percent of students used the internet as their most common source of information, followed closely by female friends. School programs, nurses, counsellors and teachers received low to moderate ratings in regards to students' confidence in talking to them and trusting that they’d provide accurate information.
But a number of sex positive shows have surfaced in the last few years. Namely, Sex Education: a teenage-focused series that follows multiple sex-positive storylines. Throughout its episodes it thoughtfully covers issues on LGBTQIA+ communities, mental health, sexual health, and, importantly, consent. If anything, shows like Sex Education have given us a better education than our own schooling experiences ever did.
To get to the bottom of the sex-ed debarkle, we talked to 5 young people on their experiences with sex education in school: what they learned, what they didn’t and how they think it could have been improved.
Renee, Film Director, 22-years-old
So what was your sex ed experience like in school?
My first experience of sex ed was in primary school. And I remember that very classic scenario of the school splitting up the kids into boys and girls. I think the main thing I learned in primary school was about getting my period, because I got my period when I was probably 11 years-old. I remember sex-ed being very minimal. Talking to other young girls at my school – that's where I learned the most. Then, in high school, I remember learning a lot about the male anatomy, but not really learning anything about female anatomy. I just think the whole thing of splitting kids up is really bizarre.
Introducing a gender binary early?
Yeah, even in the way I'm speaking about it, I’m trying not to use such binary language. But I guess that’s everyone’s introduction to your reproductive organs. I find it hard that we’re introduced to something so rigid in our formative years of learning. It already sets us up for this binary identity. Although, I felt like I was really lucky, because my mom was really open talking about sex. Even from such a young age for me, she never shied away from that conversation.
So you learned mostly from family rather than school?
Yeah, particularly my mom and friends, but I just wish that it would have been better taught at school, because it leads to a gap in knowledge when it's just people speaking about their own experiences.
What do you wish they talked about in school?
I feel like the way that the curriculum is set up, it's set up to teach that the purpose of sex is for the end goal to have a baby. There was no talk about consent and how sex can be enjoyable. Without going too in depth, I just wish that a lot of the boys in my high school were taught about consent. I definitely felt like sex wasn't something that I was meant to enjoy. It was just something that I had to do, which is really sad to me.
Persephone, Arts Administrator, 24-years-old
So can you talk me through what your high school sex-ed was like?
It was very split: boys and girls. I think that it felt quite patronising. Very biassed delivery that wasn't particularly based in fact. It felt very fear-mongering instead of just factual.
Can you pinpoint some of those experiences?
I can't remember the context of the quote, but it was like, “when boy goo and girl goo mix, things happen”. Something along those lines. Just incredibly informative. They also said sex was like a sports car that's designed to go faster and faster, and then you can't stop, which is just a really interesting allegorical way to describe consent.
From memory, there were no details on sexual health. Even if you are a religious kind of school, there's definitely things that you can talk about that don't involve forcing abstinence on teenagers, or fear mongering STIs, or pregnancy. I think it would have just been more informative if they had just opened up a platform for information and just said, “We're not interested in teaching you about this, but if you want to find out more here are some good sources that are factual”, instead of just making it up.
Since you didn't have a very factual sex-ed, where did you get your sexual education from?
I was lucky enough that my parents are very open and informative about most elements of the life cycle. So when I was as a kid, I was watching documentaries on the human body, which covered sexual health, reproductive health, intimacy, all those sorts of things. So I knew about it before high school. And then I basically had to muddle my way through lived experiences as a teenager.
Do you think it’s the school's responsibility to teach sex ed?
I think it is the school's responsibility to give at least a foundation of fact, and if they're not willing to teach certain subject matter then at least be able to point young adults in the right direction. Teenagers are generally quite horny and they're going to go at this stuff anyway, so they may as well have correct information. I think it’s very important for schools to give at least a foundational covering of things like consent, sexual health, intimacy, reproductive health and hygiene.
Subah, Film Industry, 26-years-old
So talk me through your sex-ed.
I went to a Catholic girls school in Canberra. Sex-ed was part of a bigger religious education. And it was mostly around things like abstinence-only. The topic of sex wasn't really brought up overtly. When it was brought up, it was through a religious lens. You weren’t taught about condoms and nothing around consent or anything like that.
I remember we were learning about intimacy, relationships and religion. And we were given a stack of five or six cards, like playing cards, and then each one we were told represented a different thing. So with a Queen, it represented holding hands, or King represented kissing or being intimate or whatever it was. And we were told to put them in order of when we thought they should occur in a normal, healthy relationship. And then to show the rest of the class and explain your answer.
So everyone sort of did it. And then the teacher came around, and everyone presented the cards, and they’d say, “oh, that's an interesting idea. Now, think about it through a religious lens or what's best for you”. Then they’d rearrange those cards into something like hold hands then you get married etc. It was just incredibly embarrassing, and we were relatively young, like Year 7 when that occurred.
But people didn't really have anything to compare it to. My school actually has the highest number of teen pregnancies in Canberra.
Do you think the mentality that they instilled in you, or lack of sex education in Year 7, may correlate with the number of teen pregnancies?
Yeah, I really do. I don't think it's a coincidence that the girls that received no practical sex education beyond “get married” ended up getting pregnant. I think a big part of it was that girls never learned about condoms or protection – or even about their own fertility.
Where did you end up getting your sexual education?
Through friends and things like Dolly Doctor, or the internet. But yeah, definitely not through school.
What do you wish you did learn in high school when it come to sex ed?
Probably things around protection. I think I was fortunate enough to have people in my life who would inform me on things like consent. There’s only so much that friends of the same age and demographic can teach you, especially nebulous ideas around what consent is and the relationship that comes with alcohol or drugs.
Amber, Photographer, 26-years-old
So what was your sex-ed like?
My sex-ed was just a roomful of girls with a male teacher. We were basically just told if you had sex, you would get pregnant. We didn't really learn anything about our bodies or anything about contraception, other than you should go on the pill if you don't want to get pregnant. We’d watch the same video over and over again. We weren't really getting told anything was normal, or anything to do with our bodies.
Do you remember why a male teacher was the one to teach you sex ed?
It was just the PE teachers. We had a lot of male teachers, even for math class, for example.
I remember us being shut down if we asked any questions. A girl in my class once asked about a yeast infection, and he was just too uncomfortable to answer it. Any questions that were asked would just be met with uncomfortableness and a “maybe ask your parents.”
So where did you get your sex-ed from?
Well, a lot of us turned to porn. That was such a big thing. Because it's the only real example of sex, but it’s also so unrealistic. I feel like a lot of girls turned to that and thought this is what I have to do, and this is the person that I have to be to get guys to like me, This is what sex is”.
So you watched porn, which a lot of young people do, but when do you think you developed realistic expectations of your body if not through sex-ed?
I was probably 23 years-old. It was so late in life.
So what do you wish you’d learned?
I wish I learned that everything was completely normal. Body hair was normal. Having bad sex is normal. Having good sex was normal. And just things that happen during sex. My mom never told me anything because she thought that school was teaching me. Even in primary school, I remember we watched a baby being born and it was like some 80s video and it was so intense. I feel like I was terrified of sex for a very long time, because I was basically just getting told, “you will get pregnant and have a baby”.
James, Sales, 32-years-old
How was your sex-ed in school?
So when I went to school it was pretty much nothing. There was really nothing. The only things were just really small. Male things. Not much about females at all. Like putting a condom on.
Did you have that really stereotypical experience of putting a condom on a banana?
Literally. Yeah. I actually remember quite clearly, nothing about STIs. Pretty much the only time we talked about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) was in school, with your friends, and you’re making fun of people for having an STI but not actually knowing what that means.
Do you think having sex-ed would have removed that stigma around STIs?
I think so. Yeah. It's difficult to think about when you're at that age. I was still making fun of gay people back in my younger years. We were just so out of touch with everything.
Were your sex-ed classes split?
We were all in the same one together, but I don't remember there being anything about girls, or anything about consent, or anything about pleasure, or anything about anything like that. Really, it was all pretty much just really superficial stuff that you pretty much know anyway. And another thing is, I think I did sex-ed when I was in Year 11. By that time I'd already had sex.
So where did you learn everything you know about sex?
Intimate partners. Friends. I was with someone when I was 16 to 25 years-old. So pretty much everything I learned came mainly from her, as far as female anatomy. As far as male anatomy goes, pretty much just the internet and friends.
Do you wish you had proper sex-ed classes?
Well, yeah. I don't know how I would have reacted when I was younger if it was educational, because I wasn't very good at school. But I feel like it's something that I should have had when I was younger. I feel like if we did sex-ed at the start of high school it would have been much better, just because you're more eager to listen opposed to when you're in Year 11.