Same-Sex, Co-ed, Sex Ed: How Sex Education is Failing Students
By Emma Goldrick
I recall a conversation during high school with a group of 17-year-old girls who were astonished to learn that all vaginas did not look the same way. Working in a pharmacy I was shocked when a girl asked to purchase the morning after pill to protect herself from “STIs”. At university, I am consistently reminded that sex education should start with a conversation of consent.
Sex education throughout school curriculums is fundamental in ensuring individuals understand themselves and how to respect and treat one another. Seemingly the appropriate lesson of sex education through our schooling system is one that has been lost. In an attempt to understand what is actually taught in schools across New South Wales, I spoke to students who attended a host of same-sex, co-ed, private and public schools. Speaking to individuals from a variety of educational backgrounds has shown the flaws and problematic inconsistencies of the state-based sex education curriculum.
Callum Maddox, who attended Normanhurst Boys High School, explained how his exposure to sex education was limited to “mostly scientific” classes on how a child is conceived. Callum further acknowledged that “there were never any conversations about consent”. Without conversations of consent and the appropriate and respectable way to teach a sexual partner, Callum says sex education classes were known for spreading toxic masculinity. The presentation of the class as ‘theory’ and ‘science’ did not allow students to understand the practicality of sexual relations and therefore lacked an understanding of the other gender. Callum further explained that his school, like most, only acknowledge and educate on “heterosexual” relationships. The exclusion of only teaching sex education in heterosexual relations is a concern across the nation, which leaves many students uneducated about homosexual or other identities. Callum emphasised that the lack of teachings of other forms of relationships meant individuals who identify as homosexual or otherwise are pushed towards the internet for explanations.
Rebecca Melkonian, who was a student at Danebank Anglican School for Girls, claimed that her lessons of sex education were satisfactory for learning about female anatomy. However, Rebecca, like Callum, acknowledged that her same-sex school spoke of the other gender through a scientific, “diagrams and models” lens. Rebecca highlighted the underpinning lesson of the sex education curriculum is the “teachings of anti-pregnancy” rather than the teaching of safety, protection and so forth. Rebecca who is now trained and employed as a registered pharmacist believes that school students would have a better understanding of sex education classes were presented by trained professionals. Rebecca acknowledged that her school emphasised conversations of consent, making sure girls understand how to say no and what true consent looked like. Whilst two students experiences cannot be representative of the system as a whole, it is interesting to acknowledge an all-girls school is teaching consent while Callum’s all-boys school did not touch on the topic. Consent is a crucial aspect of sex education, a lesson that ensures students are taught how to respect one another's autonomy and ability to say ‘no’ at any given point and have this objection heard.
Thomas Beaven from Gymea Technolgy High School, a co-ed, public school in Sydney's south, claimed his “experience in high school sex education was dismal at best”. Thomas continued by saying “Like many other students experiences I found sex education at school was a hyper-masculine environment and I think a lot of people, therefore, felt uncomfortable and would shy away from asking important questions”. Thomas explained to us how creating a comfortable and open environment for students to learn and for teachers to teach is paramount to ensuring vital lessons are received. Coming from a co-ed school Thomas believes male anatomy is taught in far better detail than that of females. He further explained that males received a crash course on how to protect themselves from STIs, while the lessons females received on unwanted pregnancy and STIs were limited to a class about condoms.
Sex education can be a complicated area of study to teach, however, it is critical it is received in a timely and appropriate fashion. Lucy Emmerson, the coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, stated students “should learn about puberty before they experience it” however the legal requirements for primary schools to provide sex education is limited. Many of the issues around the current curriculums are that sex education falls within the science department. When the bases of teaching come from the science faculty students are not taught about the importance of consent, protection and so forth.
Across a broad spectrum of schools in New South Wales, sex education remains an uncomfortable environment that does not teach crucial and practical lessons of consent, protection and the wide range of sexual relationships.