Hello! Welcome to the second instalment of The Best Studies are Sex Studies, wherein I read an entire journal article or report on sex stuff, and pass on the interesting bits to you…
Right at this moment, I’m at a career crossroads. I know I want to quit my office job. What I’m trying to decide is whether to do a Dip Ed and become a bitter, misanthropic high school teacher, or do a PhD and become a poor nobody entirely disconnected from reality.
So anyhow, one of the things is, I really want to teach sex ed. I don’t know if you can even do this. I mean, I don’t quite know how the job gets allocated: perhaps wanting to be the sex ed teacher disqualifies you. But so! Sexuality education. It is an interest of mine. Let’s do some learning on it!
The good people at the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society have just released a new study on this very topic: Sexuality Education in Australian Secondary Schools: Results of the 1st National Survey of Australian Secondary Teachers of Sexuality Education 2010.
As the title helpfully suggests, the report describes the findings of a national survey of high school sex ed teachers. Prior to this survey, nobody really knew very much about who taught sex ed, what they taught or how they did it. The idea behind the survey was to get a representative picture of Australian sex ed so as to provide a basis for improvement.
Not because I am dedicated, but because of being a nerd, I read the report’s ‘methodology’ section. Twice, actually! Despite a low response rate, it looks pretty good, and the findings are probably more or less representative of the actual situation. The survey included teachers from government, independent and Catholic schools in cities and in the regions. One anomaly I did notice is that 28 respondents were from single-sex girls’ schools, but only 6 were from boys’ schools. I will keep my wild conspiratorial speculations on the reasons for that to myself.
Sex ed teachers
Think back, if you will, five years, ten, fifteen, thirty, to your own schoolyard days. Call up, in your mind, the image of your PE teacher…
Apparently, fully 4 out of 5 Australian sex ed teachers are PE teachers. I don’t know about you, but I find this a bit disconcerting. Times have probably changed since I was in school, and ten years of public, humiliating physical defeat may be unfairly colouring my perception of PE teachers, but they never struck me as the most enlightened of the faculty.
The next biggest contributors were SOSE/humanities teachers (5.4%), science teachers (5.1%) and, eek!, religious education teachers (3.2%). Support staff like nurses, consellors and – eek! again – chaplains, together made up 4 per cent.
Most had some training in sex ed, either as post- or undergraduates, or in-service, but 16 per cent had no training whatsoever, and one third didn’t assess their teaching against any curriculum standards. This is kind of a big deal, when you compare it to teaching generally.
A small but scary group of sex ed teachers harbours some pretty fucked-up views. (Unavoidable double-negatives in this paragraph, read carefully!) For example, 1 in 5 didn’t ‘strongly disagree’ with the statement ‘homosexuality is always wrong’, and 27% weren’t sure whether sex before marriage was okay or not. Only 62% disagreed that sexual orientation/same sex attraction should be excluded from the sex ed curriculum.
What’s being put into impressionable young minds??
It seems reasonable to assume that the framework in which sex ed is taught will influence its content and messages, so it’s interesting that:
… most sexuality education was taught as part of the health education program (91%)… When sexuality education was taught in another subject (12% of teachers), it was most likely to be in Religious Education, Personal Development or Biology/Science.
Hold this in your mind as we move onto the next point.
So, the survey listed a bunch of sexuality topics, asking the teachers to identify those that they covered in their teaching. Factual sexual health topics were most widely taught, including STIs, birth control, reproduction, etc. Social topics such as ‘managing peer influence, relationships and feelings, alcohol and decision-making, sexual activity and decision making and dealing with emotions when sexually active’ were also taught by the vast majority of teachers. Ninety-four per cent of teachers covered ‘abstinence from intercourse until being ready’. Surprisingly, to me, 68 per cent also covered the ridiculously unrealistic and thoroughly antiquated topic of “abstinence until marriage”.
When it comes to social topics detail seems to me to be all-important, and what a survey can tell us is pretty limited. It’s good for teenagers to hear that they can wait until they’re ready, and to know how to deal with pressure from peers or a partner. The thing is that these good-in-and-of-themselves messages can so easily be taught as part of an overall narrative in which everybody is hetrosexual, girls’ sexual desire is totally missing, sexual activity is equated with a lack of self-respect, and so on.
What gets left out?
Fascinatingly, the only listed topic covered by less than half of the teachers was ‘the pleasure of sexual behaviour/activity’. The report is pretty sanguine about this, but they do have a little jab, with some help from those kinky Scandinavians:
However, practical examples such as the Long Live Love Program in the Netherlands demonstrate that comprehensive programs that accept young peoples’ sexual desire as being normal and teaching about mutuality and pleasure in sexual relationships can be very effective. Within Europe the Netherlands has the lowest rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion and STIs among young people.
Long Live Love? Sounds cooler than Australia’s most-used program, Talking Sexual Health. Check out this video on the program (ten tips on good kissing at 3:10! Rude Dutch words at 4:30!).
Also, around 16 per cent of teachers said they do not cover ‘sexual orientation/same sex attraction’, which is a complete fucking travesty, in my opinion. ‘Gender roles and stereotyping’ was covered by nearly 9 of 10 teachers, but it’s difficult to know what this means, and ‘gender identity’ wasn’t even an item on the list. Around a third didn’t cover ‘sex and ethics’.
How and when
The study also looked at how and when sex ed is taught. Unless you have an unusual interest in pedagogy the ‘how’ isn’t particularly interesting (live demonstrations don’t get a mention). In terms of timing, the basic reproductive facts are usually taught in years 7 and 8. Sex ed is most concentrated in year nine, followed by year ten, and only a small proportion of teaching time is in years 11 and 12. In a way this makes sense; there’s a lot of other stuff to focus on in years 11 and 12, and some kids have already left school. On the other hand, this is around the time that a lot of teenagers start actually having sex, so it’s odd that education about it drops off.
My random view, in case anyone cares
Ultimately, sex ed, like anything that is taught in schools, is unlikely to stray far from prevailing community attitudes, or travel more quickly towards sexual utopia than society as a whole. Nearly half of the teachers in this survey said that they were careful about what they taught because of possible community reactions.
On top of that, schools are the focus of a million competing interests and agendas, each salivating at the thought of all those developing brains held captive, nearly every day, by law! Sixty-five per cent of sex ed teachers said that there was already not enough time to cover sexuality education adequately, so nobody’s going to be clamouring for more content.
Still, here’s my idea. In addition to the vital sexual health information, the social skills for negotiating sex, and the Pleasure Stuff, I think that sexuality should be taught in its cultural and political context. That is – and excuse me for this wanky academic terminology – it should be taught as a contested thing. So many controversial political and cultural debates centre on sexual matters: abortion, gay marriage, sexual assault & rape, porn, and so on. Because sex is also a part of our personal lives and relationships (whether we’re getting it, wanting it, avoiding it, loving it, watching it, fighting over it, or something else), these debates are extra-emotionally-charged.
So I reckon that a useful message for teenagers, maybe in those last couple of years of school, is that a lot of people have strong views about sex: what it means, how and when it should be done, and who it can be done with. The task for them is to work out, or decide, what sex means to them and the place it will have in their lives.