There is a scene in this year's third season of Netflix's Sex Education where two students get dismissed from sex-ed class, simply for asking questions and demanding that their lessons be better than scare tactics and censored information. They are punished by the school principal as part of her vigilant campaign to suppress self-expression, sexuality and identity in the school, and to put an end to comprehensive relationships and sexuality education at the expense of her students' wellbeing.
While her tactics of shame are cruel and extreme, they reflect a fear, mistrust or simply a misunderstanding of sex ed that is very real in many schools, communities and jurisdictions. Sex Education takes place in the United Kingdom, but could just as easily be set here in Australia.
In one sense, we would be more likely to see the principal's crackdown on relationships and sexuality education here in Australia than they would in the UK, where they now have legislation mandating comprehensive relationships and sexuality education for all young people. That legislation was introduced in 2019, the year Sex Education piloted and the year I undertook a Churchill Fellowship to research the implementation of relationships and sexuality education in parts of Europe and North America.
I arrived in London just after the legislation had been introduced, and attended a day-long forum that explored how the new mandate would be implemented in practice. What struck me was the sheer variety of people and professionals who attended: teachers, government officials, community sector representatives, sex-ed providers, young people, faith-based educators.
Over the course of the day, it became clear to me that all these stakeholders shared a commitment to ensuring that young people had access to this critical education. There was a shared understanding that this education safeguards sexual wellbeing, and is a protective factor against sexual violence and abuse; it does not corrupt innocence, nor encourage sexual behaviour. And there was a shared objective to get it right.
That collective effort had also been instrumental in getting the legislation in the first place: for decades the UK Sex Education Forum has been a trusted source of information and advocacy for relationships and sexuality education and was a key part of the push to ensure all young Brits have access to it.
In fact, I saw this systemic advocacy over and over again while on my Fellowship, in every country I visited that enjoyed successful implementation of relationships and sexuality education - at school, in the home and beyond. Communities that pulled together to act on the evidence that this kind of education is protective and empowering. Because we cannot deflect responsibility to individual schools, teachers, parents or curriculum designers to get relationships and sexuality education right, often against the odds, or at the whim of budgets, resources and capacity. Young people's access to relationships and sexuality education should be a guarantee, not a lottery.
When I got back home from my research travels, I knew there were many organisations and individuals who have been working tirelessly for years to improve relationships and sexuality education in the ACT, or who represented key stakeholders that were calling for change. I sought to harness all that expertise and energy by channelling it into a collective endeavour: and so, in early 2020, the Relationships and Sexuality Education Alliance ACT was born.
While sex-ed opponents and sceptics can sometimes be the most vocal, there are many, many parents, educators, experts and advocates who are committed to improving access to relationships and sexuality education for all young people. The Alliance, which we are proud to officially launch today, seeks to bring those perspectives together. To use our collective voice to advocate for universal access to comprehensive relationships and sexuality education, and our experience and expertise to help make it happen.
And we must not forget the most important voice of all: young people. This year, like no other, we have heard the clarion call from young people that they want better sex education. That they need and deserve information about their own bodies, relationships, sex, sexuality, consent and communication if they are to have the very best chance. Rather than dismissing them we ought to heed their call. Join us.
- Katrina Marson is president of Relationships and Sexuality Education Alliance ACT, which officially launches today. rsealliance.org.au