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March 26, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Wake Up and Smell the Condoms

Banana and condom demonstrations, cringy 80s abstinence videos, and horrific STI photos forever burnt into our retinas — sex ed is memorable to say the least. However, for a lot of New Zealanders, sex ed can be memorable in all the wrong ways. Students walk away having learnt about STIs and pregnancy, but still ignorant about healthy relationships, consent, and anything outside the heterosexual, cisgender norm.

According to an Auckland University study 16-24 year olds are the most at risk demographic for sexual assault. Further international studies have shown that young people lack proper understanding as to what constitutes rape — such as the infamous study by the journal Violence and Gender, which found that men were overwhelmingly more likely to admit to sexually coercive behaviour if the word “rape” was not used. Studies such as these clearly point to young people vitally needing sex ed that goes further than putting condoms on phallic shaped fruits.

A fortnight ago, law students protesting the recent sexual assault allegations at Wellington law firm Russell McVeagh highlighted the need for better consent education. This protest is just the latest of a series of controversies, protests, and petitions. In March last year there were rape comments made online by Wellington College students, and a teacher at St Patrick’s Silverstream was the victim of sexual harassment. On August 7, a petition was presented to parliament from Wellington high school students demanding  “better, more consistent sexuality education,” signed by over 5000 high school students. Students and teachers alike are calling for change.

VUW students have had varying experiences with high school sex ed. One ex-VUW student, who had attended an all girls high school in Dunedin, said that almost all of her education had been abstinence based: “The most damaging thing about sex ed at my school was ‘the only truly safe way is to abstain’…  that’s such shitty advice.” Another theme was the lack of non-heterosexual education with the same respondent saying: “It was like heterosexual intercourse is this big, dirty, even sinful thing, but any other sexual identity was even worse. It wasn’t even mentioned, not in 7 years. So for years it was a struggle to accept that I was allowed to diverge from that heterosexual narrative.” Another VUW student spoke about how some of the information given was factually incorrect: “The only actual thing I took away was that apparently you could, as an alternative to contraception, look at the colour, smell, and consistency of your vaginal discharge to judge whether you had a lesser chance of getting pregnant.” Respondents to the Thursdays in Black — In Our Own Words survey on sexuality education noted that students have had positive experiences with safe sex and contraception education in school, but average, below average, or no experience with topics of gender, sexuality, consent, and healthy relationships.

Another aspect to this is that often in religious high schools, sexuality education is included not in the health curriculum but in the religion curriculum. One respondent to the TIB survey replied, “[I went to a] Catholic Girls High School. Sex ed was taught by Religious Studies teacher who believed that there are no genders other than boy and girl, he also thought that when people were with same sex partners it was just a phase”. Another said, “I attended a co-ed Catholic school that centred sexual education around being the ‘Eve’ to a man’s ‘Adam’… a lot of [using] shame as a means of control, rather than education about sex, safety, and consent”. Another respondent said that at his Catholic high school they were made to watch three separate uncensored birthing videos for their sexuality education.

Introduced in the 1920s, sex ed originally included eugenics-based ideas surrounding the need to expand the white New Zealand population. There was a public push for more extensive sex ed in the 1960s, with increasing STI and teen pregnancy rates, and the establishment of groups like New Zealand Family Planning Association. However, the 1954 Police Officers Amendment Act, which banned the teaching of contraception to people under 16, slowed progress. Later national movements advocating greater reproductive freedom, as well as the HIV/AIDS crisis, encouraged the education sector to rethink their approach. In 1984 New Zealand adopted sexuality education into the health curriculum, however specifying that teachers would have to consult with parents — a specification that remains today.

The New Zealand education curriculum does not set in stone what teachers have to teach. This means that rather than having formal content guidelines, teachers have a list of possible Standards to choose from, and write the content themselves. The only checks and balances on the quality of the education is consultation with the school board and parents, and ERO reports. One student teacher in the field told Salient, “Even though they have people coming in to check that health is being taught, there’s no consequences if it’s not being taught adequately”. They also raised the question of who is properly trained to teach sexuality education, saying: “My background is health science with a major in sports and exercise, and we learn anatomy of the sexual organs, but nothing to do with consent or sexuality. But somehow that qualifies me to take health subjects […] I think it’s an odd link. Historically it’s been dumped on the PE staff whether they’re trained for it or not”. The same student did however stress that inclusivity and positivity were stressed to education students as elements they should include.

A Wellington-based high school teacher pointed out the difficulties variables can play in providing comprehensive sex ed. In her school, consent and sexual assault was addressed at higher levels of the health curriculum, meaning it wasn’t compulsory. A major problem was trying to get more time dedicated towards the health curriculum. She said despite her wanting more time dedicated to health, there was often conflict between different faculties over who would get curriculum hours.

In 2001 the NZ Ministry of Health published the Sexuality and Reproductive Health Strategy. While a massive step forward from NZ’s past with sexuality education, it did include some questionable elements. While the strategy does state that positive attitudes towards sexuality are a priority, the major focus is on STIs and teen pregnancy, and the overwhelming theme is the negative consequences of sex. A study in 2010 by Sue Jackson and Ann Weatherall claimed that the SRHS’s emphasis is “clearly on the socially undesirable outcomes of intercourse, particularly for young people,” and that while it “begins by stating that positive sexuality and sexual health are Government priorities,” it quickly shifts focus to “‘negative’ aspects of sexual activity; New Zealand’s increasing rates of STIs and high levels of unwanted pregnancies”.

Above all the problem with sex ed is the inconsistency. Not every sex ed lesson is a total horror story! But there are widespread discrepancies as to what students are being taught. New Zealand is an atrocious country when it comes to gender-based violence, compared to overseas — meaning we need to have a long hard think about how we want to raise the next generation. There desperately needs to be a shift in thinking from sex ed being purely a health-based lesson that identifies genital warts, to something that fully encompasses all social elements of sex. The New Zealand curriculum already has achievement objectives surrounding understanding relationships, identity, sensitivity, respect, and interpersonal skills, but there needs to be a direct connection between what is recommended on paper, and what children are actually learning.

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