I believe the Federal Government needs to strongly consider, in the light of the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and teenage pregnancies, that the time is right for a national sexual health and education inquiry.
Mention sex education and most of us remember cringe-worthy talks in school or the embarrassment of parents clumsily broaching the subject. At least these days trained professionals are providing young Australians with the knowledge they need to protect themselves, or are they?
The truth is we don’t know what information young people are receiving or whether they are being given tools to make more informed decisions about sexual relationships than previous generations.
There is no national standard for sexuality and relationship education in schools.
Sex education is part of the Australian school curriculum but it's not mandatory. Individual schools decide what's taught in the classroom. And there are differences between the states.
What we do know is that by the end of high school, young people are sexually active - 25 per cent by the age of 15 and 50 per cent by 17 - and they are beginning at a younger age than ever before.
We know that contraception is used inconsistently or not at all by many young people and that they often don’t think about protecting themselves from disease. It is estimated that more than one in four women under 25 is infected by chlamydia which can cause infertility.
Our teenage pregnancy rate is high compared with many other countries at 44 per 1,000 (though half the rate of the US).
Australia's teen birth rate halved in the past 30 years despite what some might describe as a weakening of “traditional models of sexual behaviour,” but it is nonetheless three times that of Japan, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden.
There are of course many teenage mothers who do a great job of parenting but there appear to be few programs to support teenage mothers to stay at school. Consequently few have qualifications, most are unemployed or in low paid work, in poor housing and likely to be dependent on welfare and their life generally will be a hard slog.
We know that drugs and alcohol use increase risk of pregnancy. Most young girls (and some boys) report having sex when they don’t want to, particularly when alcohol or drugs are involved, and we know that condom use is much lower under these circumstances.
We do know that young men and women have different attitudes to sex relationships and that this has a big impact on how they manage their sexuality and the respect they bring to partnerships, but we don't know, for instance, what effect relatively easy access to internet pornography is having on young people.
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