Prove your humanity

Today is Universal Children’s Day, and the International Raelian Movement (IRM) (a religious UFO organisation of all things) is organising the fourth International SexEd Day to fall on the same date. The day is an attempt to recognise the importance of children’s rights and their access to high-quality sexual education (sex ed.), by arguing that the two are inextricably intertwined: children’s rights are incomplete without access to sex ed.

This argument has been supported by recommendations from bodies such as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Regional Office for Europe.

“The taboos and the law of silence that currently rule over sexuality education are destructive and dangerous,” says sexologist and SexEd Day spokesperson, Clemence Linard. She adds that it is crucial for governments to implement new sex ed. policies on an international scale.

“With a pedagogical approach adapted to each age, the better the quality of the education received, the more children are protected and are able to make their own choices as young individuals early on in life, and respect themselves and others.”

In honour of the fourth International SexEd Day and International Day of Children’s Rights, we’ve collected some information on the benefits of sex ed. (when it’s done right).

Preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and transmissible infections (STDs and STIs), and preventing unwanted pregnancies

This one seems the most obvious and is currently one of the most focused-upon aspects of sex ed. today. Unfortunately, this often comes at the expense of other crucial aspects of sex ed. Many education programs decide to focus on abstinence-only or abstinence-first lessons, which are proven to be ineffective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and STI transmission. The states in the US with the lowest importance placed on abstinence in sex ed. studies had the lowest rates of STI diagnosis, and “policies emphasizing abstinence show no benefit”.

This should be a no-brainer: if young people are going to be having sex anyway, it makes far more sense logically to prepare them for this, instead of pretending it isn’t happening. In fact, in the US, abstinence-only education leads to more teen pregnancies.

Preventing injury or illness

In the kind of sex ed. that UNESCO is calling for, young people can learn about the possible illnesses that they may encounter later in life which aren’t sexually transmissible. This includes endometriosis (affecting 1 in 10 people with a uterus), polycystic ovarian syndrome (affecting up to 1 in 5 people with ovaries), and toxic shock syndrome (which is rare, but can be fatal). In March last year, a Canadian teen died of toxic shock syndrome while on a school trip. These are the kinds of less well-known, but equally important issues young people should be learning about.

Young people should also learn how often to get pap smears, prostate exams, and whether they need breast exams or not. They should have access to resources and taught how to recognise symptoms in themselves and others and be able to use this information to help themselves and the people they care about. Preventative action is one of the best forms of halting illnesses or diseases before they can become fatal.

Teaching people about their bodies, and bodies that are different from their own

We all know that abstinence isn’t realistic or healthy for many people, and to deny that young people are curious about their bodies is an immature reaction to what adolescence is like for a lot of people. Sure, for some, abstinence is no hassle, but for those who will ignore that rule, it’s crucial they know how to keep themselves safe.

The IRM states that one of the goals of  International SexEd day is to call on UNESCO to remove censored sections of reports on sexuality. They claim that the censored information is often about the importance of teaching young children about masturbation and that not releasing this information is a breach of human rights. It must be noted that this behaviour is considered a normal aspect of development for children when not occurring excessively or in public.

“In several countries, demonstrations will be organized in front of the UNESCO offices and the Ministries of Education,” stated Linard, “to denounce this censorship and request the reissue of UNESCO’s report on sexuality education in accordance with the studies of experts, and the implementation of these basic guiding principles by governments.”

Even outside of this context, many people would be better off if they were prepared with the language and opportunities to learn a little more about themselves and their sexuality or identity. Today is also Trans Day of Remembrance: a day to acknowledge and honour the people who lost their lives to transphobic violence and abuse. Transgender children and young people often face some of the worst of this discrimination.

Just this year, a 12-year-old trans girl from the US was threatened by adults in her community after she used the girls’ bathroom at a new school. These adults made comments that misgendered her and called her by hate-filled names such as: “the transgender”, a “half-baked maggot”, a “thing”, and “it”. One particularly cruel comment was, “If he wants to be a female make him a female. A good sharp knife will do the job really quick”.

Children need to be taught from a young age that gender and sex are so much more than appearances, anatomy and characteristics. They need to be taught about the grey areas of both; that intersex people exist and deserve autonomy and rights; that transgender people exist and deserve respect and dignity; and that gender-non-conforming and gender diverse people are human beings. They need to know these things so they won’t grow into adults who intimidate young trans girls with threats of physical violence; or, that if they actually relate to any of these identities, they know that they are normal, and feel safe and accepted for what makes them unique.

Learning about boundaries, consent and about how to avoid being pressured

Good sex ed. will talk about consent and teach young people that consent is freely given and rescinded, enthusiastic, and ongoing. Learning to respect others’ autonomy and personal boundaries can only make for healthier future romantic and sexual relationships, and it starts with teaching young people and children how to seek consent even in non-sexual contexts (asking for a hug or getting permission before touching someone instead of doing it without consent). This should also teach children about pressure, and how saying “yes” under pressure is not the same as giving consent. Learning to understand body language and recognise discomfort in others, with or without a verbal “no”, is also vital in these scenarios.

Sex ed. also needs to teach entire generations about culpability, and that sexual assault survivors are not to blame for others’ actions. Sex ed. needs to prepare young people for the possibility that the people they care about, or important people in their lives, may try to manipulate them, even in less severe contexts than sexual assault and abuse. Pressure and manipulation are unacceptable, and young people must know how to recognise when it is happening to themselves or their peers.

Comments like, “If you really loved me, we would do this,” or pressure to perform sexual acts by making the other person feel “abnormal” if they don’t, need to be outlined for young people, many of whom will find themselves in those exact situations. It needs to teach them that putting this kind of pressure and manipulation on others is cruel, disrespectful, and dangerous.

It’s not perfect yet …

We all know there are a million things we could do to make Australia’s sex education more comprehensive and inclusive. In Western Australia, schools are able to choose whether or not to teach sex ed., and what aspects of it get through to children. This is purely irresponsible. While learning about calculus, Moby Dick and social sciences are compulsory (and valuable in their own respects), learning about sex and their own bodies should be compulsory for children too; not to mention that sex ed. is more relevant to young people’s much more immediate futures (than say, what they decide to study at university).

Even though STI prevention and contraception are some of the only messages that the sports teacher tasked with health class will ever try to get through to you, it doesn’t seem to be helping young people. Around 75 per cent of all people with STIs in Australia are between 15–29 years old. In a 2008 study, 78 per cent of students said they’d engaged in some kind of sexual activity (op cit.).

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but “many teachers do not have adequate resources, training or support to provide students with the breadth of information they need to care for their sexual health,” writes James May for HIV Australia.

Sex education is inconsistent across all states in Australia. A 2010 La Trobe study also found that more than 50% of sex ed. courses focus strongly on the negative outcomes of sexual behavior, rather than the positives.

Also, sex ed. is currently binary, heteronormative and cis-normative. Rarely are contraception options for same-gender couples discussed, including things like dental dams (which can be used by anybody with a vulva), and drugs like PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) which can make contracting HIV nearly impossible with daily consumption.

Safe schools and its goals to include diverse understandings of sex, sexuality and gender could help create a more inclusive environment for the young LGBTIQ+ people who predominantly face homophobia and transphobia at school. Including education on asexuality and aromanticism could help young people who identify with these labels feel less pressured to “fit in” with the rest of their peers, and understand that their sexualities and orientations are normal and okay.

Young people already have access to pornography, thanks to the internet, and are increasingly turning to it for information about sex. Known for its phenomenally inaccurate representations of human bodies and sexuality, the porn industry is rife with bigotry. The industry has a widespread problem with normalising sexual aggression, predominantly directed at women, in almost all of its best-selling videos. Porn also has a huge issue with racism, by fetishising interracial sex, implying that this kind of sex is “wrong”, “forbidden” and taboo.

If this is the only information teenagers see when trying to learn about their bodies, there’s no way that they’ll be getting the full picture. Add an abstinence-first, sex-shaming education into the mix and you’ll end up with guilt-riddled and misguided kids. Kids who deserve to know more about who they are, understand what’s happening to their bodies, be ready for relationships and know how to stay safe with the people they trust.

And now, enjoy Millie Bobby Brown on behalf of UNICEF:

If you want to do a little of your own education, we recommend checking out services like the Sexual Health Quarters (SHQ). You can also learn more about sex ed. in WA by checking out this La Trobe study (2010).