Developing the sex education that students want

Bruce Johnson has spent a career researching issues that are now very much front of mind. As a Professor of Education and Dean of Research he has had a long-term interest in how teachers – and society in general – can promote student wellbeing, particularly in the areas of sexual health and mental health.

Among his many roles, Emeritus Professor Johnson has served on the Governing Council of sexual health agency SHine SA, consulted to the South Australian Government’s Drug Prevention Initiative and Learner Wellbeing Project, and been a member of the Scientific Leadership Council for the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre.

Now he is leading a major project designed to underpin the development of relevant and authentic sexuality education resources for Australia’s National Curriculum in Health and Physical Education.

The Engaging Young People in Sexuality Education Research Project, funded by the Australian Research Council and Shine SA, will also help address the known link between early sexualisation and a range of poor health outcomes, such as depression, shame and eating disorders.

An initial study has revealed that even in a world of mass communications school sex education programs remain very important, but that they need to be about more than just sex.

Around 75% of the 2000 students interviewed said that school-based programs were their main source of information and one of their most trusted sources. However, they also made it clear that they are interested in more than the biology of sex or the usual run down on safe sex practices.

“They want to know about love, starting a relationship, gender diversity, breaking up, violence in relationships, sexual pleasure and a range of other topics,” Prof Johnson said.

“Research done previously shows that because adults usually decided what was taught in sexuality and relationships education classes and were also the people evaluating how these programs were received, we are at risk of actually not addressing some of the issues of most concern to students.

“There will always be some sensitivity around how these subjects are taught, but having input from high school students is vital if we are to be able to reach them with the information that matters the most to them as they grow up.”

The project is being undertaken in partnership with other researchers from UniSA, Deakin University in Victoria, Sussex University in the UK and SHine SA.