They're Doing It Anyway


Don’t you love it when a submission is made to a government review and the media reports on the submission as if it’s destined to become government policy? It all comes down to the clever use of the word "could". Here’s the first paragraph of a story in The Age about an Australian Medical Association submission to the Victorian Government:

"Explicit sex education could be compulsory for children as young as 10 under radical proposals to curb Australia’s "alarmingly high" rate of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection."

Sure, the suggestions contained in the submission could be implemented in full, or they could be completely ignored. Doesn’t really matter, though, because the story’s heaps better if the likelihood of the government accepting the submission is played up, especially if the submission calls for something a little bit controversial.

The AMA is concerned about disturbingly high rates of STD infection amongst Australian teenagers, unwanted teenage pregnancies, and the piecemeal approach to sexual education in schools. They are calling for government funding to run a trial of a more standardised sex education program that would implement an AMA-proposed curriculum.

Currently there is no uniform program of sex education across government schools, and private schools are under no obligation to include sex education in their teaching at all. Some of the AMA’s proposals (such as the use of terms such as "blow job" and "fuck", and discussions about anal and oral sex) may indeed seem a bit "radical" (although kids already hear these words and ideas through the media and from their friends, so why not demystify them by openly discussing them?), but there seems to be no agenda behind the proposal other than informing kids and reducing the incidence of STDs and unwanted pregnancies.

But The Age got the reaction it was after, with aghast chatter in certain dark corners of the blogosphere indicating severe opposition to the suggestions detailed in the submission. One learned blogger made the extraordinary claim that the AMA wanted to teach "buggery 101" to kids, and saw the plan as a pernicious attempt by "the left" to "impose their values upon the greater community". Then again, this particular blogger is terrified about the mysterious "gay agenda" which the AMA is clearly attempting to implement.

(Just for the record, according to The Age‘s summary of the AMA submission there is no suggestion that the AMA wants homosexuality to be "taught" in schools.)

As for the proposed shake up of sex education, there is a lot of good sense and many good ideas contained in the submission. While the primary source of guidance and the transmitter of values in a child’s life should always be the child’s parents, it’s an unfortunate fact that there exist parents who don’t perform this important role for their kids. Whether those parents are unable, unwilling or uncaring doesn’t matter — the only important thing is that their children shouldn’t miss out on information and guidance that will help protect them against disease and the side effects of misadventure.

We’re not just talking about the dopiest of parents here: hands up if you reckon you could accurately and effectively explain the causes and effects of chlamydia to your son or daughter, or knock around the relative safety and danger of anal sex?

Schools are perfectly poised to fill these gaps and ensure that all children receive information and advice about safe conduct during their sexually adventurous teens, and for the rest of their lives. Plus money to properly train educators in the effective delivery of such sensitive and embarrassing material can only benefit students (and make life a bit easier for blushing teachers).

Of course, it’s in the details that the most vigorous debate occurs. The AMA says the trial program should begin for students at age 10, continuing at ages 12 and 14, with the age-appropriateness of content considered at every step. The Australian Childhood Foundation says that the program should start at 13, but the AMA counters with the argument that sexual education should begin before puberty and not be put off until it’s too late. Parents Victoria reckons that schools should just butt out altogether.

In reality, any age chosen as being the ideal starting point for sex education is rather arbitrary. Children develop at different rates and enter puberty at different ages: a mature 10-year-old girl may be capable of dealing with the more explicit concepts contained in the program, while an immature 13-year-old boy may not be. The fact remains that a lot of girls begin menstruating and a lot of boys get caught in a confusing tidal wave of testosterone before the end of primary school, so it’s game-on for sexual experimentation.

Most importantly though, kids aren’t dumb. Contrary to the popular myth that kids are incapable of forming considered opinions and thinking maturely, empathetically and meta-cognitively, a lot of children can engage in conversations about sex in a more adult-like fashion than the guys we all know in their mid-20s who giggle uncontrollably at the pub if somebody mentions boobs.

As always, a one-size-fits-all approach to any aspect of education is destined to fail. Schools and teachers need the flexibility to determine the appropriateness of any curriculum content for a given cohort of students, and the flexibility to alter its delivery as necessary. Sex education is no different.

And returning to the original point about parents having the final say over what and how their kids learn — the AMA’s plan allows for constant communication between the school and families about the sex education program, and for parents to have the ability to opt their child out of the lessons.

Perhaps it’s necesary to make one final point very clear for those having difficulty separating some of the issues here: Sex education in schools does not promote sexual activity — it’s been taught for decades and nobody could seriously suggest that lessons involving bananas and condoms have caused them to have more sex — what is true is that misinformation and confusion about sex leads to undesired and tragic outcomes.

We have an obligation as a society to ensure that all children are armed with the knowledge and confidence to make wise and healthy choices as they become sexually active — no matter how much it upsets the prudes.

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