A Policy A Day: Youth Sexuality Education

In the lead-up to the election, we are examining a policy a day. We’re exploring a variety of policy areas, explaining the background and analysing some of the policy options, with a mixture of technocracy and values-based approaches. Inevitably, some opinion will make its way in and we make no apology for that – after all, we’re voters too. A list of all the articles is available hereEnjoy!

Today’s post is by Erin Donohue

The Problem
The facts don’t lie. One in three girls in New Zealand will be subject to an unwanted sexual experience before the age of 16. One in five New Zealand women experience a serious sexual assault in their lifetime – for Māori women and girls, these odds are twice as high. One in seven boys may be sexually assaulted by adulthood. In 2014, The Lancet, a British medical journal, found New Zealand to have the third highest sexual assault rate in the world, equal with Australia. In 2016, 20 – 24-year-old women had the highest abortion rate of any other age group. One in 10 females in New Zealand suffer from endometriosis and there is an international 8-year delay in the diagnosis of this debilitating condition.

Unfortunately, these illnesses and assaults will always occur to some degree, but the best way to get the rate of occurrence down is awareness, education, and conversation. If students were taught about consent, about contraception, and about their own bodies, then these statistics potentially wouldn’t be as bad. They would know more about what was right, wrong, and normal. They would be more likely to get help.

The Policy
The Greens have a Youth Affairs policy which contains several sections and subsections. Many of these sections require significant and immediate attention, including youth mental health, suicide rates among LBGTQ+ teens, and work and income support for young people. Under the health and wellbeing section, they have specific points on sexuality education:

  • Ensure the inclusion of comprehensive health, sex, and drug education at intermediate and secondary levels, and improve access to family planning and sexual health services to young people, in particular young women.
  • Ensure the gender-appropriate teaching of self-esteem, self-defence, and sexual health to 10 to 14-year olds.
  • Require the Education Review Office to audit implementation of the health education curriculum.

After my experience of sexual education at high school, this would be a much-needed change. Children and young adults have access to so much information via the internet, some of it uninformed, wrong, and potentially damaging. Therefore, a comprehensive, implemented, inclusive, and diverse sexuality education programme is more important now than ever before.

In 2009, I was taught health and sexual education in a six-week crash course where we learnt mostly about drugs, alcohol, and bullying. We were taught, in a distant and clumsy way, about reproductive organs and briefly about safe sex and STDs. The key message was this: sex will result in pregnancy and/or an STD. Then we were done. So, of course, this policy sounds like a long overdue update to a tired sexuality education system.

The Point
However, this is already happening. In 2013, the Ministry of Education updated its guidelines for teaching sexuality education – the first update since 2002. In the new and improved guidelines, advice included how to broach issues of consent, coercion, and how to keep yourself safe. It reminded schools to be aware of the diversity of students they’re teaching and to consider this when teaching sexuality education. In the New Zealand Curriculum, sexuality education is listed as one of the seven key areas in the health and physical education learning section. Therefore, schools must teach it through all school years. There are sets of achievement objectives that must be met.

The objectives are detailed and are broken into levels and sections. The following ideals should be developed:

  • Knowledge, understandings, and skills relating to sexual health and development: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual
  • Knowledge, understandings, and skills to enhance their sexual and reproductive health, for example, knowledge about the process of conception, contraception, and the skills to make decisions that maintain and enhance their sexual health and experiences
  • Understandings and skills to enhance relationships, for example in relation to friendships, intimate relationships, love, families, and parenting
  • Critical thinking, reflection, and social-action skills related to issues of equity, gender, body image, sexualisation, risk, and safety.
  • Personal and interpersonal skills and related attitudes, including:
    • personal rights and responsibilities, including consent
    • the skills needed to examine people’s attitudes, values, beliefs, rights, and responsibilities
    • attitudes of respect for themselves and other people
    • attitudes of care and concern for themselves and other people
    • ethical values
    • effective communication skills, problem-solving, and decision-making skills.

What needs to be achieved and taught at various levels of education is pretty comprehensive and well-rounded. Level one targets students in early primary school through to level eight, aimed at senior high school students. The Greens saying they’ll ensure a comprehensive sexual education programme is a simple check-of-a-box. It already exists and is currently being implemented in schools. The statement that they will ‘require the Education Review Office to audit implementation of the health education curriculum’ is already legally required.

Looking Forward
There are still areas in which to improve. School boards are free to decide how to teach sexuality education – enabling schools to have one-off lecture-style lessons or a full six-week course in which questions are welcome and the environment is more inclusive and supportive. Consultation with the community is required but that may come in many forms and with varying degrees of input. Programmes are available to enable teachers to deliver sexuality education in a clear and factual manner but these are not compulsory.

The Education Review Office concluded schools that spent 12 – 15 hours a year on sexuality education had the most effective programmes. Surely, at least 12 – 15 hours is needed to cover all of the required material in a way that is informative and effective for students. There is no point teaching it if it will not make any difference.

The Greens have no action or plan behind the statements made in their policy. They are empty words. There are still ways in which positive change can be made to sexuality education teaching, including the way in which it’s taught and the training required for teachers.

It comes back to the statistics. Obviously, we can do better. The Greens have it right in that we should focus on the education programme to fix the larger problem. Currently though, there’s no up-to-date statement of what they’ll do or how they’ll do it. And that’s just as bad as not saying anything.

Erin Donohue is a Wellington-based writer, with a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Whitireia. Her debut young adults novel, Because Everything Is Right but Everything Is Wrong, is coming out soon!

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