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Young Australians and sexual health: Snapshot

Lynette McGaurr

More than just Sex Ed

A number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are becoming more prevalent in Australia, and young people are among those at highest risk. Sexual health education and social marketing programs can increase knowledge of STIs, but knowledge alone does not always translate into safer sexual practice.

This Snapshot offers a brief overview of current knowledge about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young Australians and outlines the role of education and social marketing in reducing the prevalence of STIs.

First, some statistics...

Who’s having sex?

Approximately one-quarter of Year 10, a third of Year 11 and half of Year 12 students had ever had sexual intercourse.

In an article published in 2010, Associate Professor Juliette Goldman of Griffith University observed that the age range within which first sexual intercourse is likely to occur has not altered appreciably for some time, falling between 15 and 19 years in most parts of the world.

In terms of sexual health, it is important to know whether sexually active young people employ safe sex practices.


Who’s using condoms?

The 2013 Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society survey of high school students in Years 10, 11 and 12 found only 43.4 per cent of sexually active respondents reported always using a condom when they had sex the previous year, whereas 39 per cent reported using condoms sometimes, and 13 per cent reported never using them. In this survey, sexually active young women were less likely than sexually active young men to have used a condom the previous year.


Barriers to safe sex practice

To understand how to increase safe practices and make a difference to the sexual health of young people, we need to understand the reasons young people may not always practice safe sex.

  • Contraception often a higher priority for heterosexual young people
  • Assumptions, miscommunications and embarrassment
  • Lack of preparation
  • Unwanted sex
  • Lack of information for same-sex-attracted young people
  • Multiple partners
  • Failure to be tested for STIs
  • Problems with condoms


Making a difference

Current study shows that providing information to young people on sexual health isn't enough. Here are some issues to keep in mind when developing services and programs.

What young people say

ARCSHS research indicates that young people consider sexual education programs in schools and the teachers of these programs to be important sources of trusted information.

What educators say

A national survey of sex education teachers conducted in 2010 revealed that the majority believed programs were effective in passing on knowledge but less successful in reducing risk-taking behaviour.

Respectful relationships

Knowing what is an help young people tackle the sometimes tricky problem of discussing safe sex, as well as being better equipped to make decisions.

Peer education

in Australia and overseas, peer-led sexual health education has received a great deal of attention in recent years. However, it is not yet clear that it leads to less risky sexual behaviour.

Sexual health clinics and youth services

There is evidence that good-quality counselling can be a cost-effective way to change behaviour


Multifaceted and integrated sexual health education with a strong emphasis on healthy and respectful relationships is critical to addressing some of the underlying misconceptions among young people and adults they come in contact with that are contributing to unsafe sexual practices.

More information

Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet

Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health & Society, La Trobe University

Burnet Institute

Centre for Social Research in Health, University of New South Wales

Get the facts, Western Australia Government

Kids Help Line
1800 55 1800

Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity in Society, University of New South Wales

Let them know (for help telling sexual partners who may be at risk)

Melbourne Sexual Health Centre

Multicultural Health Communication, New South Wales Government

Queensland sexual health clinics, Queensland Government

Safe Sex. No Regrets, Northern Territory Government

Sexual Health and Family Planning Australia

Sexual Health Information, Networking and Education SA

Sexual Health Plus, New South Wales Government

SNAKE Condoms

STIs are spreading fast: Always use a condom, Australian Government

Talk Soon. Talk Often, Tasmanian Government

Talk Soon. Talk Often, Western Australian Government

Tasmanian Council on AIDS, Hepatitis and Related Diseases

Youth Empowerment Against HIV/AIDS (YEAH) & Red Aware