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'Broken' Sex Education Sees Aussie Kids Turn To Porn To Answer Questions

Schools are struggling to teach students about porn and social media in sex education classes, with experts saying there is a "mixed bag" and lack of consistency across the country.

Melissa Kang, president of the Australian Association for Adolescent Health, said "on paper", students are taught all the things the curriculum demands.

"But then you look at what actually happens in the classroom, and we old people cannot really keep up with technology in the way that would be of most benefit," she told 10 daily.

She said, this is the essence of the problem.

How does sex education work in Australia?

Australian sex ed is delivered in a variety of ways, with each state education department adapting the national curriculum in various ways.

Much is taught in personal development and health classes with teachers educating students about biology, anatomy, reproduction, puberty and relationships. Other parts of sex education may be led by external specialist companies brought in to conduct in-depth, dedicated workshops.

Sex education in Australia covers relationships, sexuality, contraception, fertility and puberty. Image: Getty

Comprehensive sex education can "reduce rates of sexually transmissible infections, unintended pregnancy and incidents of coerced sexual activity and sexual assault," the AAAH said in a 2018 paper.

But the actual content taught can vary widely between states, and even between individual schools. Experts and educators have slammed a lack of consistency, and a failure of curriculum to keep up with the times and teach young people about social media, sexting and pornography.

A 2014 paper from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society found just 45 percent of secondary students found sex education ‘very’ or ‘extremely’ relevant.

"It’s a mixed bag – some schools are doing it well, while others are trying to catch up or not addressing online safety issues at all," eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, told 10 daily.

"Many adults, including teachers and parents, may not feel confident or competent enough to discuss issues around explicit sexual imagery, sexual health and respectful relationships."

Education not keeping up with technology, leaving "gaps"

Bryony Cole, a leading 'sextech' expert and founder of the Future Of Sex podcast, told 10 daily last month she believed Australian sex education "is broken", and pornography "has become the default sex education for the majority of young people."

Brandon Friedman, co-founder of sex education organisation Elephant Ed, echoed this.

Students are turning to porn as a "default sex education", experts claim. Image: Getty

"Sex ed historically has a strong focus on the physical element of growing up, but we did surveys and the key thing that kept coming up was students wanting to talk about the social, emotional and technological side," he told 10 daily.

"They want to talk about sexuality, porn and sexting."

Elephant Ed, which visits dozens of Victorian schools and will soon expand into NSW, eschews traditional lecture-based classes in favour of interactive presentations and informal workshops.

"This information is so important. It shapes a person's journey through adolescence. It transcends health and relationships, it goes to their mental health and how they identify," Friedman said.

"If it's not delivered in an engaging manner, they're going to resort to other means, like pornography."

Educators say traditional classroom formats may not be the best for sex ed. Image: Getty

Jenny Ackland, director and educator at Sex Education Australia, said Australia could benefit from stronger Federal guidelines to ensure consistency nationwide.

"There's no comprehensive approach. Some schools do a great job... but some just tick the box and run a fairly sub-standard program," she told 10 daily.

"Most schools are left to do their best. There will be gaps."

LGBTQ youth left out?

Ackland, whose company runs programs in Melbourne schools, said some may feel more comfortable sticking to biological approaches to sex education -- focusing on contraception and fertility -- rather than speaking about sexuality and porn.

She cited the "current climate", where some parents object to children being taught about LGBTQ issues or the Safe Schools program, as a reason why some schools may be reluctant to teach such topics.

Australian sex ed is "a mixed bag", the eSafety Commissioner claimed. Image: Getty

"It'd be a rare school with programs that are 100 percent comprehensive, that talk about how gay people have sex, about pleasure," Ackland said.

"We talk to conservative and religious bodies. We say 'it doesn't matter their background, they're all left vulnerable if they don't get certain information about their bodies and the world'."

The AAAH's 2018 paper warned students at religious schools "are more likely to be taught conservative, and potentially harmful, messages, including information of a homophobic nature."

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Minus18, a LGBTQ youth advocacy group, said sex education can often exclude issues outside of heterosexual relationships. The group's 2018 'Young & Queer' survey found LGBTQ youth ranked inclusive sex ed as their top priority. Respondents also wanted their identities "to not just be tolerated but taught and celebrated as a means of reducing bullying", Minus18 said.

The report suggested teachers undergo annual sex ed training "to ensure they are teaching the most up-to-date information", and that sex ed should be "standardised throughout all schools".

Image: Getty

In a statement to 10 daily, the federal Department of Education said state and territory governments are responsible for delivering sex education.

10 daily has contacted the NSW and Victorian education departments for comment.

Dolly Doctor: sex ed "not speaking to their reality"

Kang knows better than most what young people ask about sex. In addition to her role at the AAAH, and as a University of Technology Sydney associate professor in public health, she also spent 23 years as the 'Dolly Doctor', answering questions about love and sex in Dolly magazine.

She said Australian sex education was generally delivered in line with UNESCO world guidelines, and some states "enhanced" the national curriculum -- but also noted they often lagged behind the times, and weren't answering all the questions young people had.

"If teachers address it at all, they say porn is bad, and you can get in trouble with sexting... it isn't speaking to [young people's] reality," Kang told 10 daily.

Melissa Kang spent 23 years as the Dolly Doctor, answering young people's questions. Image: supplied

She said in the last few years of her tenure as the Dolly Doctor, young girls increasingly asked about sex tips and how to groom their pubic hair -- which she theorised was due to an increase in porn consumption, and young people wanting to emulate what they saw on screen.

"Sexting and porn is in the forefront of young people's minds, so it's about how to upskill the teachers," she said.

"Teachers are really committed but some feel they're not skilled in certain areas."

Contact the author jobutler@networkten.com.au