Sex education – an important part of learning about life

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Sex education in schools isn’t a subject many students would choose as their favourite – it usually comes with some embarrassment and nervous giggling.
But a quality sex education program can help young people to develop social skills, learn about appropriate behaviours and protect themselves from situations which they are uncomfortable in, as well as learn about reproduction.

Key points

  • Sex education is an important part of growing up, developing healthy relationships and discovering identity for young people

  • Many young people with disability may not learn what they need to know from school alone

  • It can help a young person to be comfortable with talking about these topics at home and to have their learning supported by parents and carers

For students with disability, missing out on quality sex education or not being given the support they need to fully understand the concepts can affect their everyday life and health.

Louise Mapleston is a qualified social worker who runs a service teaching sex education and consent training to young people with disability and their carers, called Check + Chat. She says it’s important that learning suits each individual.

“Sexuality education should be tailored for appropriate stages of cognitive development and the individual learner. After all, no one size shoe fits all!” she says.

“A one-to-one, tailored approach allows an individual to ask the tricky questions, to engage in deeper conversations and explore these concepts in more detail.

“If an individual has more understanding of their own boundaries and how to navigate conversations about consent and complex social dynamics, then they may be able to make safer choices for themselves, or at least to talk to someone sooner if something went wrong.”

What concepts are taught in sex education?

Sex education is about more than just how sex works, it is also about puberty, menstruation, healthy relationships, respect, consent, romance, contraception, sexuality, personal identity and safety.

There are many concepts which a child might need to know about in their later life, and sex education can inform non-sexual aspects of life, like having healthy family relationships, general health and understanding their identity.

A topic that is often considered taboo for sex education students, sometimes particularly those with disability, is sexual pleasure and intimate connection.

But Louise says all students need to learn how these factors can influence a relationship and their emotions.

“Due to a range of structural, cultural and social barriers, people with disability have been historically ignored or left out from a lot of sexuality education, or given the bare basics that tend to leave pleasure out of the conversation with only a focus on safety and reproduction,” she says.

“There are a lot of reasons for this and one being that for a really long time people with disability haven’t been seen as ‘sexual’ beings or have been infantilised in a way. It’s really unfair, and a lot of work is being done to rectify this at the current time.”

Louise’s list of important things for students to think about around consent includes:

  • Has the person agreed to the sexual contact? Were they forced or pressured?

  • Are both people the legal age for sexual contact?

  • Respect: do both people think highly of each other? Is this someone who you are kind, gentle and nice to?

  • Are there any major power differences between you and the other person? Equal relationships make for happier relationships. For example, two people can’t be equal if someone is having sexual contact with their support worker or someone who makes decisions for them

At what age should my child learn about this?

As long as your child’s education is age appropriate, learning about some topics can start very young.

For example, your child can learn the proper names of private parts as a toddler and use them while washing or getting dressed.

These open conversations can help them to grow up feeling like it’s okay to talk about bodies and relationships with other people.

It is important to keep in mind that even though you might not think your child is old enough when they begin puberty, which could happen any time from around 10 years old, they may have been exposed to sexual ideas through the internet or their peers.

Research from the Australian Institute of Family Studies in 2017 highlighted just under half of the children surveyed aged 9 to 16 years old were exposed to pornography within the month in which the survey was conducted.

A conversation about what a healthy, safe and respectful relationship should look like, as well as the importance of consent, before your child is exposed to pornography can help them to understand about appropriate behaviour.

Why not just leave sex education to be taught in schools?

Every school – whether mainstream or specialised for children with disability – has sex education as part of the curriculum.

However, this doesn’t always mean a student will understand the content which they are supposed to be learning and it also doesn’t mean that everything a student needs to know is included in class.

Louise says while she is not a teacher, feedback from those working in education tells her sex education tends to be lacking for school students.

“Colleagues at special schools have remarked that sex-ed is often not considered a priority for many teachers amongst all the other complex and individual needs that they’re servicing,” Louise says.

“I think this is the case in most schools around Australia. I would say that all Australian students, regardless if they have a disability or not, need more sexuality and consent education than they’re currently getting.”

What is sex education currently lacking for children with disability?

Depending on your child, there may not be a lot of information out there to help them learn about the parts of sex education which they need to know.

You might need to step in and talk to them about topics which others consider taboo.

Having open conversations with your child can also encourage them to speak up, ask questions or ask for help if they feel someone else is not respecting their boundaries.

Particular areas where education is lacking for young people with disability, according to Louise, also include LGBTQI+ resources and tailoring sex education for young people who use a method of communicating other than speech, such as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) devices.

If these are learning areas which you know your child will need, it could help to look for services in your State or Territory which deliver individual sex education lessons which can be adapted for your child

What can I do to support my child to develop healthy relationships and understand consent?

You should create an environment at home where your child feels comfortable talking about their relationships and emotions with you, so that any learning they do at school or in other education settings is supported.

Look for resources on how to talk to your child about topics that may be out of your comfort zone.

A good place to start is the family planning service in your State or Territory:

You can also ask your school what your child will be learning in class and help to reinforce some of that learning at home or build on it.

It might help to use images, videos, songs, posters and books.

Courses, workshops, clinics and education programs are also run for young people and parents or carers by family planning services.

Did you know about the benefits of sex education? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

Sex and relationships for people with disabilities
Flexible schooling options for children with disability
Teenagers 13-17 years