If sex education is about protecting kids, it also needs to be about empowerment

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Amy Middleton

Protecting our young people is about listening to their needs, not prescribing a set of morals, writes Amy Middleton.

Protecting our young people is about listening to their needs, not prescribing a set of morals, writes Amy Middleton. Photo: Stocksy

When I was 19, I went to a GP to ask if two women could give each other sexually transmitted infections. The GP didn't pause to think, or flip open a book to check the facts. She responded, plainly, "No, they can't."

I was young, in a relationship with another woman, and undereducated. But I was wise enough to seek guidance, even though unfortunately, the information I got was incorrect. And it's not an uncommon story. 

Sex education doesn't happen organically, and it's rarely a simple lesson, especially when your identity doesn't fit with what's described in the medical journals. The lack of understanding around LGBTI healthcare is symptomatic of a wider problem: a general lack of respect for diversity and individual experience in this country.

Unfortunately, due to a series of damaging decisions by our leaders, things are about to get a whole lot worse. One of those decisions was announced last week, with the federal government set to cut all funding to the Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS (YEAH).

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YEAH, as the name suggests, is a youth-led organisation that trains young people to become peer educators in sexual health. Across Australia, hundreds of proficient young people known as 'Agents of YEAH' appear at festivals, cultural events and queer spaces to share information and talk openly about sex with their similarly-aged peers. Their teaching ensures they are 100% inclusive.

The YEAH office is decorated with photos of the younger generations – fresh faced, with sunnies and caps and branded singlets, interacting with their peers at outdoor events. They have activities and games and info sheets about sexuality and health. They do not discriminate based on identity. They provide a non-judgemental, safe and anonymous environment for young people to have conversations and ask questions about sex.

The organisation won't continue past June 30, due to the lack of financial support.

According to YEAH's CEO Alischa Ross, more than 75 per cent of all STIs occur among young people aged 15 to 29 years. More worryingly, a quarter of sexually-active high school students report that they have experienced unwanted or coerced sex.

Meanwhile, 50 per cent of high school students reported being "significantly dissatisfied" with sex education at school. And it seems they're looking elsewhere for answers. 

Part of YEAH's model is to post safe-sex packs – condoms and dental dams and fact-sheets in trusty little tins – to all their subscribers, of which they have more than 10,400.

Right now, there are around 60 young people joining this subscriber base every week. That's 60 young people each week who want to learn about safe sex. That's 240 young Australians every month who would rather get their information from this organisation than a doctor or website or book – an organisation that won't exist come July.

Young people, it seems, are much better at administering sex education than their leaders, some of which believe that educating children "sexualises" them rather than arming them with knowledge and confidence that will protect them.

Sex is a frightening, baffling subject that young people are apparently supposed to magically understand when they encounter it, sometimes in ways and situations that are out of their control.

Commentators who argue that diverse sexuality shouldn't be talked about in schools are essentially saying when a person turns 16, they need to become instantly equipped with all the knowledge and understanding that is required to lead a safe, consensual, pleasurable and informed journey of sexual experimentation.

That is not realistic. Preparing for sex is only possible with prior information – preferably, a rich mix of reliable education that includes diversity and individuality, and addresses as many scenarios as possible. And the conversation needs to start before kids are actually doing it.

The decision to defund YEAH comes just weeks after unwarranted attacks on Minus 18 and Safe Schools Coalition – two organisations that offer mental health support, social events, education and mentoring to LGBTIQ youth.

When they have damned three organisations that look after diverse kids, our leaders can no longer say they are working towards equality, or that they care about contributing to young people's wellbeing. Their lip service is dissipating and being replaced with deeply conservative rhetoric.

As the plebiscite over marriage equality looms, it threatens to provide a government­-sanctioned soapbox for divisive opinions, and for people who openly question the validity of LGBTIQ identities. We are about to engage in a vicious, nation­wide battle over whether diverse identities should be accepted and treated equally. As adults, we are consenting soldiers in this fight, but the effects of this public debate will be felt for years to come, and the youngest and most vulnerable among us will be hit the hardest.

The battle rages, and each week, the government removes another safety net from the ones that need it most. Restricting when and how young people access information about safe sexual practices is far more likely to result in harm.