Does sex education encourage young people to be more sexually active?


"How does a baby get into Mum's tummy?" "How does that go in there?" "I came out of WHERE?!?!"

No matter how uncomfortable these questions might make you feel, at some stage, all children will learn about sex.

And if you're a parent, chances are you'll play a significant part in that education, but it can be hard to figure out what to say when having 'the talk' with your kids.

Public debate on sex education often focuses on when and what children learn about sex in school and how this information should be included in the curriculum.

Reasons for a reluctance to discuss sex often include concerns it might ruin children's innocence, encourage an unhealthy curiosity about sex, or lead to early sexual activity.

But is there any evidence to suggest this is the case?

Absolutely not, says Debbie Ollis, an associate professor of education at Deakin University.

Children getting the facts on sex

Dr Ollis says: "In actual fact, what a number of studies shows is that by providing comprehensive sexuality education, young people actually delay the onset of sexual activity."

"And for kids who are sexually active, the research shows that they participate in much safer practices around sexual activity."

While the adults are busy debating how best to approach the issue, research shows children and young people are getting information for themselves from a range of sources, including the internet, magazines, their friends or television.

"Kids ask age-appropriate questions," Dr Ollis says.

"There's this fear that if we give them too much information, we will ruin their innocence. But in actual fact, we know that by providing knowledge and understanding, we prepare them to be able to deal with issues."

Abstinence programs studied in the US

A review by UNESCO (United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation) provides some hard data on how sexuality education can influence behaviour.

The review looked at 87 studies from around the world and found none of the programs led to earlier sexual activity in young people.

It also found more than a third of the sexuality education programs increased condom or contraceptive use, while more than half reduced sexual risk-taking.

The review also analysed 11 studies on abstinence programs from the United States.

In abstinence-only sex education, young people are taught it's best to wait — hopefully until marriage — to start having sex.

Only two studies reported a delay in the initiation of sex and the rest showed no impact.

In addition, none of these studies showed any impact on condom or contraceptive use.

Black and white poster saying 'venereal disease is a killer'
The approach to sex education has come a long way since the 1940s.(Supplied: National Archives Of Australia)

Dr Ollis says a head-in-the-sand approach to the reality young people are sexually active can have negative consequences, such as the high rates of teenage pregnancy seen in the US.

"Yet countries like Holland, Germany and France, that have comprehensive approaches and begin sexuality education in primary schools, have the lowest teenage pregnancy rates of anywhere in the world," she says.

She says we should be starting sexuality education when children are young — and this can happen at home and at school.

At home, parents can tell preschool children the correct name of body parts, such as penis, vulva or vagina, and start conversations about public and private behaviours.

"I'm not talking about teaching sexual practices in prep [kindergarten], but talking about friendships and understanding your body — that should begin in prep," she says.

'Sex ed' grows up

The key, says Dr Ollis, is the type of sex education young people receive.

No longer called just "sex ed", the sexuality education taught in Australian schools covers not only the physiological facts about sex but also moral and ethical issues.

"Rather than always being concerned with prevention of disease, prevention of pregnancy, prevention of sexual assault — even though those things are really important to include in a comprehensive program — what's more important is that young people develop a sense that sexuality is a normal part of who we are," she says.

The benefit of this type of education, says Dr Ollis, is that young people are better able to make sense of what they see in the media and the world around them, and make informed decisions around issues to do with sexuality.

This is general information only. For detailed personal advice, you should see a qualified medical practitioner who knows your medical history.

(Source)


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