From the United Nations to the classroom: where is Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Australia?

The University of Queensland’s Romy Listo reports on the United Nations 63rd Commission on the Status of Women held 11-23 March in New York. She draws attention to the commitment on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) which is supported by Australian delegates. Despite support for these commitments by the Federal Government, in practice the actual implementation of CSE by Australian states and territories does not meet the inclusive and expansive ideals being championed. Investment and strategies are needed to bring the right to CSE into Australian classrooms.

My head is throbbing from a combination of the low-lighting and artificial heating, and my back aches from sitting for six hours on the sunken couches outside the negotiating room for the United Nations 63rd Commission on the Status of Women. It’s 1:00 am, and we are exhausted. ‘We’ is a small gang of feminist activists from Australian civil society organisations who are on these couches to monitor and support the negotiations on gender equality. But we’re done for the night, and ready to push through the steady drizzle and the cold bite of New York air to get home.

It’s not for another four hours, at 5:00 am on the final day of the Commission, that the gavel goes down on the agreed paragraphs on Comprehensive Sexuality Education (or CSE as it’s known in high level circles). In the end, the Commission agreed to the same commitments as in 2018, to…

Develop policies and programmes… including… information on sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention, gender equality and women’s empowerment, human rights, physical, psychological and pubertal development and power in relationships between women and men, to enable them to build self-esteem and foster informed decision-making, communication and risk-reduction skills and to develop respectful relationships, in full partnership with young persons, parents, legal guardians, caregivers, educators and health-care providers, in order to enable them to protect themselves from HIV infection and other risks

The Commission on the Status of Women is an annual meeting in which countries negotiate a set of ‘agreed conclusions’ by consensus, in order to set the global agenda and standards for gender equality and women’s rights. CSE, as I’ve now learned, is controversial and always a point of contention in these forums. As feminist activists, we’re lucky to have kept some agreement on CSE at all, rather than see its removal or loss from the agreed conclusions. As Australian activists, it’s something that we can be proud of, because the Australian delegation pushes, leads and defends our rights as young people of any gender to CSE.

It’s been an interesting process to observe as a young feminist activist, because Australian states and territories have quite a way to go in achieving the implementation of the right to CSE even as the Federal Government supports it at an international level through the delegation at the Commission on the Status of Women. According to the UN Guidelines of Comprehensive Sexuality Education, sex education “is a curriculum-based process of teaching and learning about sexuality”, where sexuality is “a core dimension of being human which includes: the understand of, and relationship to, the human body; emotional attachment and love; sex; gender; gender identity; sexual orientation; sexual intimacy; pleasure and reproduction. Sexuality is complex and include biological, social, psychological, spiritual, religious, political, legal, historic, ethical and cultural dimensions that evolve over a lifespan.”

Yet the implementation of CSE in Australian states and territories does not tend to meet these inclusive and expansive ideals championed by our federal government. In 2015, The Young Women’s Advisory Group (YWAG) conducted the ‘Let’s Talk’ survey of young women’s experiences of sex education in Australia, and found that sex education is failing young Australian women and LGBTIQAP+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex, queer, asexual, pansexual, and other diverse identities) young people. Over 1000 young people identifying as women were surveyed on the topics of, and their opinions on their sex education. 76% of young women reported they did not learn anything from their sex education class in school that helped them with dealing with sex and respectful relationships.

Almost two third (63%) of young women and girls did not learn about consent in their school sex education. Indeed, while education on the health or biological aspects of sexuality, including sex and reproduction, contraception, condoms, sexually transmitted infections was received by roughly four-fifths of young women, only 40% discussed relationships, and less than 10% received education on lesbian, gay, transgender, intersex, queer identities, sexualities, bodies and relationships, as well as homophobia and pleasure. Only 12.9% learned about gender stereotypes. As one young woman said:

“Sex education has mostly focused on the things that can go wrong rather than building a safe space in which prevention can be discussed. Many of the topics covered also did not relate to real life scenarios, for example consent was never a major focus of discussion but has been a complex issue that has reoccurred in my real-life relationships… It presented a very cis-gendered heteronormative account of sexual activities without acknowledging the role of pleasure in sex”

The reality of sexuality education in Australia is that it is not comprehensive, and rarely does it promote gender equality, account or prepare young people for the complexity and multiple dimensions of sexuality, or build their knowledge and ability to have healthy, happy and enriching sexual relationships. Investment and strategies, including capacity building for teachers and school communities, is needed to bring these rights to education and sexual and reproductive health, and to turn Australia’s gender equality priority at an international level into social change. 

Since 2015, there’s been some important to changes to the landscape of sexuality education in Australia, including the Safe Schools Coalition Australia program, the Marriage Equality Plebiscite and the implementation of Respectful Relationships education under the National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children, and increasing media coverage of image-based abuse. YWAG has now opened the second wave of ‘Let’s Talk’ to ask young women and non-binary young people how they have experienced, and what they think of, these changes and their sex education. They can also tell us whether Australia is moving closer to achieving Comprehensive Sexuality Education.

To participate in the 2019 ‘Let’s Talk’ survey, please click here.

Romy Listo is a feminist researcher, sexuality and relationship educator and an advocate for young women and violence prevention. She is a member of the Young Women's Advisory Group (YWAG) for the Equality Rights Alliance (ERA). Romy is also a PhD student in the School of Social Science and the Energy & Poverty Research Group at the University of Queensland. Her research explores the ways that women are organising collectively around energy challenges in South Africa and the impact on women's empowerment.