What if teenagers helped write their own sex ed curriculum?

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Nina Funnell and Katrina Marson

A new survey, aimed at 16 to 21-year-old women, is capturing insights into how high school sex education can be improved ...

A new survey, aimed at 16 to 21-year-old women, is capturing insights into how high school sex education can be improved - from the very people who matter most. Photo: Stocksy

When Canberra student Manon McPherson was in Year 6, her sex education teacher placed a glass of water on a table, before dangling an unwrapped tampon in it like a tea bag.

As the tampon swelled to almost the width of a can of soft drink, the girls winced in horror.

"Every girl was so scared. We all thought, 'If that was in my body, that would hurt!'," recalls Manon, now 17. But the lesson was not intended as a scare tactic. "They just didn't really explain it properly and they had no idea the kind of effect that would have on us, so for years we were all just scared." 

It's an excellent example of how even well-intentioned sex education can drastically miss the mark, if the perspectives and concerns of young people are not properly understood or taken in to account.  

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Now Manon is sharing her experiences of sex education in a survey aimed at 16 to 21-year-old women, designed to capture insights into how that education could be improved.

The online survey, which is run by the Equality Rights Alliance, is specifically aimed at young women, after research found that their voices are often the last to be heard in conversations about sexuality and relationship education.

"Women's voices tend to be minimised and marginalised generally in public discourse, and then when you add that intersectionality of being young, it's often believed that you don't have a lot of knowledge and that your opinion is not worth hearing in public debate," says Erin Gillen, 22, and a member of the ERA Young Women's Advisory Group. 

When it comes to matters concerning sex and sexuality, young women's voices are silenced even further due to an historical tendency to dismiss female sexuality and treat teen girls as sexually naïve and disinterested in sexual matters - or else corrupted by them. "Young women's interest in sex is often ignored, pathologised, shut down, or redirected to what is considered appropriate," says Gillen, who believes that this only further disenfranchises teen girls.

The result is that a wide range of subjects which are relevant to young women's lives often get overlooked within sex education.

"We didn't really learn anything about pleasure or [being considerate of] your partner or the positive side of sex and relationships," says Manon, who is in her final year of school this year.

"We also should have learnt a lot more about consent because a lot of people still don't understand the ins and outs of it, and when you explain the connection [between gender inequality, consent, and sexual violence] to male friends, a lot of guys are still more worried about defending themselves and their gender, than addressing the actual issue… We also never learnt much about lesbian sex and definitely not gay sex and we didn't learn about what trans or intersex meant. It was mainly just about the reproduction system and the different ways diseases should be treated."

Manon's experience is not unusual. Unfortunately, many schools still focus primarily on the biological risks associated with STIs and unwanted pregnancy, while sidestepping other topics which are just as important to young women's safety, including consent, intimate partner violence, and gender equality. This omission is particularly concerning when you consider that girls aged 10-14 currently experience the highest rates of sexual assault of any demographic in the community, followed closely by young women aged 15-24.

To make matters more complicated, Manon says that while the female students in her year group were taught about the male orgasm, the only advice that any students received about female pleasure came from a teacher in Year 8 who commented that "it's not unusual for some women to never experience an orgasm in their lives".

"At the time, I didn't react much because I hadn't been taught much about what that meant, but looking back now, it's horrifying," says Manon, who believes that students should be entitled to "full and correct education".

Lyndsay Bassett, who is 18 and also in her final year of high school, agrees that the double standards surrounding how sexual pleasure is discussed is of significant concern.

"[At my school] the boys were spoken to by a male teacher and told that masturbation is good for you, but no teacher has ever mentioned female masturbation or female pleasure," says Lyndsay.

"It alienates you. Now girls won't talk about [masturbation]. Guys talk about it all the time. [The result is that] girls can't talk about their own bodies, but boys can."

Lyndsay also believes that the heavy emphasis on the biological matters, to the exclusion of emotional and social concerns, leaves students highly vulnerable and unprepared for sexual encounters.

"It leaves people powerless to explain their emotions. If suddenly they find themselves in a situation that's weird or if they don't like it, they don't understand their own emotions and they're left without a vocabulary to express themselves."

Manon agrees, adding that an unfortunate side-effect of segregating males and females for sex education is that by shutting down open communication early on, it makes it more difficult for young people to communicate effectively around matters such as consent. "It sets up a dynamic where we're not supposed to talk to boys about sex; we're just meant to do it with them".  

Failure to adequately discuss female sexual pleasure appears to have other consequences, too. By stripping girls of sexual autonomy, it leaves many young people with the distinct impression that sexuality is the domain of boys and men, and that girls are simply a party to that experience. But what's really surprising is just how early on these messages are bedded down in young people's education.

According to sex education expert Deanne Carson, double standards surrounding sexual pleasure are often introduced as far back as primary school, where a lot of programs erase the clitoris completely, due to "adult discomfort" and a perception that girls are uncomfortable talking about female pleasure. While Carson acknowledges that some primary school girls might squirm when she first talks to them about female arousal, she also finds that this is usually to conform to peer expectations.

"By Year 5, it's already programmed into girls. They have already learned that boys are active in their sexuality and girls are passive, and therefore 'good girls' are supposed to deny any sexuality they might have. This is why some girls say things like 'Ewwww, that's disgusting' in front of their friends when female lubrication is mentioned. But if I'm teaching a class before recess or lunch, it's always the girls who want to hang back and ask more questions and seek more information."

Indeed, for many students in Australia, sex education starts towards the end of primary school with a conversation about puberty. Very often, girls will be told about menstruation, while boys receive a separate talk where topics including erections, wet dreams and ejaculation are covered. While some educators consider these talks symmetrical and balanced (presumably because both talks address some form of bodily emission), the result is a highly uneven education, where boys leave primary school knowing all about their own orgasms (and the process of physical arousal by which it is achieved), while many girls enter high school having received little to no information about the way their own bodies reach orgasm.

In high school, this dynamic becomes even more entrenched. Because conversations about unwanted pregnancy necessitate a discussion about erections and ejaculation, even the most conservative sex education programs will cover the male orgasm by default. 

But because an understanding of female pleasure is not crucial to a discussion about STIs and unwanted pregnancy, the female orgasm can be strategically erased from the conversation by those who wish not to discuss it.

So it is not uncommon then for a female student to graduate high school having never received any formal education on topics such as natural lubrication, the clitoris, female masturbation or the female orgasm, even though the male equivalent of these topics were first broached way back in primary school.

The inherent asymmetry this creates then stigmatises female pleasure, while reinforcing a phallocentric model of sex. Thus male pleasure is centrally coded into the experience and attributed hyper significance, while the female orgasm is treated as taboo, embarrassing, irrelevant or even non-existent.

Worse still, by erasing female needs and prioritising male needs as paramount, the current model of sex education normalises male entitlement and perpetuates female voicelessness. At a fundamental level, this reinforces the same gender stereotypes and patterns which give rise to sexual violence and intimate partner violence.  

For Manon and Lyndsay, this all points to a need for urgent reform, starting with more consultation with young women.  

"It's disappointing that when you're 13 or 14, this stuff has so much potential to be really helpful but it lets a lot of kids down. There is a generation of unsatisfied young women, which just seems bad on the whole to me," says Lyndsay.

"If young people are going to learn about sex ed, then young people should be involved in the curriculum writing process. This survey represents hope that action is finally happening to help future generations of kids in sex ed."  

Nina Funnell is a freelance writer and author. Katrina Marson is a lawyer.