A national survey of Australian high school students, conducted in 2013, identified that approximately one-quarter of Year 10, a third of Year 11 and half of Year 12 student have had sexual intercourse. While the age at which young people are likely to first engage in sexual intercourse – between 15 and 19 years of age – has remained fairly stable, in recent years rates of some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in young Australians have been increasing.
Research suggests that the most effective defence against STIs is consistent use of condoms. However, young people are often vulnerable to infection because their condom use is intermittent. Safe sexual practice can mean different things to different young people. Many associate the term “safe sex” with the avoidance of pregnancy, so if a young woman is using oral contraception, she and her partner may not discuss using condoms.
The barriers to safe sexual practice are complex, and many stem from confusion, embarrassment or lack of preparation. Young Australians rely on information from a multitude of sources, from schools to peers to sexual health services, as well as the media. High school students indicate that they consider sexual education programs and the teachers delivering programs to be important sources of trusted information. However, a 2010 survey of sex education teachers revealed that while programs were effective at passing on knowledge, they were less successful in reducing risk-taking behaviour.
In order to address some of the underlying misconceptions among young people and adults, which may contribute to unsafe sexual practices, there is a critical need for multifaceted and integrated sexual health education that brings together many resources and support structures, with a strong emphasis on healthy and respectful relationships.
For more information, see Face the Facts: Young Australians and sexual health. The briefing offers an overview of current knowledge about rates and the transmission of HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia and human papilloma virus (HPV) among young Australians, and considers the role of education and social marketing in reducing the prevalence of STIs. It discusses the barriers to safe sexual practices encountered by young people, and the interrelationship between physical, mental and social wellbeing and its relevance to sexual health.