Sex education needs radical overhaul, say experts

Australia's outdated sex education system must be radically overhauled to include lessons on sexual assault, consent and ''sexting'' in a bid to address rising rates of violence against women, leading experts have claimed.

Educators and researchers say the ''no means no'' anti-rape message is too simplistic and school students should be taught that the absence of a ''no'' in sexual encounters is not enough to assume consent.

They also want lessons to include information on sexual pleasure, masturbation and pornography, arguing that the current risk-focused approach - teaching only about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease - leaves young people ill-equipped to negotiate the complexities of sexual relationships.

''The young men we've talked to understand that no means no, but what about when a girl doesn't say no?'' said Catharine Lumby from Macquarie University. ''They're clear that what they see in porn isn't real but they say it's really hard to know if a girl is comfortable with something sexually. There seems to be confusion about how you know you've got consent and how you communicate about pleasure.''

Professor Lumby has spent the past two years interviewing high school students about their understanding of sexual relationships, for an Australian Research Council project, Young People, Sex, Love and Media. ''Our sex education needs to teach the 'no means no' message, but we also need to teach what does 'yes mean yes' look like? And how do you know when you want to say yes?''

Professor Lumby - who has worked pro bono for 10 years for the National Rugby League educating players on gender issues - said their research showed girls felt under pressure to be sexual from an early age, and to send explicit ''selfies'' to boys via text or on social media apps such as Snapchat, while boys had different concerns around sexual expectation.

''There is a lot of confusion. Boys express anxiety about not understanding what it is that young women expect of them, and what's appropriate,'' she said.

Stef Tipping, co-ordinator for the Centre Against Sexual Assault's secondary schools program, agrees better education is crucial. In its six-week sexual assault prevention course, centre staff often encounter entrenched double standards, with sexually active girls branded ''sluts'', while boys are seen as ''legends''. These attitudes add to confusion around consent in sexual encounters.

''We use scenarios like, two kids have been dating for a few weeks and she turns up to a party in one of her sister's dresses. It's a bit shorter than normal, she's had a bit to drink and feels sick and tired and wants to lie down. She asks her boyfriend to come with her and he tries to have sex with her. She tries to push him off but he's too strong,'' Ms Tipping said.

''In her story she says she was too scared to scream because she didn't want to make a scene with her friends in the next room. He says, she turned up in this hot dress, she was drunk, she wanted to lie down, 'I thought she really wanted to have sex. She grizzled when I took her clothes off but girls just want to be persuaded …' Often the boys just aren't aware of the power imbalance until you deconstruct these scenarios.''

Lauren Rosewarne, a gender politics expert from the University of Melbourne, said in the digital age, pornography was the first exposure to sex for many children, giving them a skewed view of sexual experiences.

''Ten is the average age now of seeing porn for the first time, so if that's the case, we need to start sex education at nine.''

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