Schools urged to get ‘cliterate’ about sex education

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Students should be shown better diagrams or 3D models of female anatomy in sex education classes so that they can properly understand their bodies and what is normal, experts say.

The quality of sexuality education in schools has been described as a lottery, given it greatly varies depending on the resources, approach and teachers that individual schools dedicate to it.

Occupational therapist and Cliterate founder Anita Brown-Major.Credit: Chris Hopkins

Students and sex education leaders say this is leaving teens unaware of correct terminology for genitalia, unable to distinguish different parts of the female anatomy and confused about what a normal body looks like, despite the increased focus on age-appropriate sexuality and consent education.

Occupational therapist Anita Brown-Major said when her daughters received sex education at school, she was surprised how little it had evolved. “As a mum, from an education point of view, they’re not learning this in school. They’re still using the same 2D images that I learnt at school,” she said.

Brown-Major created Cliterate – a demountable 3D model of the vulva that includes the full clitoris – alongside RMIT University industrial design senior lecturer Judith Glover.

The pair have trialled the model in high schools, which induced awkward giggling, but students also liked the interactive nature of it. “It’s a bit of a puzzle – putting it together and then pulling it apart,” Brown-Major said.

Cliterate: The model of a vulva which is detachable and serves as an educational tool. Credit: Chris Hopkins

“We would just like the right anatomy to be taught. So we spend a lot of time teaching about conception and babies but not actually about what your anatomy looks like?

“We know through research that it is more normal for inner labia to protrude. It’s more normal to be asymmetrical. And vulvas are all as different as people’s faces.”

Sex education is part of the Victorian Curriculum, mandated for government and Catholic schools, and adopted in many independent schools. Schools don’t require permission from parents to teach it, but parents can choose for their children not to attend.

Brandon Friedman is the founder of Elephant Ed, which delivers consent and sex education workshops to more than 400 schools across Australia. He said that while some schools were excelling others had “a long way to go” and were “kind of starting from scratch”.

“I wouldn’t be a surprised to find many people who still don’t know the correct terminology of their own body parts,” Friedman said.

“I think it does, unfortunately, come down to case by case for each school. What that resourcing looks like, what their staffing will look like, and how they can actually dedicate time and resources to these areas.”

A 2021 study of 171 female and 20 male patients in UK hospital waiting rooms found that, regardless of their gender, half couldn’t identify the urethra on a diagram of a vulva, while 37 per cent mislabelled the clitoris. Only 46 per cent correctly identified that women had three “holes”.

Deakin University lecturer in health education and student wellbeing Dr Claire Stonehouse’s 2016 study of 21 women aged 18 to 28 found that most didn’t know what the vulva was. The majority said they weren’t sure what normal genital anatomy looked like and that high school sexual education had not helped them to understand their own bodies.

Stonehouse said this could lead to women or girls having a warped view of what a normal vulva was, and then wrongly believe they were abnormal. “We are in desperate need of professional learning so that teachers have the knowledge, understanding, and skills to teach in the way the curriculum demands,” she said.

Only Deakin and Curtin universities currently offer pre-service teachers a compulsory unit on teaching sexuality and relationships education.

Sienna Gladstone, an 18-year-old executive on the Victorian Student Representative Council, said that her school’s sex education had been a lot more focused on male reproductive health.

She said there had been no models of female anatomy in classrooms, but rather an example of male anatomy to demonstrate how to use a condom.

“I think any new source of information or any new tool or model that’s implemented within the classrooms will always be reached with pushback because people don’t like new things,” Gladstone said. But she said it could help make girls feel more comfortable in their own bodies.

Vanessa Hamilton, a sexuality and health educator with Talking the Talk, said: “It is a bit of a lottery … regarding the quantity and quality of the delivery of the sexuality education in schools.”

Hamilton said that teachers need to be well-trained and well-resourced when delivering this nuanced and sensitive topic – but many weren’t. Friedman said it would be important for educators using a 3D model, or even explaining a 2D diagram, to explain how different vulvas were.

Stonehouse said while a 3D model would be a good resource, extra funding might be better spent on professional development for teachers on how to deliver sexuality education.

A Department of Education spokesperson said age-appropriate sexuality education was about supporting all students to feel empowered in their bodies and feel well-equipped to engage in healthy relationships.

“Schools are supported to provide students with sexuality education that includes realistic and age-appropriate diagrams of genitalia, including the vulva, vagina and clitoris.”

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