What we’re really teaching about sex

By Ruth Limkin

Published in the Courier Mail 1 July 2011

A piece in the Courier Mail recently reported that, “HIGH school teachers say they lack the resources to properly teach sex education, which could lead to more cases of teen pregnancy and more teenagers contracting sexually transmitted diseases.[emphasis mine]

The spread of sexually transmitted disease is a significant issue within our society.

Earlier this year, the idea was put forward that young Australians, 16-30, should get paid $10 every time they get tested for chlamydia, as health experts “look for new ways to combat rising rates of the sexually transmitted infection”. 

Dr Rhian Parker from the Australian Primary Health Care Research Institute at the Australian National University, proposed the national approach as the long term effects of chlamydia are significant with “two-thirds of tubal infertility and a third of all cases of ectopic pregnancy are attributed to the infection”.

Dr Parker said, “What we are trying to do is raise awareness, provide access to young people to testing but also to show that chlamydia is something that anyone can get that is sexually active.” 

Another article earlier this year showed that in the United States, human papillomaviruses are now a more common cause of oral cancer than tobacco use.

The article quoted Maura Gillison, of Ohio State University, who said, “Researchers have found a 225-percent increase in oral cancer cases in the United States from 1974 to 2007, mainly among white men…. When you compare people who have an oral infection or not … the single greatest factor is the number of partners on whom the person has performed oral sex,” said Gillison, who has been researching HPV and cancer for 15 years.

These are no small issues, and we must grapple with appropriate responses.

Calling for more interactive and online resources is one response. Sexual education material in schools, or lack thereof, may well lead to an increase in teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases.

However, sexual education outside of a values framework will do little to really prepare our young people for the complexity of the emotional, social and moral choices they must navigate in the culture we have created for them.

Perhaps an increase in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases has more to do with the fact that we have become so enamoured with the idea of sexual freedom and individual determination that we have forgotten that unboundaried sexual expression has emotional, physical and social costs. More often than not, we advocate exploration, expression and indulgence and dismiss any idea of objective sexual limits as antiquated and oppressive.

Added to this is the pervasive way in which young people’s identities are becoming sexualised, at an earlier age, and with more explicit influences than in previous generations. In ‘Where Has My Little Girl Gone? How To Protect Your Daughter From Growing Up Too Soon’ by Tanith Carey, she writes that, “girls have come to confuse confidence with sexual aggressiveness. They think behaving like a porn star makes them look sophisticated in the same way as a pop star thinks that behaving like a lap dancer is a sign she’s in control“.

Maybe those school resources don’t have such a simple causal relationship to rising sexually transmitted infections.

All of our schools deserve the best educational resources we can afford, but let’s not expect school education to counter the cultural constructs we’ve been so eager to promote.



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