Drive west out of Brisbane, and the road eventually becomes a single-lane highway. Out here, billboards display Bible verses instead of ads and crows own the bitumen stretch, strutting across the road like they’ve never seen a car before. About an hour from Warwick you’ll find the small town of Inglewood, population less than 1000. Locals say they don’t measure distances by kilometres but by hours: three to Brisbane; nearly one to the nearby town of Texas.
It’s not often that the local school attracts visitors. But today, Inglewood State School is playing host to Straight Talk Australia, a Toowoomba-based Christian organisation here to preach the gospel of delayed gratification. Its founders, Jim and Faye Lyons, married for 35 years, are a friendly couple who advocate a zero-tolerance approach to sex before marriage. They’ve recently been to Victoria to spread the word, often tour capital cities, and speak throughout the Pacific Islands too.
As the Lyons set up their DVD player, projector and pamphlet display, they chat to school staff about a recent incident that demonstrates why they need to be here today. According to Jim, a young boy from a private school was on a bus and showed some girls the condom he carried around in his wallet. The girls were aghast, so were their parents. Jim shakes his head in disbelief; some of Inglewood’s teachers make tutting noises. “These parents: doing the right thing, sending their children to a good Christian school,” Jim says. “And for what? Their daughters to be corrupted on the school bus.”
Students from Years 8 and 9 file in. Boys are told to sit on the left; girls on the right. Ranging from 12 to 14 years old, they’re at the age where school mornings are a hassle, and some students slouch into their seats sleepily. Jim tries rousing them with his standard ice-breaker. “How many of you are planning – as one of your goals in 2008 – to get a sexually transmitted disease or infection?” he asks. “Can I see the hands of those who are planning to get an STD this year?” No one puts up their hand.
A good chunk of the presentation involves Jim and Faye addressing students, but much of it is sandwiched by DVDs. Faye shows video footage of a developing foetus, soundtracked with a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ A caption bounces up on the screen: “You are actually nine months older than you thought.” While the pro-life sentiment is clear, Straight Talk’s main message is delivered via the DVD The Price Tag of Sex, a recorded lecture given by American abstinence advocate Pam Stenzl during her 1998 Australian tour. It’s a fast-paced spray of facts: 200,000 Australian teenagers will get an STD this year; 12,000 US teens will contract one today. “I didn’t come to Australia to decide what you’re going to do about sex,” Stenzl says. “I’ve come so none of you will say, ‘I didn’t know.’”
Towards the end of the DVD, Stenzl says, “Let’s pray as we pause and give this time we’ve had together to the Lord.” Some of Inglewood’s teachers bow their heads; one person who doesn’t is principal Peter Lund, who later discloses that he’s not a Christian himself. He says he sees no problem in a Christian organisation visiting a secular school like Inglewood. Straight Talk isn’t there as a comprehensive sex-ed program but as an addition to the school’s own program. “We’re trying to deliver what we think the community wants children to be told,” Lund says. “It’s not my values. It’s everyone’s values pooled together. At the end of the day, people put a lot of trust in schools.”
ASK PEOPLE TO RECALL their own school sex education, and the stories vary wildly. How about the convent school nuns who advocated oranges as a legitimate form of female contraception (you ate the fruit instead of having sex and voila: you wouldn’t get pregnant)? Even among people of similar age and education there are glaring discrepancies in how schools delivered information on sex and health. A snap poll of my own friends – all in their 20s and educated in Queensland – revealed lessons ranging from sweetly eye-opening to horribly graphic.
One friend’s private school ushered students into an assembly hall before screening a graphic slideshow of diseased genitals. Another school showed nature documentaries of every conceivable animal mating, with extreme close-ups of copulation. One co-ed private college used promotional showbags from tampon companies as a segue into discussing menstruation, while a teacher at a state school insisted the reason women acted “strange” during periods was because they were losing blood.
For many other Queenslanders, memories of sex education at school are simply non-existent: in 12 years of education, some never encountered a lesson. And yet this year supposedly marks the 20th anniversary of sex education in the state’s schools, the Queensland Studies Authority (covering both state and independent schools) in 1988 having introduced a set curriculum on human relationships and development covering pre-school to Year 12.
Those issues are incorporated in the QSA’s 1999 guidelines on what students should have learned in Health and Physical Education (HPE) by Years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in both state and independent schools. Moreover, Queensland parents overwhelmingly support sex education in schools. After surveying 518 parents earlier this year, the independent organisation Family Planning Queensland (FPQ) found 82 per cent of respondents saw sex-ed as necessary and important in their children’s education. Everyone interviewed for this article overwhelmingly supported its existence in Queensland schools. Education Minister Rod Welford and Education Queensland state that sexual and reproductive health education is important “for all” young people.
So why the inconsistencies in the quality and quantity of sex-ed? Asked to assess the state of sex education in Queensland, the Director of Education Services for FPQ, Cecelia Gore, sighs. “No one can tell you for sure, because nobody counts it, asks for reports on it, or is required to describe the work they do.” Gore strongly advocates a set of minimum, documented standards to be shared by all Queensland schools. QSA’s syllabus might imply those standards already exist, but it leaves the nuts and bolts (materials, resources, programs) to each school, to reflect its own values. Right now, there’s enough breathing room in the QSA syllabus to allow for different interpretations of what’s required of individual schools.
The idea of individual schools having total autonomy over their sex education programs is supported by both Education Queensland and Independent Schools Queensland. Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan says he doesn’t believe teachers should have to work under a “one-size-fits-all” approach, advocating flexibility for schools in deciding the makeup of sex-ed programs. Gore says the need for flexibility doesn’t excuse the fact some schools conduct only one sex-ed presentation a year, before Schoolies Week, while others offer nothing at all.
For their part, last year FPQ representatives visited 208 Queensland schools to discuss sex and relationships. They saw 23,813 primary school students, 4569 young people aged 13-24 and 1862 teachers, as of their 2007/2008 report, which covered the year leading up to October 2008. Generally, the organisation prefers to work with adults, providing teachers and parents with the skills and resources to discuss sex with young people. For Gore, there’s no ambiguity about what constitutes good school sex education: young people being engaged in discussion on a broad range of issues including media stereotypes, decision-making, contraception and relationships. “There’s a huge evidence base for what effective and appropriate sexuality education needs to be,” she says.
Other sex-ed practitioners are horrified at the prospect of introducing state-wide resources and standards, though no such plans exist yet. “It’s going to be terrifying when they bring that in,” says Teresa Martin, president of Cherish Life Queensland. Formerly known as Queensland Right to Life, CLQ is the state’s oldest pro-life, anti-abortion group. As in FPQ, its representatives address both private and state schools across the state. However, that’s where the similarities between pro-choice FPQ and pro-life CLQ end.
Martin thinks many sex education programs deliver too much information at too young an age. She cites a recent news story, about young primary school boys who sexually interfered with a female student. “Sex education is partly responsible for that,” she says. “They’re making children aware of body parts they’re not ready to be aware of.” She says a Year 9 girl recently thanked her for not focusing entirely on sexuality. “She was all sexed out. She had had enough. Her comment was: ‘I want to know how to budget and cook for my family for a week.’ Sex education is totally unimportant. What is very important is relationship education.”
What Martin advocates does in fact fall in line with QSA’s HPE syllabus for Years 1 to 10, in which the term “relationship” is mentioned 41 times. (“Sex”, “sexuality” and “sexual identity” only rate six mentions altogether.) She’s keen to emphasise is that Cherish Life is not anti-sex. “Don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I think sex is the greatest thing out since sliced bread.” What she does stand for are traditional values and gender roles. “I impress in young men they are knights in shining armour, that they are protectors and providers. Then I say to the young women they are princesses. That they should never dress in a fashion to distract young men from their eyes. Because when he looks at their body, he falls in lust. When he looks at their eyes, he falls in love – and love lasts.” She says that after giving that speech she once got a standing ovation from the assembled students.
It’s only after talking to Straight Talk and Cherish Life that I realise both groups had visited the co-ed private school I attended, Immanuel Lutheran College on the Sunshine Coast. In Year 4, a guest spoke to us about the value of human life and the horrible realities of abortion. The class was captivated. There was even merchandise for sale: brooches of tiny golden feet, demonstrating the size of a foetus at 10 weeks. We all bought a brooch and marched around the playground repeating various pro-life sentiments, a child army of anti-abortion demonstrators. Martin says the group would have been Queensland Right to Life. Straight Talk’s Jim and Faye Lyons also confirm they visited the school in the mid ‘90s.
The current principal is David Bliss, who was previously a secondary teacher in biology and health and believes in frank discussions on sex and relationships. It’s not always easy in practice. Recently, some parents complained after the BBC documentary series The Human Body was shown in class – one scene had shown a pregnant woman in the nude. The video has since been replaced with Where Did I Come From?, the animated educational video made in the 1980s.
Despite such challenges, Immanuel’s sex education program has changed markedly since I graduated in 1999. “There’s more openness about the course now,” says HPE curriculum head Rod Blom, “and that’s a reflection of the teachers and their values.” While Where Did I Come From? might be a bit long in the tooth, there are other videos and workbooks that deal with reproduction, teenage pregnancy, media stereotypes, social attitudes, relationships and risks associated with non-monogamous sex. There are also initiatives such as boxes for anonymous questions by students. For Blom and fellow HPE teacher Todd Sobey, the aim is to create a student-led, embarrassment-free environment.
Something else has changed, too: Immanuel no longer accepts visits from groups such as Straight Talk Australia or Cherish Life Queensland. “We did have one teacher here at the time who was a very strong advocate for the right-to-life group,” says Blom, whose responsibilities include sifting through piles of sample DVDs, brochures and leaflets sent in by special interest groups exploiting the absence of state-standard resources. “Certain teachers would have been pushing [the pro-life] line and inviting those groups. We haven’t pushed that line. A lot depends on the administration, who’s teaching the subject and who’s in the department.”
WHETHER PRO-LIFE or pro-choice, there’s no doubt the organisations doing the rounds of Australian schools are responding to the same alarming statistics on teenage pregnancy, abortions and STIs. In 2003, the Medical Journal of Australia reported that Australia had the sixth highest teen pregnancy rate and one of the highest teen abortion rates among developed countries. More recent surveys of the sexual practices and attitudes of teenagers are also confronting. The Marie Stopes International survey of 1000 13- to 18-year-olds and their parents, released last month, (subs: Oct) revealed that 31 per cent of teen respondents were sexually active, a third of them having had their first experience at 14 or younger, and while 61 per cent of teens claimed to have a good knowledge of sexual health issues, many were ill-informed. Three in 10, for instance, were unaware they could contract STIs from oral sex. Fifty-six per cent of parents and 69 per cent of teens considered their school’s sex-ed program to be of average or lower quality, and 66 per cent of teens and 75 per cent of parents supported mandatory sex education in schools.
In 2005, writer and researcher Joan Sauers set up an online survey inviting Australian teenagers to respond anonymously to 50 questions on topics ranging from masturbation to pornography, homosexuality to virginity, coerced sex to experimentation. Three hundred teens took part, the results appearing in the 2007 book The Sex Lives of Australian Teenagers. Sauers found that the sequence of sexual experience had drastically changed for young people, and this was not reflected in many sex-ed classes. “They don’t talk about oral sex,” she says. “Most schools will pretend that doesn’t happen. But nowadays, kids usually engage in oral sex before they have intercourse. You have kids who have no idea you can contract a virus that can cause cancer through oral sex.”
There’s an underlying assumption that over the years sex education models have become more comprehensive, progressive and thorough. But in her teenager survey and a more recent survey of nearly 2000 Australian women, Sauers found no significant difference in the quality of sex-ed between generations. “That’s the scary thing. Younger women didn’t seem better-informed than older women … one woman even said: ‘The first time I really understood about sex was when I was lying there, at the age of 23, in the labour ward.’ That really underlined how poor and inconsistent our sex education is.”
Call it flexibility or call it inconsistency, children across the state are receiving directly conflicting messages on the same issues. Homosexuality, for instance, might be officially out of Cherish Life’s scope, but Martin says she answers any question thrown her way. She tells students, “Everything I’ve read – and every person I’ve spoken to who leads a homosexual lifestyle – have had serious physical or sexual abuse, that has truncated their normal, healthy development.” Immanuel’s Rod Blom has a slightly different take. His concern isn’t homosexuality; it’s homophobia. “There’s a massive homophobic problem amongst the boys,” he says. “In a Christian school, a lot of kids have been [taught] it’s a terrible sin. But as they’re growing up, they’re seeing more same-sex relationships. So there’s always the question: ‘Why are people homosexual?’ ” Blom’s response includes discussing the stories of gay people he’s personally known.
Contraception is another tricky subject. With older students, FPQ may provide demonstrations on how to properly apply a condom. Their brochures also present the pill as one legitimate contraceptive option young women might want to discuss with their doctor. In contrast, Cherish Life insists that the pill is dangerous, a cancer-causing and life-destroying agent. While they have no official policy on condoms, Martin tells students: “In my experience – with everything I have read, and every person I have spoken to, who have used them — there’s a spiritual disconnect. When we put up a barrier between us and our partner, it says, ‘I accept all of you, except your life-giving quality.’ ” Straight Talk’s Jim Lyons simply argues condoms are ineffective. “We’re talking about a frail piece of latex here,” he tells the students at Inglewood. “We’re not talking about a tractor tyre.”
However, it’s the issue of abortion that defines these groups most clearly. “For some people, the consequences post-abortion will be hugely traumatic,” FPQ’s Gore says. “For others, they won’t be … It’s again about saying, ‘Here are the range of things you can choose. Every choice has a consequence, whether it’s parenting or adopting or termination.’ ” In Martin’s mind, no good has ever come out of abortion. Girls have been known to shoot back hypotheticals to her about rape and incest, but she remains adamant. “Rape happens, sadly, but it doesn’t diminish the value of human life.”
These differences are unlikely to ever be resolved, outside the classroom or within. But Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan places trust in teachers. “In general,” he says “they are professional enough to know there are two views, and they should fall into the middle. [They] talk about the philosophies behind the various political views and provide the students with as much information as they can, without actually taking sides.”
CHERISH LIFE’S Teresa Martin emails me a link to a news story on how rates of STIs, including chlamydia and HIV, have increased across Australia. “Surprise, surprise,” she writes. “Harm minimisation does not work.” Those figures – a 9% rise in chlamydia; a 5% rise in HIV in one year – are deeply worrying. However, it’s difficult to build a strong link between Queensland’s sex-ed standards and those figures. There’s no way of knowing who teaches what and to whom. Are sexually transmitted infections climbing because Queenslanders are being educated about sex too much? Or is because they know too little? Is it because the emphasis is skewed towards Family Planning’s paradigm of choice, or Straight Talk and Cherish Life’s message of abstinence before marriage? There’s no useful documentation in the field.
Data does however exists in the US, where abstinence education is the government-backed norm. The Bush administration poured $176 million in federal funding into some 700 abstinence organisations in a bid to reduce rates of teen pregnancy and disease. US states that accepted the funding were forbidden from allowing educators to “promote” contraceptives or the idea of sex outside marriage. Yet The New York Times reported last year that studies of abstinence education found no signs it delayed a teenager’s sexual debut. That led to 11 state health departments rejecting abstinence education in 2007 alone. Critics have also suggested that for young people who are already sexually active, messages about sexual health can be lost if abstaining is presented as the only option.
Jim Lyons doesn’t agree that the abstinence message is flawed. “Young people are being told, ‘There’s no consequences, you can do what as you like, and there’s no problems,’ ” he says. “But look at alcohol. They put some of the scariest ads on TV to say, ‘Drinking is no good for you.’ Smoking: they’re very heavy against kids doing it. But when it comes to sex, it’s ‘Oh no, we’ve got to let them make up their own mind’.” Martin uses a similar analogy. “We have an expectation they will not do drugs; we have an expectation they will not smoke. ‘Oh, but you poor young things: when it comes to sex, you can’t help yourselves.’ I don’t believe that. I believe all young people want the best for themselves.”
Politics aside, administering sex education is not an easy or enviable task. When one of my high school teachers was asked how lesbians had sex, the response ripped thought the schoolyard like wildfire. In Year 9, when our teacher asked us for all the different slang words we knew for penis, the classroom erupted with suggestions, screams and laughter.
In one of her surveys, Sauers asked young people what they thought could be improved about sex education. Suggestions included separating girls from boys to discuss certain issues without awkwardness. Some said they’d prefer to be addressed by people of a similar age and background. “They felt one of the real drawbacks was that they were being lectured to by some middle-aged man,” Sauers says. “Education departments need to go out into schools. They need to ask teenagers what they want to know more of. With the help of teenagers – and older kids who have left school and been in the real world – they need to start designing a program that will be comprehensive and national.”
Each time I finished speaking with any of these groups, I left with a tonne of promotional merchandise. Family Planning Queensland gave me a shiny folder of pamphlets and flyers about contraception. (One of the contraceptives listed, alongside condoms and the pill, was abstinence.) From Cherish Life Queensland, I’ve got another pair of gold foetus feet to pin on to my lapel. Straight Talk sent me their wallet-sized virginity pledge card reminding me I’m worth waiting for, which went alongside their leaflet entitled 101 Things To Do With Your Boyfriend or Girlfriend, Instead of It! Suggested alternatives to sex include learning yo-yo tricks, fixing lunch for some elderly folk, and picking bunches of dandelions for my mother.
I now have enough sex education paraphernalia to fill a fat briefcase, and flicking through all the conflicting information and ideology becomes overwhelming. You can only feel for all the Health and PE curriculum coordinators out there, wading through their own choked-up inboxes, trying to make sense of it all.