Educating high school students on sex and consent

June 28, 2013
Teaching about 'consent' is not mandatory in Australian schools.

High school has always been turbulent at best, but never before was I confronted with institutionalised oppression in the way that I was when it came to Year 9 sex education.

Year 9 is the final year in my school where all students have access to sex education regardless of their subject choice, after this a student has to choose a physical education (PE) subject to learn more about it.

That year I had a male PE teacher, and therefore a male sex education instructor. While this is not the norm, with only 34% of sex education instructors being male, according to the Sexuality Education in Australian Secondary Schools 2010 survey, I believe the teacher’s gender was largely irrelevant in this case.

Sex education was, for me, an aggravating experience. Incorrect medical terms for female genitalia were used, the clitoris was only mentioned when a boy in the class asked where the female urethra was located, and menstruation was largely the butt of the jokes, to the extent where the teacher would have to calm the boys down as they were reading from the textbook.

None of these were as infuriating as the lesson about consent. While researching this article I discovered that the content of the lesson was not mandatory and was taught on the good will of the teacher.

The only topics related to consent that lessons are meant to cover are, “How to avoid unwanted or unplanned sex” and “Effects of alcohol/drug use on decision making”.

This exclusion of consent in normal relationships is based on the assumption that the only consent violations are while drunk, when a woman is unable to express consent or when she hasn't tried to avoid the situation enough.

The lesson began with students watching an episode of a current affairs program in which a woman spoke about her traumatic experience of being raped by a number of football players. In that instance there was both alcohol and drugs involved and the woman was unable to express consent or leave.

After the show finished the teacher asked the class, “What could she have done to protect herself?” There was a barrage of answers and rhetorical questions such as: “How could she be so stupid?” and “What did she think would happen?”

The teacher nodded along to these and answered, “Exactly.”

As this went on I became more agitated, to the point where I put up my hand and asked why we were placing all of the responsibly on her, and wasn't it the men's responsibility not to rape her?

My teacher became very defensive explaining that, “We can't help what they did now.” But neither could we have helped what she did.

The class then discussed how to express consent and it was agreed that the only way was with clear, verbal consent. But many boys asked questions about whether or not that was fair and the teacher was largely unequipped to deal with these questions.

My experience does not seem to be unusual. Sixteen percent of teachers have no sex education training, and 54% have in-service training to teach the classes, instead of as part of their prior education.

This lack of proper training means teachers are often out of their depth, and as a result a lot of education is reliant on how the teachers perceive the subject.

Arguments against the relevance of sex education in schools often mention how teenagers find the information through the internet, meaning what is being taught is already known.

The sex education in Australian schools survey shows that 79.9% of teachers reference information from websites. With all the misinformation on the internet, and ulterior motives behind many organisations who create websites, many teachers may be using unreliable information.

The sex education in Australian schools survey also said: “Across the board teachers indicated that they need less assistance with teaching strategy but more with teaching material.”

The topics on consent were almost completely directed towards the women in the room, reinforcing the prevailing idea that women are responsible for their sexual agency while men aren't.

This treatment in the classroom mimics the attitude of adult society and is part of institutionalising misogynistic ideas. Teaching teenagers that men have little to no responsibility in assuring consent or using birth control means these attitudes are more difficult to displace later in life.

Sexuality education was almost non-existent in my experience, the only reference to queer sex was during a student presentation on the topic.

Students were able to choose the topic they presented and the boy who gave the presentation happened to be the most homophobic person in the class. The presentation was treated as a joke, with him unable to read the slides because he was laughing so hard and many classmates followed suit.

The slideshow itself only showed the different sexualities and their definitions with no other information. Any questions asked were laughed at and dismissed.

This terrible example of sexuality education is not the norm. However, the sex education in Australian schools survey found only 55.6% of teachers teach on non-heterosexual attraction in Year 9 and even less in all other years.

The survey also showed 65% of teachers agreed there is insufficient time for teaching the amount of sexuality education needed.

The state of Australia’s sex education is becoming increasingly out of touch with youth, it’s becoming less reliable, and covers less subjects than needed. What subjects should be taught should not be left up to the teacher, or the school’s position on the subjects.

We demand the right to reliable and unbiased sex education.

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