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Taking a reality check: young people and sex.

By Anne Mitchell - posted Monday, 21 March 2005

Nothing is likely to create greater controversy than the issue of young people and sex. What should be the age of consent? How young is too young? How can we keep it all under control? It is probably time that we gave up worrying about these unanswerable questions and started to get real with adequate sex education to prepare young people for a safe and healthy adult sex life.

It is an unfortunate aspect of adolescence that an increased awareness of, and interest in, sexual possibilities coincides with a time when the developmental path of young people pushes them to demand more privacy and independence, and to think less of the advice their elders give. The romantic notion of young people as bathed in an innocence we may not wish to destroy with explicit sex education, is continually underpinned by the fear that any sign of tacit permission - readily available contraception, sex education in schools - will send them into a frenzy of hedonistic sexual activity we can’t control.

While much is made of legislation around sexual behavior, it is likely that young people know little about this legal framework, let alone use it to guide sexual decision-making. Their thinking and experience is far more likely to be shaped by the cultural and social context in which their lives play out.


In fact, in Australia today we are seeing a shift of sexual cultures which reflects the more permissive world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the recent Australian Study of Health and Relationships (2003) which surveyed almost 20,000 Australians between 16 and 59, the impact of this shift on young people was well documented. The study found that over the past 40 years the average age of first intercourse has fallen from 18 for men and 19 for women to 16 for men and women today. This tendency to be sexually active at a younger age is now coupled with the later age of marriage.

This means that young people today can expect to have a long period between the onset of puberty and the commitment to a lifetime partnership across a stage of their life in which they are likely to be sexually active. This is not just restricted to Australia but is part of a global trend and our understanding of the reality of the sexual lives of young people needs to take this into account.

Large numbers of young people in Australia at present are sexually active, engaging in a broad range of sexual behaviours. Studies carried out with year 10 (16-year-olds) and 12 (18-year-olds) students in a large sample of Australian secondary schools demonstrate that over the last ten years sexual activity in young people is increasing and becoming more varied.

In the latest study the majority of young people in Years 10 and 12 were sexually active in some way, engaging in activities including deep kissing (80 per cent); genital touching (67 per cent) and oral sex (45.5 per cent). In addition approximately 25 per cent of students in Year 10 and just over half of those in Year 12 had engaged in vaginal intercourse. It is therefore evident that any population of secondary school age students will include a range of young people from those who are very sexually active on a regular basis to those (approximately 20 per cent) who have no sexual experience at all. The rising popularity of oral sex, also documented in the ASHR data, indicates that it is now seen by young people as a regular form of foreplay rather than a more esoteric practice.

Around 10 per cent of young people are same sex attracted and struggle with these issues in a climate of homophobia and silence. They are often the ones most likely to be engaging in high levels of unsafe sex with members of the opposite sex in order perhaps to “cure themselves” or to hide.

Young people live in a world where a certain amount of basic information about safe sex is not difficult to access, in spite of the fact it might be somewhat harder to initiate in practice. Condom use among young people is popular as a contraceptive, also giving them some protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STIs). When oral contraceptive use is taken into account there are high levels of contraception over all, but we still have to feel concern about the 10 per cent of students using withdrawal for contraception at their last encounter.


Rates of condom use have in fact remained steady over the last decade with up to 90 per cent of young people at least using them some of the time. These figures nevertheless mask some of the difficulties young people face in making sex safe as 73 per cent of sexually active students who reported having a condom available at their last sexual encounter but only 65 per cent had used it. In addition 23 per cent of the students in this study indicated that they were drunk or high the last time they has sex and just over a quarter reported having had unwanted sex at some time in their lives. This is unacceptable and an issue that needs to be further addressed, and addressed realistically in a culture where sexual activity is seen as more “the norm”.

The reality of this range of behaviours and constellation of risks must replace any romantic assumptions about young people and inform sexual health education at every level. In formulating the life skills which young people need in relation to their sexual health, the World Health Organization has legitimated a broad social agenda to take the place of the simple provision of factual information. They argue that young people need to learn to:

  • make sound decisions about relationships and sexual intercourse and stand up for those decisions;
  • use negotiation and refusal skills regarding sex;
  • recognise a situation that might turn risky or violent;
  • know how and where to ask for help and support; and
  • know how to negotiate protected sex and other forms of safe sex when ready for sexual relationships (WHO1998)

There is no turning back the clock on adolescent sexual behaviour and we now live in a world where most young people won’t be waiting for parents to tell them “the facts of life” but will be piecing it together at an early age from all they see in the world around them. Instead we need to engage with their newly-developing capacity to make good and healthy decisions for themselves and to provide them with the support they need.

Sex education in schools, at present provided in an ad hoc and inconsistent manner throughout Australia, must become a right for all young people. And it must be the kind of sex education that helps strengthen their judgment, skills and decision-making abilities from as early as primary school. This is the way we are most likely to make a real contribution to the safety and wellbeing of young people.

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About the Author

Anne Mitchell is Director of the Community Liaison and Education Unit with the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at LaTrobe University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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