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Let's talk about sex: opening speech to young women's conference hosted by the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, Randwick Sydney.

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Let's talk about sex Opening speech to young women's conference hosted by the Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, Randwick Sydney

13 Friday 2007


Traditional owners.


Members of parliament don’t often get to talk about sex - or if they do, it’s for all the wrong reasons.

While it’s taboo for most, it can become a life long obsession for others.

Take Senator Brian Harradine for example.

Senator Harradine was an Independent Senator from Tasmania from 1975 to 2005. He was well known as a social conservative.

During the mid 1990’s Harradine held the balance of power in the Senate.

This meant that the way he voted could make or break or legislation. He used that power to make deals with the government to push his own moral agenda.

The Australian Reproductive Health Alliance lists some Senator Harradine’s coups as:

• “the scrapping of multi-million dollar international aid population program; o a ban on information, education or any communication about unsafe or safe abortion; o a ban on any training of medical personnel in safe abortion techniques;


o a ban on access to emergency contraception in the aid program; and

• a ban on access to RU486 within Australia without ministerial approval.” 1

The most well-known of these is the ban on RU 486. In February last year, a coalition of Democrats Leader Lyn Allison, the Nationals’ Fiona Nash, Liberal Judith Troeth and Labor’s Claire Moore introduced a Bill in the Senate to remove

Ministerial veto powers over RU486.

RU486 is a synthetic steroid which is used to induce what is known as a medical abortion. RU486 is legal in the United Kingdom, the United States and many other countries. Access to RU486 won’t increase the rate of abortions, but it may give some women a choice about whether to have a medical or a surgical termination.

This bill was supported by a majority in both houses of Parliament, and followed enormous leadership from the four women who introduced the bill and worked across party lines, doing the numbers to get it passed. I think it gave a lot of people

some hope that the parliament is slowly becoming a little more in tune with Australian society when it comes to reproductive health.

A sexualised society

I’m particularly happy to be asked to open a conference with a focus on sex education, because I’ve been thinking for a while that it’s an area in which we need to do better.

There are some people who think they protect young people by keeping them ignorant about sex. Nothing is further from the truth.

Most young people are bombarded daily with sexualised images. Unless we talk about sex in the context of healthy human relationships, what young people will be left with is the commercialised, transactionalised view of sex that comes from too many ads and too much internet pornography.

Teachers tell me that the rise in use of the internet - and the ready access to sexualised images that it brings - now presents a significant new challenge for teaching young people.

They might not have any doubts about the mechanics of sex, or what bodies look like undressed, but they may lack an understanding of issues like consent, safe sex, contraception and so on.

Over exposure to sexualised images may encourage young people who aren’t ready for sex to think that everyone is doing it and they should too. Many experts argue that early exposure to pornography is having a measurable effect on young men and their attitudes towards women, and some evidence suggests frequent exposure increases the risk they will become sexually violent.

1 The Australian Reproductive Health Alliance, The AusAID Family Planning Guidelines: the facts.

Sexual and reproductive health education

According to a recent survey conducted the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society the majority of young people in years 10 and 12 were sexually active in some way.

About 25 per cent of year 10 students and 50 per cent of year 12 students have had sexual intercourse.2

In a paper titled, Sexual Health Education in Australia, Professor Anne Mitchell claims that:

We live in an increasingly sexualised society in which young people struggle to make sense of messages around them often without the assistance of sophisticated, authoritative and comprehensive sexual health education program….Sexual health education in Australian secondary schools is at present inconsistent and ad hoc and has been so for many years.

I was interested to hear recently that the Public Health Association of Australia and Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia believe part of the answer is a National Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy. They say that there is a need for:

The Australian Government to position sexual and reproductive health as a national health priority and to develop a comprehensive and evidence- based national sexual and reproductive health strategy.3

It is disappointing that at a time when we are experiencing this steady increase in the commercialisation of sex in our society, the Howard Government has neglected to take any leadership in this area.

And while there is no sexual health strategy the Federal government does have a strategy for educating teenagers about the hidden costs of parenthood.

In its most recent Federal budget the Government announced it would spend $500,000 over the next year to develop an educational resource for high school students on the financial issues and responsibilities that arise from becoming a teen parent.

We’ll see what they come up with, but I suspect the money would have been better spent on improving our sexual and reproductive health education and delaying a few of those pregnancies.

2 Smith, A, Agius, P, Dyson, S, Mitchell, A & Pitts, M (2003) Secondary Students and Sexual Health: 3rd National Survey of Australian Secondary Students, HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health. Australian Research Centre In Sex. 3

Public Health Association of Australia call for a National Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy document.

Sex and consent

I am interested in better sexual health education and I’m also interested in respectful relationships being a core part of a sexual health education program.

A recent survey of secondary students showed that one quarter of all sexually active young people had unwanted sex. Pressures from sexual partners and drunkenness played a large role in unwanted sex according to respondents.4

Parents, teachers and peer groups may have different views about when it is acceptable to have sex. Everyone should agree, however, that unwanted sex is not acceptable.

In my view sexual health education should be more than an old film about the nuts and bolts of procreation (or how to avoid it) and include discussion about how young people negotiate sexual activity. It should focus - in a sex positive way - on creating relationships built around respect. It should also promote an understanding of ethical and mutual sexual relations. It should be very clear about issues of consent and peer pressure.

In looking at the conference program I was pleased to see that several of the papers at this conference are looking these issue, as well as other vital topics such teenage mothering, issues of sexuality and sexual health in specific groups such as women with disabilities, indigenous women and women from other culturally and

linguistically diverse communities.

All in all it looks like a fascinating program of papers and events and I am delighted to open the conference.


For more information, please contact Tanya Plibersek’s office on (02) 9357 6366 or visit the Federal Labor website at

4 Smith, A, Agius, P, Dyson, S, Mitchell, A & Pitts, M (2003) Secondary Students and Sexual Health: 3rd National Survey of Australian Secondary Students, HIV/AIDS and Sexual Health. Australian Research Centre In Sex.