Gender & Sexuality

What Teens Need: Comprehensive Sex Education

Comprehensive sex education is more than teaching about sexuality and reproductive system.

  • December 14, 2021
  • 16 min read
What Teens Need: Comprehensive Sex Education

As they grow older, teenagers need to understand the changes they are experiencing in themselves, not just physically, but also emotionally and socially. This is, in fact, the focus of adolescents’ sexuality education, data, interviews and discussions held by Magdalene have shown. 

In a survey that Magdalene conducted on 405 men and women aged 15-19 years from 32 provinces in Indonesia, 98.5 percent respondents say they need sex education. As many as 31.6 percent think it should be given since they were toddlers, 31.4 percent answered that it should start since elementary school, 27.2 percent answered since junior high school. 



According to Mauren Anindya, a Music Arts teacher at St. Junior High School. John Catholic School, Serpong, South Tangerang, sex education is very important for teenagers because today’s children are different from previous generations. 

“Since I teach music, sometimes the students and I stay for music practice outside of school hours, and they talk about many things, including dating. They already know terms like petting, kissing. Some of the boys were talking about masturbation and the girls said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with it!” even though adults themselves are still reluctant to talk about it. They even said, ‘There are studies that say it is healthy, isn’t it, Miss?’ said Mauren, who is familiarly called Nindy. 

This is why Nindy believes that children need to get sex education. And plus, children are only “one click away” to find any information, she said.

“If they get information [about sexuality] from the wrong source, or with a wrong interpretation, it will impact them the future,” said Nindy. 

Similar opinion is expressed by Masbahur Roziqi, the School Counselor at SMAN 1 Kraksaan, Probolinggo Regency, East Java. Ziqi, as he is popularly called, believes that sex education does not only teach physical changes of adolescents during puberty and their reproductive system, but also what they should pay attention to, what should be avoided, and the concept of consent.

“High school students can be invited to think abstractly – although we, teachers, still have to give them materials related to ‘real’ aspects – like kindness and honor. But, yes, the method at each level must be different,” Ziqi said.

Still, sexuality education remains a contentious issue in Indonesia as well as some other countries. Those who reject sex education often based their arguments on morality, and with a narrow understanding of the content and its impact. 

Because of the stigmas surrounding sex education, the right information doesn’t reach its target. Magdalene’s survey shows most teenagers learn from internet sites, movies or videos. This could be due to a lack of open communication patterns with their parents or guardians as reflected in the answers of 76.8 percent of respondents. Even if the respondents received or knew there was elements related to sexuality education at school, 79.7 percent of them felt it was inadequate. 

So, what kind of sex education materials are available in schools, actually? And what is the ideal sex education for teenagers? 

Also read: What is the Right Way to Teach Sex Education to Children? Here’s What Academics Said

Sex Education in Middle School

Discussion over sex education for adolescents in Indonesia has always been rife with pros and cons. In 2010, after demand for the inclusion of sex education into national curriculum, then National Education Minister Muhammad Nuh was quoted by Antara news agency rejected the appeal. His reasoning: “When it comes to sex, every society will naturally have knowledge about it without having to be taught. So, I don’t agree with the wish to have sex education in schools.”

But demands to include sex education did not stop there. And in 2016, Director of Primary and Secondary Education of the Education and Culture Ministry in the National Education Ministry, Hamid Muhammad, said materials related to sexuality education were finally included in the 2013 curriculum (K-13), under the subject “reproductive health education”. 

Apart from Biology, materials related to reproductive health are also included in Physical Education. However, some have pointed out the modules were still insufficient. Community group SEPERLIMA, which advocates for the provision of reproductive health and sexuality education in primary and secondary schools, says the material for sex and sexuality to be included in those school subjects is still not enough. In 2015, they requested a judicial review of the contents of the Physical and Health Education curriculum in Law no. 20/2003 on the National Education System. However, their application was rejected by the Judicial Court on the grounds that the applicant did not have legal standing.

The request for a judicial review cannot be separated from the context of the increasing number of cases of sexual violence and the transmission of sexual diseases to school children. Chairman of the Indonesian Family Planning Association (PKBI) – a non-profit organization that focuses on health issues and was involved in the effort to request a judicial review to the Constitutional Court – Sarsanto Wibisono Sarwono was quoted by CNN Indonesia as saying, “We can see from recent incidents that HIV transmission, which used to infect working people, now affect junior and senior high school students. Along with drug use, unwanted pregnancy, sexual violence, these issues need to be immediately included in sexuality education. It is like the tip of an iceberg, with larger problems underneath. We need to cut the cycle.”

Furthermore, as PKBI had assessed that the reproductive health module that are part of the curriculum is too basic and general to sufficiently prevent children and adolescents from becoming victims of sexual violence.

“The state has an obligation to improve students’ skill and emotion, not just their cognitive abilities, so they can take care of themselves and protect others from acts of violence and not exploit their friends,” the Executive Director of PKBI Inang Winarso was quoted by Republika as saying.

These aspects are sorely lacking in the reproductive health education modules developed by the Education and Culture Ministry. For example, the ninth grade’s Biology learning module entitled “The Reproductive System Application in Humans” (2020) covers male and female reproductive systems, breastfeeding, and the Family Planning program. In the Physical, Sports, and Health Education (PJOK) module for ninth graders, the material that touches on sexuality focuses on the issue of HIV/AIDS. For the twelfth graders’ PJOK module deals with sexually transmitted diseases. 

The topic of healthy relations, though mentioned in the tenth graders’ PJOK module is addressed normatively – and with heteronormative approach – defining the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships and their impact but leaving out the specifics of sexual violence. Rape is only mentioned in passing in one sentence in the section on sexual deviance: “Sexual deviance is sexual behavior that should not be done. For example, adultery, same-sex love, cohabiting, rape.”

In implementing sex education in schools, Ziqi said the teachers in his school have implemented the prescribed modules, especially in PJOK. However, further efforts to discuss sexuality education more deeply, through a special seminar, for example, have not yet been made. When a related issue is being discussed, it is usually done incidentally, triggered by reports in the media.

Although discussions related to sexuality education in school lessons are still limited, the PKBI still appreciates the progress shown by the government.

“In many of the biology books that I read, for example, they still mainly talk about organs; the rest, such as healthy relationship, is still normative. But, still, I think it’s a good enough progress,” said PKBI’s National Coordinator for Community Empowerment Nora Evriani. 

She stated that the struggle to adopt sex education into national curriculum is not only exclusive to Indonesia, but also in other countries. Advocates for the provision of sex education for teenagers need a better strategy and endurance because things are not going to change overnight. 

“It’s not that easy for the government because there are various factors that must be considered,” Nora said.

Also read: Is It True That Sexual Education Only Talks About Sex?

What Do Teenagers Really Need?

In conducting the survey, Magdalene asked what kind of sex education the respondents needed. Many of the respondents expressed their needs to be educated on issues other than just reproductive health systems and sexually transmitted diseases. Some even mentioned topics that have been divisive in Indonesia, such as sexual violence and consent

“Nasya” (19), a high school graduate from Bandung, said she also needed information about topics such as abusive acts and what usually happens in a sexual intercourse. “Dina” (17) from Bekasi also stated that even though she is familiar with the issue of harassment and what are considered “red flags” in a relationship, she still doesn’t know what to do if she experiences it.

 “Riri” (17) from Bogor said: “Sex education that is not only limited to sex reproductive organs and the concept of abstinence. The education I received at school was only limited to discussing these matters, plus ‘indirect threats’ in the form of explanations about sexually transmitted diseases….[these] alone won’t stop some people from having sex. Therefore, education about safe sex, consent, as well as risks and responsibilities in and after having sex is also very important.”

“Sashi” (19) from Semarang echoed Riri’s comment: “I don’t think abstinence sex ed makes sense because getting married doesn’t automatically make us know everything about sexuality or healthy relationships… I also see the urgency of teaching CSE [comprehensive sexual education] to be quite high because some of my friends have started being sexually active in high school and college.”

UNESCO defines CSE as a curriculum-based teaching and learning process related to the cognitive, emotional, physical, and social aspects of sexuality. The aim of CSE is to equip children and young people with the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values ​​that can empower them and help them develop respectful social and sexual relationships, make a better-informed life decisions and understand that their rights are protected. 

On its website, UNESCO states that CSE is important because, in reality, many young people receive confusing or contradictory information regarding relationships and sex. If properly administered, CSE can encourage young people to make informed decisions regarding relationships and sexuality, as well as anticipate things such as gender-based violence, gender inequality, early and unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases. Without quality and age-appropriate sexuality education for the recipients, the youths will be vulnerable to engaging in risky sexual behavior and sexual exploitation. In addition, CSE also emphasizes positive values ​​that young people need, such as respect, equality, non-discrimination, empathy, and responsibility. 

The PKBI website states the seven components of CSE according to the International Planned Parenthood Association (IPPF): gender, reproductive health and HIV (including other sexually transmitted diseases), sexual rights and human rights, satisfaction, violence, diversity, and human relations. 

Said PKBI’s Nora: “How teens understand themselves, what their self-concept is, and things to help build themselves are there in CSE, besides introduction to reproductive organs and all that.”  

The music teacher, Nindy said that at her school, sex education addresses issues beyond the biological aspects of teenagers. The ninth graders at her school have even received material about sexual harassment, both physical and non-physical or verbal.  

Similarly, Ziqi said that he actively introduces the issue of consent – which doesn’t have to be related to sexual relations – bodily authority, and healthy relations while teaching in class, to groups as well as in individual discussions with students. He uses the definition of sexual violence used by the National Commission on Violence against Women (Komnas Perempuan). Ziqi’s initiative is grounded in everyday reality and the fact that some his students have started dating.  

Teenagers’ need to find out more information about sexuality is also driven by the development of technology and their communication patterns. Social media posts can easily influence their knowledge and perceptions about something, including issues of sexuality and gender. 

Nindy said that ninth-graders at her school were already familiar with the term “sexist”. The sexuality education speaker at St. John also believed that some of the students were sufficiently informed already, as they often asked questions beyond the syllabus.

Challenges in Implementing CSE

There are various factors that make CSE difficult to implement in various countries. According to UNESCO, many teachers are not trained to provide CSE material. In fact not all of them even accept comprehensive sex education. Ziqi has reflected how some fellow teachers at his school are reluctant to provide sex education materials.

Students’ motivation and parents’ role are also other factors that can hinder the implementation of CSE. Often conflict comes when parents reject the CSE offered by the school.

There are also issues of infrastructure, costs, and different priorities in each school. Any changes in policy makers, at ministerial or even local level, can also affect the implementation of sexuality education and lead to coordination issues. Even if the central government has mandated the introduction of sexuality education (or “reproductive health education”, according to the current terminology used by the Education and Culture Ministry), if its implementation is still not evenly distributed in the regions, the optimal results are ultimately difficult to achieve.

Regulations can also hinder the effort to mainstream CSE. In the draft bill of Revision of the Criminal Code that has been debated for the past few years, Article 414 can potentially criminalize people who are “unauthorized” to teach sex education. The article reads: “Everyone who openly displays, offers, broadcasts writings for, or shows children how to obtain contraceptives shall be punished with a maximum fine of category I (maximum Rp. 1 million).”

Nora said that under this law, only professionals who have certain diplomas, such as medical personnel or psychologists, can provide sexuality education materials. In reality, various NGOs employ or engage specially trained volunteers who are not medical personnel or psychologists/psychiatrists to disseminate sex education materials.

“PKBI has a youth program unit or youth center, which involves peer counselors and peer educator volunteers who attend special training, so in PKBI language they are ‘certified’ and have their own abilities, and they are the ones who directly manage the youths,” explained Nora.

“All of them are not professionals, but based on PKBI’s research, teenagers are very welcoming and see them as friends to share their problems. When we bring peer educators to school, they bring modules that contain discussions like the introduction of contraceptives and other stuff. If the draft bill on Criminal Code is passed and enacted, they will certainly be criminalized since they are not professionally certified.” 

In fact, according to him, volunteers like this can be regarded as an extension of the government’s program to reach people at grassroot level.

What Can Be Done? 

Nindy’s school provide a good example of how schools can bring external counselors to provide sex education materials in the absence of capable human resources within the school. St. John Catholic Junior High School (SMP) schedules a special session once a year for sex education seminars.

“[Students] in grades 7, 8, and 9 each get sex education materials. Apart from being categorized by grades, the students are also divided by gender. Then later, they are re-grouped together, because the counselor thinks that it is better to discuss the material in small groups instead of dozens of children together at the same time,” Nindy explained. 

Another strategy that the school enacts is to communicate any lessons or materials that students get at school to their parents, including that on sex education so that parents are not surprised or to prevent from any misperception. This emphasizes the importance of transparency from the school to parents. 

“Every start of the school year, the school will report what it provides, like in a parent-teacher meeting, for example. There, topics related to current issues are also incorporated, including materials related to sexuality. Apart from academics, we are also concerned with children’s physical and mental aspects, how they respond to sexuality,” Nindy said.

“This helps change the minds of parents who initially might see sex education as tabo. They may think, ‘Oh, it turns out  the school sees this as important as an academic issue.’ They will then start to open their minds.”

Meanwhile, according to Ziqi, social media can also be used to increase awareness of the importance of sex education. 

“Apart from the curriculum, reproductive health education can also be delivered through social media. It can reach many children. We can ask, for example, have you seen the Counseling Guidance Instagram? Then, we discuss it in class. So, they already have prior knowledge,” Ziqi said. 

Another strategy that can be done, he thought, is to map out extent of the local government’s commitment in implementing reproductive health education. 

“Are there trainings or capacity building on this, or does it only happen when there are cases?” Ziqi added.

Apart from social media, other mediums can also be used to disseminate information about sexuality education. According to Tina (17), a teenager from South Tangerang, Banten, such information, including about sexual violence, can be put in posters around the school. 

In implementing CSE, Nora emphasized the importance of not doing it half-heartedly.

“It’s okay to make this extracurricular, but it needs to be regular. It may be inserted in Physical and Health Education or other lessons, but not in one meeting, because what modules can be completed in one meeting? It doesn’t matter that the time given [for CSE] is little, as long as it’s always there. Don’t just insert it in a lesson and not covering it comprehensively,” said Nora. 

There are various opinions regarding the naming. Some people, like Tina, feel that calling it “sex education” is counterproductive. It can be problematic and even undermine efforts to disseminate the content. In Indonesia the word “sex” is still largely considered sensitive. But at the same time, putting it as reproductive health education makes the focus more on the biological aspect. 

Ziqi argued that naming it “sexual education” can actually have a better impact: “It would be better if the government calls it Sexuality Education. By calling it what it is, we are also trying to break the old thinking that sexuality only revolves around an intimate relationship between a husband and wife, or extra-marital relationship — so, it is actually quite important.

Nindy proposed that the naming of the subject should be adjusted according to age appropriate. For the school’s annual sexuality education seminars, for example, the topic was “Sex and Health Education.” 

“If junior high school students heard the term reproductive health education, they would go ‘What does it mean?’ We should change it into simple and easy terms that they can understand. Plus, we should look at what is trending on social media, since high school students are very close to that world. Sexuality-related areas are very broad – what is something that is currently viral or being discussed?” she added.


This journalistic project is supported by International Media Support and is a collaboration with the Indonesian Data Journalism Network.

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Patresia Kirnandita

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