‘Religious schools need to acknowledge that students are sexual beings’ says expert

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Access to adequate information about sexual health is a UN right, but most Australian students are dissatisfied with what they’re taught about sex.

“What young people want to learn [about sex and relationships] is not what’s happening in the classroom,” says Dr Debbie Ollis, Associate Professor of Education at Deakin University.

An overwhelming number of Australian students are dissatisfied with the quality of their sex education and one in 10 claim to have received no sex education at all. Here’s a sample of what students told The Feed about sex-ed at their schools:

“My school did sex ed in a very Catholic way. They never explicitly said don’t have sex, but there was also no talk about condoms or birth control. They spoke about the risks associated with sex but didn’t go into how to mitigate those risks."
Cristina, 23, Catholic School

“Sex ed is so super important especially at this age! Skipping or skimming over it because it doesn’t ‘apply’ is ridiculous and damaging in my opinion.”
Alice, 17, Independent Co-Ed School

“We were told many times that abstinence is the only ‘100% effective method of contraception’, which makes no sense in my head especially when some girls have already engaged in unsafe acts. Abstinence is not contraception.”
Elena, 17, Independent All-Girls School

“Sex education at my school was, for the most part, taught as an afterthought. And when we were taught, it was from a very heteronormative point of view.”
Lucien, 18, Independent Co-Ed School

“I remember feeling a little ripped off because our class happened to miss a bunch of PDHPE lessons due to excursions… It seems like they orchestrated complicated timetables to avoid some of the topics.”
Chloe, 23, Independent All-Girls School

Dr. Ollis thinks that schools should take a more sex-positive approach when it comes to sex education – one that focusses on helping young people feel good about their bodies and discusses gender and sexual diversity; giving and receiving pleasure; starting relationship; and love.

She also says we need to look beyond “abstinence only” strategies and acknowledge that almost 70% of students have already experienced some form of sexual activity before official sex-ed classes start.

Senior Lecturer of Education at Monash University, Dr Fida Sanjakdar works with Islamic schools at the intersection between religion and sex-ed. Her research found that students were still being taught cultural myths at home, many of which had no factual or medical basis.

If I’ve got my period, I can’t pick a lemon from a lemon tree because I’ll poison the tree.

“Some students came to class and said, ‘If I’ve got my period, I can’t pick a lemon from a lemon tree because I’ll poison the tree’. Their teachers then had to find ways to deconstruct these myths.”

According to the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), schools are best placed to decide the time and emphasis given to teaching topics within the curriculum. The benefit of this is that schools – religious or not – have the flexibility to teach sex education in a way that reflects their school’s ethos, cultural sensitivities and community values.  But this can be a double-edged sword. There is also the risk of sex education becoming an afterthought, or simply not being taught at all.

Dr Sanjakdar says that religious schools need to acknowledge that students are “sexual beings”, who will benefit from “comprehensive” discussions of sex and relationships from physiological, ethical and religious perspectives.

High-quality sex-ed means lower STI transmission and fewer unintended pregnancies.

She says that religious schools should provide “comprehensive” discussions of sex from physiological, ethical and religious perspectives.

High-quality sex-ed has health benefits, too. A 2005 study found that countries with comprehensive sexuality education such as The Netherlands have lower rates of HIV and STI transmission and fewer unintended pregnancies.

About 80% of the time, sex-ed is taught in Personal Development, Health and Physical Education (PDHPE) curriculum. And in some religious schools sex-ed forms part of students’ religious studies. Dr Ollis says that the phys-ed teacher or the orthodox Islamic instructor isn’t always the best candidate to teach sex-ed – but that’s most often how it is. 

Natalie Sekulovska is a freelance contributor to The Feed.