Background

The most pervasive argument for comprehensive sexuality education draws on medical discourses that simultaneously promote positive sexual health, and the reduction of risky sexual behaviours that lead to unplanned teenage pregnancies, abortions and births, and the spread of sexually transmitted infections like HIV/AIDS, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, Chlamydia, Herpes, and Hepatitis.

One of the goals of the Second National Sexually Transmissible Infections Strategy 2010-2013 is to ‘reduce the transmission of and morbidity and mortality caused by STIs and to minimise the personal and social impact of the infections’. One of the ways of doing this is to increase young people’s knowledge of STIs, and it is acknowledged that schools play a part in this by delivering age-appropriate sexuality education within the school curriculum (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2010, p. 10).

Recent research on young people’s sexual behaviours, which makes effective school-based sexuality education important, found that:

  • 60% of young people have had their first sexual intercourse by the time they are 16 (Smith et al, 2008).
  • More than one quarter of year 10 students and more than half of year 12 students have had sexual intercourse (Smith et al, 2009).
  • Young women were more likely than young men to have experienced sex when they did not want to (38% vs.19%).
  • Students cited being too drunk (17%) or pressure from their partner (18%) as the most common reasons for having sex when they did not want to (Smith et al 2009).
  • In 2008, slightly more than 25% of all chlamydia infections were in the 15 to 19–year–old age group (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2010).
  • There is increasing concern about: (i) the rising rates of STIs, particularly chlamydia; (ii) the causal relationship between STIs and negative reproductive and sexual health consequences; and (iii) the relationship between STIs and HIV (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2010)

 However, some writers point to the unintended consequences of promoting the broad message that ‘sex is dangerous, risky and should be avoided’. As Allen writes,

Those programmes that have emphasised the negative consequences of sexual activity can render student sexuality a problem to be managed rather than a positive part of youthful identity (Allen, 2005, p. 390).

It can also serve to silence discussion about sexual desire and pleasure as these issues become marginalised by a disproportionate focus on sexual safety and sexual health promotion (Ingham, 2005). In her New Zealand study of young people’s views on school-based sexuality education, Allen (2005) found that students wanted more personally relevant and authentic sexual knowledge that enabled them to make sense of their embodied feelings and sexual desires as ‘sexual subjects’. She writes that,

Through their recommendations, participants in this study asked to be treated as sexual subjects whose sexuality is not automatically constituted ‘as a problem’ necessitating management. This request was evident in their suggestions for ‘more explicit’ and ‘real life’ sexual knowledge (about, for example, the logistics of sexual activity), indicating their desire to be recognised as sexual and to experience their sexuality positively (Allen, 2005, p. 390).

Many of the students in her study thought that their perspectives on what should constitute quality school-based sexuality education were disregarded by the adults who designed and delivered such programs because of their narrow focus on reducing unplanned teenage pregnancies and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections.

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