Let’s talk about sex

Why do we need better sexuality education?

This blog discusses statistics around sexual harm.

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A chalkboard with ‘Let’s Talk Sex’ written in a block font. Source: The Conversation

“Sex is like boxing. If one of the parties didn’t agree to participate, the other one is committing a crime”

That’s TV host John Oliver’s take on consent. It’s an issue that’s increasingly in the media spotlight, yet some young Kiwis have their first sexual experiences without any understanding of what consent is or why it’s important.

Mikey Brenndorfer is a nurse at a youth health service in Auckland. He often works with young people from a nearby religious high school, which he says offers very little sexuality education and no guidance on consent.

“I’ve had kids describing their first sexual experiences to me and I’ve had to say, ‘That sounds kind of like assault to me. Have you thought of making a report to the police?’, says Mikey.

“They’re so ashamed that they just giggle and laugh.

“These are kids who have never been told what healthy consent is.”

Mikey says many Kiwi young people have almost unlimited access to porn, yet very limited access to sexuality education.

While some of the young people who consult Mikey after a sexual assault are suffering from bruises and other physical injuries, the emotional impact of unhealthy sexual relationships often takes longer to appear.

“We see young people with stress, anxiety, low mood and difficulty trusting future partners because of what happened when they first started having sex,” he says.

“It’s also important to remember that sex education shouldn’t just be about consent. I often have to explain to young people that sex is supposed to be fun.”

Consent in the classroom

In 2014, a cross party inquiry found that sex education programmes in schools were “fragmented and uneven”.

It also found that our high teenage pregnancy result was partly the result of inconsistent and sometimes non-existent sex education, which the Education Review Office had been “very passive” in monitoring.

In 2015, revised Ministry of Education guidelines advised schools for the first time to include consent and coercion in sexuality education.

But schools aren’t required to teach according to the new guidelines. There’s no required teaching about consent or sexual violence prevention.

It’s left entirely up to each school to decide how it teaches sexuality education, providing it consults the community every two years.

There’s also little consistency in who provides sexuality education. Last year, Stuff reported that fewer than half of secondary schools were using either of the two government-endorsed programmes designed to teach teens about healthy relationships and consent.

The impact of #MeToo

Fiona McNamara, general manager of the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network, says sexuality education in New Zealand remains varied and inconsistent.

“Some schools have good-quality comprehensive sexuality education covering a range of topics, and some schools have much less and don’t cover consent at all.”

She believes it should be compulsory for schools to provide information around consent and healthy relationships.

“Lots of people were taken aback when the #MeToo movement hit the media. It humanised the statistics, showing that a huge number of people have been affected by sexual violence,” she says.

“Sexuality education can be effective in helping young people learn to have healthy relationships. These conversations don’t have to be scary and full-on — they can be done in a safe and positive way.”

Ending sexual violence

While the trigonometry you learned in school may or may not be useful as an adult, sex is a fundamental part of life for most of us.

And it happens whether or not we’re taught about it at school.

That’s why sexuality education in schools isn’t an issue that only affects parents and children — it has an impact on all of us.

Up to one in three girls in New Zealand is subjected to an unwanted sexual experience by the age of 16. The figures are even higher for Māori girls.

Reported statistics for boys in New Zealand vary, but international studies suggest one in seven boys is subjected to a sexual assault.

To make our society safer for everyone, we need a huge cultural shift — and our schools are an obvious place to start.

Join the fight

ActionStation is campaigning to end sexual violence in our communities for good.

Providing sexuality education in schools is a vital first step towards achieving this goal.

That’s why it’s the first of three ‘asks’ in a petition we’ll be delivering to the House of Representatives before the May 2019 Budget.

We’re aiming for 50,000 signatures — will yours be among them?

To join the fight for our safety, click here to sign the petition and share it with your friends and whānau.

We work together to create a society where people and planet are more important than profit and Te Tiriti o Waitangi is honoured.

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