One of the worst feelings as a teenager is sitting in a classroom with your peers during the most awkward phase of your life (adolescence) and listening to your teacher talk about sex... Especially when the boy or girl you have the world’s BIGGEST crush on is sitting only four desks away.
I’m sure some of you can probably feel yourself going red just reflecting on the experience. But I’m not here to talk about the awkwardness. I’m here to just talk about sex education in general.
*The quotes in this article are from people who have given their consent and would like to remain anonymous.
1. What is sexual health education?
“Sexual education from my dad was one word: don’t.”
It’s exactly what the name says. Education on sexual health. It’s an opportunity for schools to teach their students about what sex actually is, how to have safe sex and the cultural significance of sex.
2. What are the different aspects of sexual health education?
“It wasn’t until I started attending university that I realised how stressful sex can be and how toxic it can be. I wish someone would have taught me about all this stuff when I was younger--not just 'how babies are made.'”
Sexual health education involves a wide range of issues and topics. Here are just a few:
- How to have sex
- How babies are made
- Emotional relationships
- Transitioning into emotional relationships
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Sexuality and sexual orientation
- Sex toys
- Female genital mutilation
- Beliefs about sex
- Communication and how to be comfortable with sex
- Setting personal boundaries
- Asking for advice
- Listening to others
3. Why do we need sexual health education?
“My mom sat down with me and was really great about having “the talk”... But there was no follow-up. It made me feel awkward and embarrassed talking to her about sex. The only other people who spoke about sex with me growing up were my friends. I ended up thinking their behaviour was the norm--that became the model I ended up following. That’s how I got into doing stuff I am now really ashamed of.”
I have THE BEST story about when my parents sat me down for “the talk.” I was pretty young compared to the rest of my classmates when my parents gave me “the talk,” but I grew up as an only child (my much older brother was already an adult by the time I was born); this meant my parents saw me as a mini-adult and were much more open to talking about the whole “sex” thing a lot earlier on in my life.
They had taken me away for a weekend trip. We sat on the balcony of our hotel room and Dad said, “We want to have an adult discussion with you about sex.” Innocently, I replied, “I already know all about that.” Dad looked at Mum. Mum looked at Dad. “How do you know about sex?” Dad asked.
I looked at him full of pride that I knew what this “sex” thing was and replied, “I looked it up in the dictionary.”
Dad chuckled and said, “Right, well, it’s a little more than that.”
Some people aren’t as lucky as I was and don’t have the privilege of experiencing the positive and open dialogue my parents had with me. I should make it quite clear that my parents and I don’t “swap stories;” we talk about sex in terms of its physical, psychological and emotional dimensions and the role it plays in society. Most of my friends think it is totally gross and bizarre, but it is actually incredibly healthy.
Countries that are more open to discussions of sex, and are more liberal in their approach to sexual health education, have lower teen birth rates than their conservative counterparts. Countries such as Slovenia, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Italy have incredibly low teen births--between 1 and 4 teen births per 1,000 women. The more conservative countries around the world such as Niger, Mali, Angola, Chad and Malawi tend to have higher teen birth rates-- between 143 and 205 teen births per 1,000 women.
With more than a million people acquiring a sexually transmitted infection each day, sexual health education is more than just a rant. It’s a real need that can improve health around the world, especially since a majority of these infections occur without symptoms.
A more sexually educated society, in many cases, means a healthier society.
4. What does good sexual health education look like?
“The first time I had sex, I felt really pressured. I thought it was something fun, but the whole time I was freaking out if I was doing the right thing or not. At one stage, all I could see were the rank [disgusting] pictures they showed us at school about STIs and STDs. I wish I had been taught the value of an emotional connection during sex.”
Sexual health education should not be a creepy old teacher pushing an agenda on what they believe sexual relationships should be. Instead, sexual health education should be an open, two-way dialogue about students’ personal beliefs on sexual health education. It should be a time when students can sit down with their peers and with a teacher to talk candidly about their own personal beliefs and begin to set their own personal boundaries. It should be fun and engaging and not presented in a lecturing style where students are made to feel embarrassed about their beliefs.
When it comes to being safe, many students learn all the different kinds of contraceptives such as the condom and the pill. Frequently, sexual health education fails to address topics such as where to buy condoms, what kind of condoms to buy, how to go about getting the pill, and, more significantly, what happens when a student goes to an abortion clinic? Moments like these can be terrifying without the necessary education and can often result in students taking alternative and less safe approaches to sex.
Then there’s the even MORE taboo subjects...
Recently, I facilitated a conference in Canberra, Australia about LBGTIQ* (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, Transsexual/Transgender, Intersexual, Questioning) rights for young people. In this conference, many students voiced their opinion about the lack of homosexual education within their school. In a world that is increasingly embracing sexualities other than heterosexuality, this lack of education can often be dangerous for homosexual adolescents and young adults engaging in sexual relations.
What about sex toys? What are they? How do they work? Are they harmful? Recent reports indicate emergency-room visits related to injuries involving sex toys have doubled since 2007 in the United States. According to John Dugan, a respected professional author, the way to prevent these inexplicably humiliating trips to the hospital is a little education.
I couldn’t not mention Agnes either. Agnes Pareyio is an inspiration for me personally and a champion for ending the practice of female genital mutilation. Agnes’ approach is simple: she goes from town to town, village to village, telling her story and teaching girls that they can say no to female genital mutilation. Her work is so inspiring and so vital for girls in countries where female genital mutilation is considered to be acceptable despite the myriad of health issues associated with it.
5. How do we ensure good sexual health education for all?
“I felt super out of place in our sexual health education class. All I could think was that none of this applied to me as I was attracted to guys. It was a total waste of time for me.”
The first step towards adequate and universal sexual health education is to ensure all students are receiving an appropriate education. This is especially important for girls and young women who must learn to say “no” when they just aren’t interested or comfortable.
This can only be done if the stigma around sexual health education is lifted and a more open and accessible dialogue occurs. This subject is absolutely essential for the health of young people. Nobody should have to deal with the consequences of a poor education.
Governments and schools must dedicate more effort into changing what we accept to be “taboo” when it comes to sexual health education. If global citizens can create enough noise about this issue, governments will know that the time for change is now.
Adolescents deserve stigma-free, open dialogue with their teachers regarding all the issues surrounding sexual health.
If you agree, TAKE ACTION NOW. Sign this petition to help make sure all kids have access to education.
Note: This article includes discussion of reproductive rights. The UN considers such issues to be human rights issues, but not all partners involved in Global Citizen agree with this position, and therefore this article should not be considered to express the views of all groups involved with Global Citizen.