Written by Izy Remedios
Graphic by Paris Robson
Disclaimer: Considering the current climate and waves of discussions in our midst, the call for uplifting sex education curriculums in high schools has more gravitas than ever. This piece attempts to provide a bipartisan insight into my observations of the sexual health curriculum and where I believe the gaps are, cultivated through my experiences at a religious private school. Please note this is an opinion piece and is not completely indicative of all experiences and viewpoints across the board.
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You walk through the enclosed corridors of the gloomy brick structure that is the epicentre of the ebb and flow of school life; a standard representation of education, institution, order, and authority. The school is an all-girls Catholic institution with an impenetrable religious affiliation, so you can imagine the centralisation of regimented rules and the heavily policed dress-to-the-knees policy. On this particular day, there will be a year-wide session on sexual health, so you file into a line and filter into a classroom, catching the eye of one of your nearby inmates and rolling your eyes. There is an unfamiliar face standing at the front of the classroom, fidgeting at the looming and undivided attention of 140 Year 10 girls in a confined space. The teachers hush the crowd and gradually, silence ensues.
The nervous stranger, observed by 280 eyes, shuffles her feet uncomfortably and begins. “So… let’s talk about sex,” she mumbles. Internally (and externally, for that matter) you erupt into a fit of immature giggles, shared and well-received by a few others. At the time, you are unaware of how essential the content and the delivery of this program will be in cementing the foundations for your knowledge of sexual health.
As you can gather from my (perhaps familiar) description, I am referring to sexual health programs taught at secondary schools. Usually, these programs are delivered in staggered sets and progress in content maturity through each rising year level. There is absolutely no issue with the existence of these sexual health sessions — they are compulsory, as they should be. The problem I stumbled upon most with these sessions was the way in which they were conducted and delivered, particularly when taking into account the obvious restrictions of a Catholic institution. With the privilege of hindsight, I’ve realised how much these programs failed to realistically educate young people on one of the most crucial facets of life.
I acknowledge that sex education programs differ across institutions, particularly between public schools and religious schools. There is more of a realistic approach to these programs in public schools, where facts are presented to students in a much more direct and pragmatic manner. From my experience in a religious institution, however, the general aims were to condemn sex and reinforce the idea that there would be serious social ramifications if one happened to contract an STI or fall pregnant. To directly quote Coach Carr from Mean Girls — “don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die.” There was a notable lack of information on what to do if sexual health issues were encountered, nor were we made aware of any useful resources to counteract the existence of these problems. The ethos within religious institutions typically characterises sex as a taboo concept, and the consequences of sex are presented to students in such a way that the prospect of engaging in such a formidable act becomes daunting. This sentiment did not change much over my remaining years in high school.
As I got older, I realised how unprepared I was for what was to come. Scaring young adults into avoiding sex is not the way to go. Sex comprises a part of most people’s lives and the reality is that it is going to happen regardless of scare tactics, particularly amongst adolescents in secondary school. For me, the majority of my understanding of sexual health came when I started experiencing sex for myself, hearing my friends’ stories, attending university, exploring trusty Google, and finding a close-knit female community in which girls would openly share and swap sexual experiences. I remember girls telling stories about sexual health problems they had encountered (some of which I did not even know existed), inadvertently highlighting the gaps in the sexual health program at my former secondary school. I would not be alone in saying that mistakes are made in sex due to misinformation or a lack of any information at all — I wish I could articulate some of the things I know now back to my past self. I do not want to completely place blame on the entrenched traditional Catholic perception of sex which translates to outdated sexual health programs in schools, but it cannot be disputed that it was a contributing factor to gaps in my knowledge.
There needs to be a complete restructuring of the sexual health curriculum at schools, particularly those which are religiously affiliated. These year-wide sessions should be centred around an approach which both encourages students to inform themselves with the facts and invigorates them to ask questions about the nature of these issues. Simultaneously, this shift in the approach would be beneficial for changing the stigma and dispelling common misperceptions associated with sexual health. Some of the content could cover how to deal with and manage STIs (in both a physical and social sense), UTIs, polycystic ovaries (another relatively common condition in women that I had not heard of until university), guidance on making important decisions about pregnancy, and how to be a supportive friend to someone who encounters a conventionally ‘taboo’ sexual health problem. Additionally, these programs should provide informative pamphlets for students so that this information is well-preserved and ingrained well beyond the session.
To this day, I still cannot fathom the extent to which religious institutions often present sexual health in such a forbidden and condemning manner; particularly when by contrast, most non-religious schools provide relatively unbiased and accurate programs. As a consequence of this discrepancy, young adults often risk being misinformed in terms of their sexual health or are simply discouraged from speaking freely to stimulate open dialogue and bridge the gaps in their knowledge. Knowledge is power, so it goes without saying that secondary schools have a significant responsibility to recognise the sexual reality of adolescents and attempt to deviate from entrenched traditional views that are clearly outdated. It is with the consolidation of sexual realities and accurate information with well-structured sexual health curriculums that we can properly instil an awareness of sexual health and education, gradually enabling young adults to inhabit a prepared and well-informed community.