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Educating children about sex is the best way to keep them out of danger

By Michael Flood - posted Tuesday, 29 July 2003

Helen Vnuk complained recently that the rights of adults to read, hear and see what they want are more restricted now than they have been for a decade ("Adult enough to do, watch and choose", Sydney Morning Herald, 7 July). I agree, but what about children? Like adults, young people need and indeed deserve good sexual information. Yet this has been pushed aside in recent debates about censorship.

Stopping adults from seeing Ken Park is a worry. Shielding kids from anything sexual is a scandal. Today's children are growing up in a culture saturated in sexual imagery and sexual debate. Yet many parents struggle to communicate with their kids about sexuality, school sex education often only covers biology, and it is widely assumed that children need "protection from sex".

Children and youth are sexual beings. They have sexual feelings, they masturbate, and they're having sex younger than before. One in five year 10 students and half of year 12 students have had sexual intercourse. Young people engage in a wider variety of sexual behaviours than older people. And over a lifetime they will have more sexual partners than did their parents.


Some parents are queuing up to see Ken Park or looking forward to their next pornographic video (one-quarter of Australian adults watched an X-rated film in the last year). But they're squeamish about talking to their sons and daughters about sex and about sex education in their kids' schools.

Of course, some children have seen porn themselves: three-quarters of 16 and 17-year-olds have seen pornography on the Internet, mostly by accident, according to research by the Australia Institute part 1 (pdf, 124kb) and part 2 (pdf, 107kb) . As the co-author of this research, I was troubled to see commentators simply assume that youth's exposure to sexually explicit materials is dangerous and should be stopped. Consideration of pornography's possible effects was pushed aside by a focus on how to prevent children from encountering pornography.

Still, pornography is a poor sex educator. Most pornography is too explicit for younger children, most shows sex in unrealistic ways and neglects intimacy and romance, and some pornography is sexist or even violent.

But don't conflate critique with censorship. Vnuk is right: let's criticise the content of pornography, and defend its availability to adults. But let's also extend children's access to engaging and responsible materials on sex and sexuality. And let's start involving young people themselves in these debates about sex and censorship. Parents, what do your kids think?

Providing quality information on sexuality and sexual health to youth is part of raising healthy children and building healthy communities. Fostering young people's sexual understanding enhances their well-being, maturity and decision-making skills. Sexuality education also benefits the community, through fewer unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, lower rates of sexually transmitted infections, and less sexual violence.

Some parents and teachers are concerned about sexuality education leading to earlier or increased sexual activity. But the evidence is that kids given sexuality education are more likely to delay having sex, have fewer sexual partners, and are more likely to practise safe sex if they're already sexually active.


The Australia Institute's reports on children and porn may have fed moral panics about the Internet but in fact the Internet is one of the best media through which to provide sexual health information. Young people are already making widespread use of a range of responsible, informed and compassionate websites provided for them. These cover such topics as puberty, contraception and relationships, and include answers to frequently asked questions, articles and personal stories, interactive games and quizzes, and referral and advice. Youth need the facts, but also stories of consent, love, romance and desire.

Protecting children from sexual harm doesn't mean protecting children from sexuality. In fact, maintaining children's sexual ignorance fosters sexual abuse. Young people who know their sexual rights and responsibilities are more likely to speak up when they are being forced into sex, and they are less likely to abuse others.

Censorship has often been justified by calls to 'protect the children'. But fostering children's health and safety is not well served by blanket condemnations of sexual speech. Yes, we need to improve the kinds of sexual materials available to youth and minimise their exposure to sexist and violent content but this should not be at the expense of sexual speech in general.

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About the Author

Dr Michael Flood is a Research Fellow with the Australia Institute.

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