The Equality Rights Alliance's Young Women's Advisory Group (YWAG) is an independent group of ten young women aged 18-30 across Australia bringing young women's voices and perspectives to the national policy space. In 2015, YWAG conducted a national survey of women aged 16-21 who had attended school in Australia about their sexuality and respectful relationships education.
YWAG believes that sexuality education is in need of reform.
We all want to grow up forming healthy and safe relationships with our friends, family, and partners. If delivered effectively, sexuality and respectful relationships education can help young people understand what healthy and safe relationships are and how to manage their sexual and reproductive wellbeing. The Australian Curriculum for Health and Physical Education includes content on sexuality and reproductive health and respectful relationships, however sexuality education provided in schools across Australia varies significantly depending on the jurisdiction and school.i
The Sustainable Development Goals 3, 4 and 5 highlight the importance of comprehensive, age-appropriate sex education in achieving good health and well-being, quality education and gender equality.
In 2015, YWAG conducted a national survey of women aged 16-21 who had attended school in Australia about their sexuality and respectful relationships education. Alongside the survey, three focus groups on young people, in particular, young women's experiences of sex and relationships education were facilitated by self-selecting young women in their local communities and networks.
Young people’s's experiences of sex education vary
Sex education in school is often a negative and outdated experience for young people
Young people find alternative pathways to sex and relationships education
Young people want their sex education in school to be more comprehensive and inclusive
YWAG members and their mums compare their experiences of sex ed.
I blocked out a lot of my sex education because it was incredibly embarrassing to talk about, and so what might have been useful information went in one ear and out the other. I remember having lessons in my year 8 PE class of all girls. The underlying messages that did stick were that sex was taboo, only “bad” girls were (hetero)sexually active, and girls can’t actually talk about it in a way that meets our needs and curiosity because it’s not safe to.Sienna,YWAG member
As far as I can remember, we had some sort of sex education in second year High School, Year 8. Being an exclusive girls' school, the approach was more physiological, rather than the holistic building relationships advocacy approach. There was not much engagement in the presentation. As I can recall, the subject matter propped up in an afternoon tea with my circle of friends. The eldest in our group would tell stories about her older sisters . I was the youngest and did not really know much. I just listened in awe. This was our final year in HS, Year 10. There were no social media then, just me and my closest friends chatting over soft drinks and cakes in a small café near our school. It was 1971 in The Philippines.Nene, 61 years old
Teachers discussed sex with us during PE class in my Australian high school, but it was decidedly negative and narrow - focusing on anatomy, STIs and pregnancy. Much like my mum, I experienced sex ed with an unspoken emphasis on abstinence and shame.Kate, YWAG Member
In Iran in the 1960's the general norm was that if you talked about sex, you encouraged young people to have sex, so it wasn't talked aboutFarideh
I never had much sex education, and what I did have painted sex as risky behaviour like drinking and taking drugs. For a while it made me feel uncomfortable with the idea of intimacy and sex in relationships. Sex education needs to be sex positive!Romy, YWAG Member
I didn't receive sex education at all, I went to a religious school where the colour of our underwear was chosen for us!"Elisabeth, 55 years
My sex education was very comprehensive in terms of intercourse, 'how babies are made', STIs, and different options for contraception. While this is obviously a huge improvement on the education that my Mum got, many topics were missing including pleasure, consent, diverse sexualities and how to manage sexual health (ie.there was a lot about STIs and using condoms, but nothing about regular check ups and where to access them).Erin, YWAG Member
I attended a co-ed high school. In Year 7 Sex education evenings were held over 2 nights in the school gym. Girls one night accompanied by their mothers and boys on the other with their fathers. We watched a film about reproduction in the animal kingdom. At the end of the film we all went home and nothing more was said. Very confusing.Elizabeth
My sex ed class was in year 10 at high school. I remember we had to watch a cartoon of a boy masturbating under the covers of his bed and how the whole class was giggling. I remember the teacher also seeming pretty embarrassed about the whole thing as well. There was nothing at all about girl’s masturbation, and so it became this imagery of what 'only boys' got up to at home.Morgan, YWAG Member
Julie never had sex education in high school, but did in primary school in grade 5, when she was 10 years old. She remembers it was an optional seminar after school and that her mum had to pay for her and her sister to attend. She remembers listening to a talk about "the birds and the bees" and being given a book, which her mum told her to read if she had any questions. She also remembers all the kids in her class asking each other, "you're not going to the SEX talk are you? Ewww!" Mum thought they offered it in grade 5 as that was the time most girls would have started getting their period.Julie, 56
Alongside the initial 'Let's Talk’ survey, three focus groups were held in which participants discussed their experiences of sex education. In the focus groups, young people were asked about their experiences of sex education, and had the chance to discuss and compare their stories through conversations with their peers.
One group was held in Canberra, and two in Brisbane, in collaboration with local youth organisations. The participants in the second focus group in Brisbane were LGBTIQ+ young people, some of whom identified as male. Some participants in the Canberra group identified as sex and gender diverse.
The focus groups included a range of backgrounds and experiences, with participants identifying as/with
culturally or linguistically diverse
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
having a disability
diverse genders and sexualities
Participants ranged in age from 14 to 22, and had received education at a mix of public and private schools, with one participant having attended an international school.
While participants across the three groups reported receiving sexuality and relationships education on similar topics, the tone, depth and perspective varied considerably. Common topics included puberty and anatomy, basic contraception, and pregnancy and childbirth, but discussions around complex issues including consent, healthy relationships and drugs and alcohol were uncommon. The age at which participants received their first class also varied from year 5 to year 9.
All participants in all 3 focus groups reported that they did not feel adequately informed to manage their sexual health, or their sexual relationships, after participating in sex education at school. Across the focus groups, it was clear that young peoples' experience of sex education at school varied considerably, and depended upon the nature of the school, the teacher as well as individual circumstances.
“[For me it was] a whole generation out of date”
“One of my mates thought you get pregnant just by touching the belly”
“[It] made us feel bad about having sex”
“[It was] terrifying – I felt like I couldn’t be myself because of the risk of bullying”
“[It was basically] don’t have sex, but if you do, use a condom”
Experiences of sex education were negative, both in terms of the way it made participants feel and the content provided. Participants reported feeling unsafe because of homophobia and transphobia, and the exclusion of diverse genders and sexualities from their formal sex education.
Participants in all groups also provided examples of information being irrelevant or poorly communicated. Sex was also framed negatively, abstinence was promoted and pleasure was not discussed at all. Gender and sexual diversity was reported as being mentioned only or was negatively associated with HIV/AIDS and in some cases, immorality.
Participants in all the groups informed themselves in alternative ways by seeking information about sexual health and relationships from
through their peers
trusted family members
magazines, books and pamphlets
Participants in both the Brisbane groups emphasised learning about sex through intimate relationships and personal experience. On the other hand participants in all groups felt that sex was too awkward to discuss with their parents, and younger participants also expressed feeling awkward speaking with their friends about sex.
“If we do have sex, [we need to learn] how to be safe about it”
Sex education should teach… “that it is safe to express different aspects of a gender”
Young women want to learn about… “pleasure – that sex can be fun!”
“[It was] terrifying – I felt like I couldn’t be myself because of the risk of bullying”
“[You need to hear] it’s your choice!”
Across the focus groups, participants reported that sex education needs to be more inclusive, especially of diverse genders and sexualities.
Participants also felt that sex education needed a greater focus on the areas of contraception and STIs, respectful relationships, consent, and where to access help and information around sexual health and sexual assault. The young women also called for sexuality and relationships education to shift away from promoting abstinence, shaming and victim blaming, and toward exploring safer sex.
All young people in Australia have the right to feel empowered to engage in sexuality and respectful relationships education that is relevant to the lived experiences of students, age-appropriate, and provides the foundational knowledge and skills required to define their own sexuality in ways that are safe, healthy, explorative, and informed.
Young women want sexuality and respectful relationships education to be reformed in Australia. Young women’s voices can pave the way to a more equal future, if we listen and continue to expand the space for young women’s voices to be heard.
Let’s keep building the diverse voices of young women in this area. Share this report and tell your story using #TalkSexEdu. If you would like to submit a story to be shared anonymously from YWAG’s social media, please message us at https://www.facebook.com/LetsTalkSurvey/.
The stories of young people who participated in the 'Let's Talk' focus groups provide insight into the ways that sex and relationships education in Australian in schools is currently failing young women. While the focus groups show that young people do have, and enact, agency to build on their knowledge of sex and relationships beyond the classroom, it is also evident that school education has many areas to improve on to fulfil its role in the sex and relationships education of young women and people.
YWAG proposes the following 8 core components be embedded, in an age-appropriate way that is relevant to the lived experiences of students, within sexuality and respectful relationships education in Australian schools. Informed by the views of young women around Australia, these core components will work to empower young people to look after their sexual health and wellbeing, and build skills for developing positive and safe relationships:
It is crucial that young people understand the definition and complexities surrounding informed consent, building their capacity to navigate and communicate throughout their relationships.
Every person deserves the right to experience positive and safe relationships with their family, friends, and loved ones. Knowing the difference between respectful versus disrespectful relationships and behaviour, including early warning signs, is vital to helping prevent intimate partner violence, as well as making it easier to seek help.
An emphasis should be made on young people having an informed, holistic view of sex through access to accurate, honest and neutral information. This information empowers young women to develop the skills they need to take responsibility for their sexual health and well-being.
There are many ways we identify with who we are and how we express ourselves. Young people should be taught that gender and sexual diversity are understood in different ways for different people.
Supporting young people to foster respectful relationships, friendships and interactions online, including developing 21st century skills and knowledge for staying safe and informed in the digital space.
Being comfortable in one's own body is intrinsic to positive self-esteem, including having an understanding of the body and anatomy to comfortably explore sexual pleasure, self-confidence and identity.
Giving young people the knowledge to take control of their reproductive health and wellbeing.
A holistic view that incorporates social and cultural norms, beliefs, and the impacts of gender stereotypes on an individual's sexual health, as well as knowledge of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), contraception, and access to helpful services.