Ambiguity is Not Enough: How Sex Ed in the Australian National Curriculum is Failing LGBTQIA+ Youth

Written by Kate Wood
Graphic by Emily Ryan

CW: Mention of sexual assault.

The Australian Curriculum is controlled by the Federal Government, with the intention that it be uniform across the states, compiled and written by experts, and evidence based. The curriculum is publicly available online, so anyone can look at any time and see exactly what it is that Australian children are learning. As an asexual activist and a sexual assault survivor-advocate, my personal interest in the curriculum lies in its guidelines on Sex Education. What are teenagers and pre-teens being taught about asexuality, as well as other queer* identities?

Finding it is a hurdle: everything is very broad. There is no explicitly worded “Sex Education” curriculum, in as many words; rather, it is all spread throughout Health and Physical Education, and a lot of it is hard to find. The Rationale page on the Australian Curriculum website doesn’t even mention that sex education is included among this material.

As I perused the Health and Physical Education curriculum a few weeks ago, circling and highlighting, one phrase suddenly jumped out at me:

“Investigating how changing feelings and attractions are part of developing sexual identities”. (Year 7/8 Personal, Social & Community Health, Being healthy, safe and active, ACPPS070)

This is something that Year 7 and 8 Students are supposed to be doing as a part of their education about Personal, Social, and Community Health.

This sentence instantly spoke to me because of the assumption that it makes. I copied it immediately and posted it in my asexual activists group chat:

  “Is it me, or is this inherently allonormative?

Allosexual is not a word you will hear in sex education. It means “not asexual (or part of the asexual spectrum)”. Allonormative, therefore, is the assumption that everyone is allosexual, has an allosexual experience, and understands the world from that allosexual point of view. “Investigating how”.Not whether, but “how”.

The teaching of children about sexual identity starts from the base assumption that all children will start to experience changing feelings and attractions, and that this will be part of how they come to understand their sexuality. In reality, this is not true.

Asexuality is a sexual identity, and for many of us, the fact that we are not experiencing those changing feelings and attractions marks us as different. My asexual friends and I, many of us in our mid-thirties, often compare what was taught in Sex Ed when we were teens to what is taught now, and we see no change. Our sexuality is still not taught, and the curriculum in general remains substantially the same. It is a common experience not to realise you are asexual until well into adulthood – because we are not taught that it is an option. We know we are different; we just don’t know that our difference is within the range of normal. Having your identity validated and seeing yourself represented is so important in understanding yourself, in coming out and finding self-acceptance.

In 2019/20, ACT Aces surveyed asexual people about what they learned in sex education, and where they first learned about asexuality. My favourite statistic is that of the 1595 respondents, five of them first heard the word “asexuality” in online fanfiction. Only four had heard it in school sex education. Most heard the term from other people, friends, acquaintances, and those met online. Teaching about asexuality not only benefits the asexual teen in understanding their own identity, but it is key in developing the understanding of their peers.

Many believe that violence and abuse is not an issue for asexual people, that “no one cares if you don’t like sex”. However, acephobia is very real and damaging. My own experience began in high school, with verbal insults. It ended with repeated sexual assaults intended to “fix” me. I firmly believe that if my peers had learned in sex education that not wanting to have sex is a normal, healthy part of a spectrum of sexual choices, the abuse I suffered could have been prevented. To look at the curriculum now and see that my identity is still absent from the discussion is heartbreaking – how many other kids have been through the same thing?

I am often told my sexuality is a “niche issue”, but it is not just asexuality that is conspicuously missing. There is a lot of vagueness in this curriculum when it comes to queer* identities. There are lessons about how the new feelings arising in puberty can have “differing levels of intensity” (Year 5/6, Personal, Social and Community Health, Being healthy, safe and active, Investigate resources and strategies to manage changes and transitions associated with puberty, ACPPS052) and that some have “different responses” (ACPPS052), but no explicit inclusive guidelines. A teacher could choose to include queer* identities, to interpret the words “sexual identities” as meaning sexual orientation. But they could also choose not to. The meaning of “sexual identity” could be warped into lessons about how someone’s sexual behaviour can lead to them being labelled or seen in certain ways by others. This is something friends have told me was heavily emphasised in their schools – especially for girls. The wording seems carefully chosen to allow a school or teacher to get away with not teaching sexual orientation while still adhering to the curriculum.  There is little explicit encouragement in the curriculum for teachers to include queer* identities in their lessons. The teachers’ resource/lesson plan site, Scootle, does not include any materials for teaching about diverse sexual orientations or gender identity. This demonstrates a lack of interest in providing practical assistance to teachers who want to include such content.

The only explicit mentions of queer* existence are in the parts of curriculum about diversity and anti-bullying initiatives. “Homophobia” is included among the list of behaviours students should be taught are not acceptable in society, and they are encouraged to learn about why “diverse” communities are good and bullying others is bad. “Diverse” is a word used multiple times to cover a wide range of identities and experiences, including disability, religion, and ethnicity (eg. “Critique behaviours and contextual factors that influence health and wellbeing of diverse communities”, Year 9/10, Personal, Social and Community Health, Contributing to healthy and active communities, ACPPS098). “Gender” is also mentioned. Teaching children and teens not to be homophobic is extremely important, but tolerance of queer* identities does not begin and end there. What of transphobia? What about biphobia, which is something that bisexual people experience from both straight and gay perpetrators? What about interphobia? – violence, oppression and discrimination towards intersex people, a community that is so often ignored and overlooked even by queer* activists. We learned nothing about intersex variations at my school, and I learned nothing about them during my postgraduate studies in biology. 1.7% of the population is intersex. In my high school year group of 150, there must have been two or three intersex kids forced to listen to the interphobic jokes that I remember running rampant. Why is there is nothing in the curriculum to encourage kids to embrace this kind of diversity?

As an activist working in the feminist, asexual, and queer* spaces, I’ve long had an ear to the ground about what teens are learning about sex, consent, sexuality, and gender. I know that it varies from state to state and from school to school. I’ve seen enough Government changes to know the impact that divergent ideologies can have on policies.  Even with all that background knowledge, a close reading of the current curriculum – the backbone on which these lessons must all be built – is both eye-opening and concerning. Queer* identities are ignored or referred to only in terms of differences to be embraced, not something a young person might need practical knowledge about. Teachers can raise the subject if they want to, but this is something that should be standard for every young person – they all deserve the same access to education about themselves and their sexual orientation. It seems like every year there are new concerns raised by politicians over standardising literature or other humanities for the HSC. Where is their concern for standardised sex education that is equally comprehensive for every student?

The time has finally come for a review of consent education in Australia’s schools. We can only hope the inclusiveness of the curriculum will be considered as well. A review of the curriculum (in general, not specifically sex or consent education) is currently underway. As an individual and on behalf of my advocacy organisations, I intend to submit suggestions. There are organisations across the country that already offer queer*-inclusive sex education – Sexual Health and Family Planning ACT, for example. They have the experience and knowledge to guide a rewrite – explicit, standardised guidelines for teaching about the full spectrum of queer* identities. The organisations that represent the LGBTQIA+ community would be thrilled to consult on this issue. We have ideas, we have solutions, we want to be asked – and now is the time to ask us.

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