Sexual education in NZ

Is it educating everyone?

Establishing the facts

Photo: Huffington Post. 

Since its inception sexual education in New Zealand has undergone significant developments.

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, Te Ara, tells the story of New Zealand’s history of sexual education dating back to the late 1960s.

Initial education programmes were referred to as ‘sex hygiene’ and focused on sexual purity and marriage preparation.

It wasn’t until 1987 that a new health syllabus titled ‘Understanding Change in Puberty’ was introduced to New Zealand schools.

This marked the beginning of a movement towards a more holistic approach to sexuality education.

The foundation of the current New Zealand Curriculum is defined by the hauora model, which incorporates physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects in health.

Just last year The Ministry of Education revised their Sexuality Education Guide; last published in 2002.

This revision was purposed to assist New Zealand state and state-integrated schools to comply with the requirements of the Education Act 1989 and consult with the school community as to how to best implement the health curriculum.

Amongst the updates content is the recommendation to teach gender identity, sexuality politics and diversity to Senior Secondary students.

However such recommendations are in no way compulsory for all schools to attend; the information included in sexual education programmes dependant on each individual school.

Hastings Girls’ High School, Katie Geary, has taught sexual education classes and will soon be involved in deciding how the delivery and content of sexual education classes in her school can be improved.

“In the level two and three NCEA classes we cover what’s called sexuality education. It’s basically terminology such as transgender, asexual, bisexual and transexual. We also look at how they are perceived by society and whether they are included or not included. Then we look at different strategies the girls can come up with to help them be more included in society and in schools,” she says.

As a health teacher Mrs Geary says she is pleased with the depth of information senior students are taught, however she expressed her concerns about the limited information given to younger students.

At Hastings Girls’ High school students must enroll in Physical Education classes in NCEA level two in order to start learning about diverse sexualties and the wider implications of marginalisation.

This is due to the age and maturity levels of the 12 and 13 year old students make it harder to teach diversity.

However Mrs Geary says increasing numbers of transgender students are an indication of the school’s need to be more inclusive of diverse sexualities in sexual education classes.

Mrs Geary says more should be done to ensure that teachers are equipped to effectively teach comprehensive sexual education.

“I think more education for teachers needs to happen. So that we know the appropriate way to teach things when it comes to subjects like transgender and different sexualities. It needs to be improved and added on in year 9, and I’d love for it to carry on in year 10… just to have that continuity and to put it out there more so it becomes the norm and not such a struggle for people going through those issues,” she says.

Auckland University Lecturer in the School of Counselling, Human Services and Social Work, Dr John Fenaughty, says the curriculum's ability to educate young people is strongly dependant on the ability of the educators to confidently deliver the information.

“We can have a fantastic curriculum and brilliant guidelines, but if we don’t have educators that are supported by their school, by their school’s community and through quality professional learning and development to deliver that curriculum then that’s when I think we run into problems.” 

According to Dr Fenaughty, sexuality education provides a unique opportunity to contribute to an inclusive environment; the revised 2015 Sexuality Education Guide providing a good framework for teachers in schools.

“Those [Sexuality Education Guidelines] are really important and really useful guidelines because they clearly articulate a range of considerations for schools to keep in mind, especially regarding those more fluid gender and sexuality identities that weren’t so heavily emphasised in the previous guidelines,” he says.

However Dr Fenaughty expressed his concern regarding the ability of parents to exclude their children from sexual education, saying this could limit the significant health benefits that derive from a sexually literate group of people.

According to The Education Act 1989 (revised in 2001) parents and caregivers may write to the principal requesting to have their child excluded from any particular element of sexuality education in the health education programme.

“The other big challenge is around family and community willingness for schools to deliver comprehensive sexuality education and that can be a real limitation. If the community is nervous or isn’t agitating for high quality sexuality education then that can mean that the school won’t necessarily see any reason to privilege this or give it significant resources,” he says.

Dr Fenaughty says there can be a range of negative outcomes for young people who don’t feel confident in knowing what’s going to happen with their bodies, how to have positive relationships and how to navigate sexuality.

However not all those involved in the education workforce and academia agree that New Zealand sexual education needs to be improved.

Hingaia Peninsula School teacher Kreas Padayachee has seven years of teaching experience and says there are plenty of sexual education resources for school teachers in New Zealand.

Having predominately taught primary and intermediate students, Mr Padayachee says hauora education and Special Educational Needs Coordinators (counsellors) sets most schools up to effectively deal with issues of sensitive nature.

“There have been instances were a child has struggled with themselves as a person but that’s anyone in that age group. Any other teacher would tell you it’s about building up a relationship and making sure that the student is in a safe place so they feel comfortable with themselves,” he says.

Despite not having to complete any sexual education papers in his education degree, Mr Padayachee believes there are big efforts being made to promote diversity teaching at masters and postgraduate level.

“With health education that comes under curriculum knowledge. They only time you explore ideas in regards to gender and sexuality would be under diversity’s about giving teachers strategies to deal with it [diversity] and there’s heaps of resources out there at the moment,” he says.

Mr Padayachee says although educators may not be equipped to effectively deliver sexual education it is not the fault of the teachers.

“It’s more about building confidence in teachers so that they can teach it [diverse sexual education]. And that’s not at teacher level, that’s at principle and management and leadership level,” he says.

Equal but seperate?

Ariki Tane says his sexual education was inadequate. Photo: Anneke Smith.

The gay community has commonly been excluded from sexual education in New Zealand in the past.

Same-sex marriage became legal in New Zealand on the 19th August 2013, yet male homosexuals continue to be marginalised by the heteronormative culture of sexual education.

Animation College student, Claude Olivier, is a bisexual male who believes the sexual education he received during catholic schooling wasn’t adequate.

The 21 year old recalls feeling “excluded” from the education his peers were receiving and making uninformed sexual decisions as a direct result of this.

Mr Olivier engaged in anal sex without the use of condoms when he first became sexually active; thinking they were unnecessary as males couldn’t fall pregnant.

“In terms of sex education we had, maybe in total, six hours of the entire of my high school dedicated to it. That was basically our pe teacher just saying “such and such is this, you do this and this, don't do this, you guys know the rest”. We were like “no we kinda don’t because this only covers a very limited aspect of a whole spectrum”, so what we had to do was essentially crowdsource our sexual education because our teachers felt it was awkward to talk about and then didn’t know how to approach it,” he says.

He says he counts himself lucky in that he quickly learnt the seriousness of this misconception and didn’t receive any sexually transmitted infections.

“It’s kind of amazing how, I wouldn’t say naive but, uninformed people can be especially at a young age. Now I know what to do and what not to do but still, it’s kind of frightening to see.”

One alternative means of sexual education in New Zealand is the New Zealand AIDS Foundation (NZAF); New Zealand’s national HIV preventions and health services organisation.

Funded by the New Zealand Ministry of Health and donations from businesses and individuals, their work involves HIV prevention and community engagement, testing and health services, science and advocacy.

Since New Zealand’s first HIV diagnosis in 1984 the efforts of the NZAF have been preventative measures; predominantly though condom promotional campaigns and free HIV testing.

While these public efforts have not gone unnoticed, these advances are overshadowed by the concerning rise of HIV diagnosis in New Zealand.

According to the NZAF 2016 annual report, 2015 is the fourth consecutive year that the number of gay and bisexual men diagnosed with HIV has increased.

General Manager of Operations at the New Zealand Aids Foundation, Nick Laing, says men who engage in anal sex are 18 times more likely to transmit HIV than those who engage in vaginal sex.

“It’s definitely a concern for us as an organisation and I think that any new HIV infection is a real concern. Particularly at the moment we’re in an environment where we’ve got a number of options to try and prevent new infections. What’s going to be key is working to ensure that people who are at risk have the access to the options that they can use to prevent themselves from getting HIV,” he says.

Access to options has been reflected in many of the HIV prevention programmes for gay and bisexual men.

In 2009 the NZAF launched social marketing campaign ‘Get It On’ to target gay and bisexual men and encourage the behaviour of maintaining the use of condoms every time they have sex.

This campaign has since evolved into Love Your Condom, and continues to work as a strategy to prevent HIV through audience interaction and brand engagement.

According to Mr Laing, the condom-focused campaigns are based on research that concludes a higher likelihood of consistent condom use if young, gay and bisexual men use a condom the first time they have sex.

“I think one of the things we’ve been really successful at as an organisation is raising visibility, particularly through our Love Your Condom campaign and with our recent work encouraging people to test for HIV specifically. I guess because we’ve raised that level of visibility and there is a vacuum of other key information then that is obviously going to fill a gap,” he says.

Mr Laing says the New Zealand education system is not doing enough to cater to this males who don’t identify as heterosexual.

“I think sexuality education is really important in general and I think it’s something that we generally don’t do well in New Zealand. I think that in particular if we’re talking about risk of STIs and HIV it’s really important to discuss that as well as looking at the things that young people need to think about in order to keep themselves and their partner safe. Part of that as well is also talking about the comparative risks for different infections and also to talk about condom use, healthy relationships and how to negotiate healthy pleasurable sex lives,” he says.

Although unable to comment on whether or not the Ministry of Education and the NZAF would ever merge together, Mr Laing advocated for the importance of such alternative avenues of education for non-heterosexual males.

“The work that we do is really important. We continue to raise the profile of significant health issues that affect gay and bisexual men disproportionately in this country.”

Ariki Tane’s personal experience with sexual education in New Zealand reflect a different concern for males not receiving quality information in their schooling.

The 24 year old homosexual says he “fell through the cracks” throughout his secondary school sexual education.

“I feel like my primary source of education through school was probably in high school, but in saying that there was nothing [taught] whatsoever about gay sex, lesbian sex or anything like that. There was no touch bases on gender differences or transexuals. It was basically reproductive,” he says.

Growing up in Invercargill Mr Tane says he began watching porn at the age of 9-years-old after learning nothing about gay sex, transexuals and gender differences in secondary school health classes.

It was only after coming out at the age of 19 that he started to engage in informative discussions about gay sex with other homosexuals.

“I feel like a lot of my education at a really young age was through porn. That was basically how I learnt about gay sex."

Dr John Fenaughty says this doesn’t come as a surprise to him, and indicates wider issues surrounding the health and safety of men engaging in sexual activity with other men.

“More than anything I think that talks to the fact that if students who are gender and sexually diverse don’t have sexuality education that talks to them and their reality then they will go and seek that. and it’s not surprising that some of them will go and seek that elsewhere and some of them will go to the internet and that will frequently involve exposure to pornography and there are negative effects associated with that,” Dr Fenaughty says.

Mr Tane says he would like to see more inclusion of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual) community in sexual education, particularly a breakdown of non-forming gender roles and diverse sexualities.

“I think there should definitely be a whole variety of the LGBT community in it [sexual education]. I think there should be a big breakdown of homosexual relationships and non-conforming gender roles. I feel like that was never ever touched base,” he says.

Claude Olivier also says he would like to see changes in the way sexual education is taught to young people.

“Ideal sex ed would be maybe three times a year you bring in someone who is trained in how to present this sort of stuff or maybe to even maybe three hours just dedicate a block of the day to it. And just make sure people understand what’s going on and then maybe for like the week afterwards have questionaire and stuff so people can have their questions answered, even anonymously,” he says.

Mr Olivier says schools shouldn’t risk taking the parents thoughts into consideration when decided what to include and exclude in sexual education classes.

“I don’t think you should take the parents thoughts into consideration because even if you don’t do it you should still know how to be safe. Because if you don’t and you find yourself in a situation where you have no idea what you’re doing, it's not going to end well for anyone,” he says.

Female Exclusion

Waiora Louise Tareha is a young mother who thinks her sexual education was inadequate. Photo: Anneke Smith.

Females are also amongst those who have been excluded from sexual education teachings in New Zealand.

Waiora Louise Tareha is a young mother who fell pregnant in 2011 at the age of 15. At the time she was sexually active and in a serious relationship; however she wasn’t taking her contraceptive pill regularly.

“I think in a way it was and it wasn't’ [planned]. I knew that if I didn’t take my contraceptive pill the results would be that I’d become pregnant. But I think when it hit me and actually became a reality it was such a whirlwind that I couldn’t really focus on what was right and what was wrong. I didn’t really understand the depth of my decision,” she says.

Ms Tareha says if she was given more information during sexual education classes she would “definitely” have made different decisions.

“Growing up I was in a catholic school in primary and intermediate. Obviously in catholic school we’re taught that god has a path for you and you don’t interfere with that path with manmade things such as contraceptives,” she says.

She found sexual education in school “really confusing” as the teachers were teaching students not to have sex before marriage and at the same time advocating for students to use condoms if they were sexually active.

Ms Tareha also believes she lacked the emotional education she needed to keep a safe distance from her child’s father.

“With my partner at the time, my child’s father, he was coming over everyday. I think at such a young age when you’re exposed to contact like that you really aren't, how can I say, you’re kind of brainwashed by the feeling of being attached to someone and you don’t think about anything else but that person. I think I was far too young to expose myself to that.”

“I think that people nowadays and back then only focused on physical sex education they didn’t really go into the fact that it’s not just a physical thing its an emotional and mental thing. And when you do collide with someone like that there’s so many different connection being made. I think if they had said if you do have sexual intercouse with someone that can make you vulnerable,” she says.

Now raising a four year old, Ms Tareha is a 21 year old taking on a career and negotiating the waters of being a single mum. However she says falling pregnant at such a young age was worth meeting her child.

“The feeling that overcomes you, it doesn’t measure to anything else.”

Auckland University student, Claire Myer, has a particular interest in sexual education and has undertaken a degree that majors in Education and minors in Gender Studies.

She believes her sexual education was inadequate and hopes to make a difference throughout her teaching career.

“I know that the education system is screwed, especially in New Zealand. It’s not the best that it could be and it doesn’t cater to everyone. That’s one of the first things my lecturers said to me in one of my education lectures; that if you’re coming into this and you don’t want to change anything you probably shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be a teacher if you don’t want things to be better for your students,” she says.

Claire recalls her first encounter with sexual education at intermediate and it was called ‘Positive Puberty’.

“From what i can remember it was just about things like tampons, pads and getting your period. Then it went on to male masturbation and putting on condoms and stuff. I’m pretty sure that’s all we learnt,” she says.

She admits she never learned anything about diverse sexualities and didn’t realise she held feminist beliefs until she began her university studies.

“I know that even in my school I was never taught about pornography, homosexuality or any type of LGBT. We were basically taught about pregnancy, abortion, male masturbation and STDs… In terms of gender studies I had a lot of the views already because my mum is a pretty cool woman doing things for herself. But I didn’t realise that was feminism until I came to university. I already had these ideas but they’ve just gotten bigger and better,’ she says.

Lara Lindsay-Parker is in her third year of a Bachelor of Fine Arts with Honours at Massey University. As part of an independent project she decided to make self-reflective art about her personal sexual experiences and social media posts.

“Art for me is very much about processing my own emotions and experiences. It became quite a therapeutic but also emotionally traumatizing time,” she says.

Through the process of collating her online and physical experiences she created a series of books that explore female empowerment, sexuality and consent.

“It was kind of just a reclaiming of my own body and my own experiences. These are mine and this is what’s happened and it’s okay."

“Sex is such a natural part of a being human being and it’s so stupid to deny that it exists especially for a woman or any other type of person that isn’t a man. I can talk about sex if I want to talk about sex and I can have sex if I want to have sex as long as it’s cool and consensual.”

Ms Lindsay-Parker says sexual education in New Zealand needs to be improved.

“I think consent is a really big one. I don’t remember being told anything about consent. I seriously don’t think that was addressed at all. But also just acknowledging that there are all types of different sexualities and bodies and identities that are so ignored. It becomes all about the male body, male as subject and woman as object and everyone else is invisible. It’s just not the way it is and I think it’s really, really damaging,” she says.

A visual artist and writer based in Wellington, Sian Torrington, recently addressed issues of sexuality in her project ‘We don’t have to be the building’.

Adorning the lightboxes on Courtenay Place in Wellington, Ms Torrington’s art and writing searches for her own and the community's whakapapa of sexuality and protest with a focus on activists both 30 years ago during the 1986 Homosexual Law reform and the contemporary world.

Ms Torrington grew up in United Kingdom so did not experience sexual education in New Zealand; however she says her art students seem to have had similar experiences.

“It was extremely basic it was just about getting pregnant and how periods work. Everything I’ve learnt in my life I’ve learnt from other people, books and following queer feminist blogs. I teach 18,19, 20 year olds art school and from what I can see I don’t think their experiences are any different,” she says.

She “absolutely” believes in the importance of providing young people with quality sexual education.

“We are currently living through a time where the horrendous impacts of rape culture are increasingly visible and being discussed. Young people need to be encouraged and affirmed from a very early age that all choices around their bodies are their own to make. It is our responsibility as a society to make sure this happens. And also to teach our young people about pleasure, consent and agency in sex and sexuality,” she says.

Reflecting on her own experiences, Ms Torrington says she wishes she was taught more about informed consent, sexuality, gender diversity, and her right to express herself and be able to say no as well as yes.

“Like most female a gender diverse people, I've had a huge amount of abusive and unpleasant sexual encounters that I know could have been prevented through education. I've learnt everything I know through lovers, friends, sex positive blogs, books, films and queer sex positive porn... That process didn't start for me until I was in my thirties which is so late! I fervently hope that things keep changing in this area for our young people,” she says.

Ms Torrington says she schools and organisations in New Zealand have the ability to provide quality sexual education for New Zealanders.

“School should absolutely be a place of opening our minds, listening to each other, and learning how to be kind and curious about difference".

 There are many organisations doing this exciting work with huge knowledge and experience of how to teach about sexual diversity and I wish there was a movement to fund them to train teachers across New Zealand how to do this work.”

Sexual education has the power to equip young people to navigate their sexual lives effectively. 

 By Anneke Smith.