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July 2005 Issue
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Education - not risk - the key to sexual pleasure


South Australia has among the highest rates of teenage pregnancy, birth and abortion in the developed world - but positive sex education may help address this, according to new research at the University of Adelaide.

For her PhD in the Discipline of Anthropology, Fiona Sutherland studied the meanings of pleasure and risk among young Adelaide women in the context of their sexual health. She surveyed single mothers, strippers, sex workers and young women in a correctional institution aged from 16 to 23, as well as health workers in the field.

"According to sexual health statistics, the rates of teenage pregnancy, birth and abortion in South Australia are among the highest in the developed world," Ms Sutherland said.

"Research has also shown that countries which focus on more sexually positive education throughout a person's lifespan have less assaults, Sexually Transmitted Infections and unwanted pregnancies.

"What I found from my research was there was an ignorance around sexual matters as very few had any sexual education that was useful to them, and many hadn't even been taught about menstruation.

"Teachers are not able to discuss anal sex, group sex or pornography in schools, although young people are experimenting with these things.

"What I'm finding more and more is that education needs to come from a harm minimisation approach of accepting that people are doing certain things and working to help them be safer about it, because denial is leaving a whole lot of kids without resources to deal with what can happen.

"In the US, where abstinence is promoted, the number of assaults and teenage pregnancies has skyrocketed because the prohibition approach does not address what young people are doing and what those behaviours mean to them.

"They're going to be doing something anyway, listen and help them find a way of doing it that enhances their health and reduces the risk rather than imposing ideas on people."

Ms Sutherland said the meanings we have attached to sexual health most often relate to disease or dysfunction, and don't cover or discuss the notion of sexual pleasure.

"Sex education seems to say, 'You do this and all these dreadful things can happen'; why can't we educate people to think that sex can be pleasurable and life enhancing?" she said.

"It has been found that young women with mothers who encouraged them to talk openly about sexuality and pleasure as they grew up are able to make judgements about positive ways of displaying sexuality and don't take the same kinds of risks as those whose mothers did not speak about it."

There was a silence around sexual pleasure and during her research she had heard many stories of women being too embarrassed to speak about pleasure with health workers, Ms Sutherland said.

This was often an issue of not being able to find the words, due to the young womens' narrow definition of sex as only being about penetration and not inclusive of other forms of intimacy.

"In some South Australian schools, sex education is taught with a focus on intimacy as well, which can start from simply being with friends to the intimacy in closer relationships, and it's trying to help people to think where they are comfortable on that spectrum," she said.

Story by Lisa Toole

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Fiona Sutherland
Photo by Lisa Toole

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