FAQ’s of Life
Sex Education in schools has come a long way in recent years,
but has it come far enough?
Rose Cooper takes her pet subject for a walk and asks:
much information is too much?
Remember learning about sex and how babies were made? In my day, we received
heaps of info about ‘reproduction’ - but little about sex.
Oh, and absolutely zippo about female sexuality. That was at school. Home
education was usually worse. Parents were notoriously uptight, but mine
made fish sphincters look cavernous. Dad greeted my juvenile “where
did I come from?” queries with equally juvenile replies: “Actually…I
gave your mother an injection!” (That last word flew out in a fit
of giggles, leaving me confused and genuinely scared - I hated needles).
In 1973, school announced an upcoming “Parent/Child Sex Education
Evening” for sixth graders. I brimmed with unbridled enthusiasm.
At last -The Big Mystery would be solved! My mother declined to accompany
me - too embarrassed; (six paying visits to the hospital labour ward had
done nothing to cure her chronic modesty). Miraculously, ol’ Laughing
Boy saved the day. I courted ridicule being the only girl there with her
Dad, but I was NOT missing this!
The lights dimmed. An animated film flickered. “This is a male.
This is a female. This is how one grows boobs; the other grows erections
and both grow pubic hair (the girls blushed and the boys sniggered). Zoom
in on the female’s pelvis – ooh…a uterus with ovaries
and fallopian tubes! Blah blah… ovulation, menstruation; yada yada…sperm,
conception; yeah yeah…embryo, foetus; blah blah…labour, dilation;
waah waah…birth; eeeuuu…placenta!”
Lights on. Pop quiz: did we remember all the big, ugly words? Dad elbowed
me, whispering all the answers. He wanted his daughter to look smart.
Yes…a tad ironic.
Although I left that hall packin’ more internal organs I realised
I possessed going in, I hardly felt enlightened. Somehow, they managed
to gloss over the mechanics of the sex act itself. So much remained a
mystery. It never occurred to me to ask more questions. After all, one
didn’t want to appear too stupid/rude or heaven forbid – interested
in sex. Wouldn’t that be, um…sick or something? Well, colour
me poxy - I was very interested, dammit!
Sex was constantly in my face, on television, in music, and out of the
mouths of grotty boys, (whom, in retrospect, I could probably still sue
for sexual harassment). Everyone was doing it! (Well, maybe not my mum
and dad.) I was bursting with confusing, conflicting, inexorable urges
that I couldn’t handle.
Hey - no worries, I was down with “fallopian tubes”
what else did I need to know, right? Inevitably, my virtue bit the bullet
around my 14th Birthday. I finally (painfully) found out what went where.
The experience sucked. I kept my legs crossed for the next few years.
Naturally, I was dropped.
This blatantly self-indulgent fairy story is merely an illustration. I
am Exhibit A: The Archetypal Ignorant Schoolgirl. The Sex Ed night was
Exhibit B: Typically Nebular 70s Sex Talk. My folks were Exhibits C and
D: Typical Parents Who Underestimate Their Importance as Sexuality Role
Models. (The suburbs were teeming with those, back then.)
Why did school Sex Education become necessary? I’m glad you asked.
The advent of the pill and the swinging 60s caused an alarming upsurge
in the rate of teenage births and sexually transmitted infections (STI’s).
Quite rightly, School Sex Education was thought to be a means to curtail
these figures. It was always the opinion of progressive thinkers, that
access to comprehensive sexual information discourages early
experimentation with penetrative sex. This conclusion is consistently
backed up statistically and demographically. Given this, and the fact
that Sex Education in schools has been around for three decades, readers
might be amazed to learn the “S” word is still a touchy, and
sometimes even ignored subject in Australian Primary Schools.
It sure shocked my socks off. As a Sex Advice Columnist, I was constantly
appalled at the level of ignorance that still abounds – particularly
about female sexuality. I literally jumped at the chance to give our school
system it’s Sex Education report card – but I wasn’t
quite prepared for the hurdles I would face compiling data. When I commenced
research, I presumed our various state education departments would furnish
me with their nicely worded policies regarding the compulsory elements
of Primary Sex Education. Au contraire. Various reps informed
me that most state departments are only required to offer recommendations
that sexuality education be incorporated into their Personal Development
curriculums. Individual schools then act autonomously. In order to find
out which schools include what amounts of Sex Education in their curriculum.
I would have to do a school by school, class by class, lesson by lesson
survey. Not bloody likely. I’m hoping the information which follows
will prompt parents to investigate this vital part of their child’s
education for themselves. It’s important to note that even if a
school advocates Sex Education – each teacher still uses their own
discretion as to the content of the lessons – if any. In addition,
some religion-based schools still censor what little information they
allow to go through anyway.
Because it’s not a mandatory part of the curriculum, schools might
consider it an inconvenient and unnecessary expense. Some teachers also
feel awkward dealing with the topic. They need to undergo proper training,
for which a relief teacher is required. Therefore, unless schools outsource
professional sexuality educators (at the parents’ expense) it’s
entirely possible that a percentage of Australian primary schoolkids could
actually squeak through years K-6 without this pesky subject ever
Fact Finding Mission
“Big fat, hairy deal”, you say, “it’s a parent’s
job to teach kids about sex anyway”. Well, wouldn’t that
be nice? Unfortunately, it is completely unrealistic. As liberal (and
even debauched) a society as we have become, the even uglier truth is
that some parents still choke on their cornflakes when Little Johnny/Jenny
asks a curly one about the most basic facts of life. The notion that ignorance
will result in baby/disease-free bliss - still has a respectably sized
fan base. Yes, not “only in America”. A recent survey conducted
by WA’s Curtin University concluded that while 95% of parents polled
considered Sex Education at home to be a top priority, a mere 36% initiated
frequent discussion with their own children. The study also reported the
more knowledge possessed by the parent, the more liberal their outlook,
and more information they were likely to pass on. In other words, ignorance
and conservatism walk hand in glove.
Too bad we do not live in a conservative society.
The same head-in-the-sand brigade might also conclude Sex Education should
wait until highschool. This is foolish and naïve in the extreme.
The median age for the onset of puberty is 12-14. Waiting to explain how
it all works is like handing an infant a loaded gun and waiting until
she’s three before teaching her how to lock the safety switch. The
most important fact of life has to be faced by parents. Children are
There - I said it!
By the time some kids hit highschool they have either already fantasised
about sex or role-played sex acts with their friends. Some might have
commenced masturbation, petting…or even Done The Deed. Amazingly,
some parents still need this spelled out which is rather incongruous given
the pre-occupation with sex in our society. Advertising, millennium-style,
has graduated from scantily clad chicks on cars – to “orgasmic”
shampoo commercials and ice cream ads that use threesomes as an analogy
for multiple flavours – and don’t get me started on those
Tim Tam commericials. Sex, the driving force of the human race,
has never been as all-pervasive in the collective psyche than it is now.
How ironic that the paranoia of “over educating kids about sex”
still prevents this subject from slipping in alongside the Three R’s
as an essential part of the curriculum.
Another obstacle in the way of my research has ironically been the advent
of “Child Protection”. In another example of political correctness
gone berko - I gave the Principal of my local primary school a list of
questions I wanted to ask his year 6 pupils who had just completed a sexuality
education course run by Interrelate. I wanted an appraisal of today’s
sexuality education sessions straight from the horse’s mouth. A
cursory glance at my terminology and the principal surmised the education
department would be unlikely to approve my questions, based on Child Protection
laws. Furthermore, he unequivocally guaranteed that most parents would
also veto my queries.
Hello? I struggled with this concept. I have never felt so out of the
loop. Isn’t it about time we started treating this subject a bit
more casually? The Principal agreed on principle – but his years
of experience with conservative parents urged discretion.
Truth is Out There
So, although I can’t relay first hand how well this information
is absorbed, I can still inform what today’s classes contain. Happily,
professional sexuality educators have managed to evolve in spite of the
obstacles. The courses run by both Interrelate (4 x 90-Min) and FPA (6
x 60-Min) for senior primary students are comprehensive and fluid, driven
by the needs and curiosity of the children involved. Basic information
covered in most classes includes:
Puberty: Physical and emotional changes.
Pregnancy and Birth
• Sexual relationships
– (attraction, crushes, rights and responsibilities)
Sexual abuse/assault and sexual harassment
Self esteem and peer group pressure – (“Why do people have
• Family Planning, contraception
and STI prevention
The Brief Facts
That’s the good news. Then there’s the traditional Parent/Child
Evening. I came full circle in 1998 and took my son to one run by Interrelate.
On the plus side, the description and depiction of intercourse was gloriously
graphic. The mood was relaxed and civilised, even the boys present were
less obnoxious. However, the puberty information for girls was as dry
and clinical as always, incorporating breast development and menstruation.
This section of the talk may as well have been headed “Your Future
As a Sexual Object and Baby Incubator”. Meanwhile boys were apprised
of the exciting and unpredictable future of their libidos (erections,
wet dreams and even masturbation).
Surprisingly, the C word never came up. Surely, the clitoris, being a
prominent part of the female sexual organ, should at least rate a small
mention – even if only in the context of anatomy. Circumcision was
covered – which has nothing to do with reproduction and everything
to do with health, religion and aesthetics. No mention either that some
girl’s labia might vary in dramatically appearance, or that the
breast secondary function is as a sexually erogenous zone. Karen Morris,
Executive Manager of NSW Interrelate’s Sexual Health Department
addressed my concerns: “Our lecturers only have 53 minutes to tell
children about puberty, intercourse, conception and childbirth and it’s
at the lecturer’s discretion how much they can cram in. The primary
function of the evening is to encourage dialogue between parents and kids.
Teaching them about the clitoris isn’t considered a priority or
Not happy! My advice to parents of daughters – give the one-hour
format the flick, but ensure your child attends one of the longer courses.
Oh, and do NOT underestimate the importance of those Mother/Daughter talks.
The aforementioned WA study also highlighted the fact that girls receive
dramatically less intimate sexuality information in the home than boys
There’s that double standard again. It ultimately dawned on me that
the Great Sex Ed Debate has never really been “how much information
is too much” – it is about how much is too much for girls.
As a society we are obsessed with sex and yet fear female sexuality to
the point of paranoia. One of my smarter male acquaintances scoffed at
my suggestion that girls really ought to receive specific information
about masturbation. His curious response was “If you take away the
mysteries, women will have no use for men at all”.
He didn’t realise it but his candid remark hit my nail on the head.
He obviously figured it was merely part of God’s great plan. In
the face of my incredulity, he still thought it perfectly natural and
reasonable for girls should remain in the dark as to the intimate workings
of their own bodies. The irony escaped him. Honestly, how many advice
columnists for men's magazines have to answer questions about how penises
If child protection is the mission, we should sexually empower our daughters
so they will stop thinking of their bodies as something to be explored
for them by future boyfriends/husbands. Who knows, young women might stop
seeing themselves as sex objects and form relationships that are not primarily
about sex…and acceptance. I would even go so far as to say the divorce
rate would drop. How many marriages end, because of the woman’s
so-called mid-life crisis, which also seems to co-incide with her sexual
peak? She finally discovers her own libido, her sexual potency and confidence
and “outgrows the marriage”. How many marriages would never
have happened if sex alone was not the deal breaker?
My friend’s male ethos-serving comment demonstrated how men fear
losing the sexual upper hand and society has consistently rallied to their
cause - blithely passing the mentality onto its sons generation after
generation, that it’s a man’s job to teach a woman about sex.
Meanwhile sexual harassment, abuse, teen pregnancy and abortion rates,
still pose a huge problem in our sex-mad society. Something has to give.
We need to wake up and smell the Latte. It’s time to drag female
sexuality out of the dungeon. Parents have to start effecting changes
at a grass roots level - treating girls the same as boys – as active
sexual participants - not just objects of desire and passive receptacles.
Let’s face it, it couldn’t make matters any worse than they
are now. It could just change the world as we know it. If we all start
being more grown up about sex, it would cease being such a big deal and
we’d have to find a deeper meaning to our lives and our relationships.
I’d like to see that - even if it does leave me nothing left to
out the Sex Education questionnaire
responses to the Sex Education