Sex education: have we got it wrong?

By Elizabeth Binning

Critics say sex education is presented far too graphically, as parodied in the skit from Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life. Photo / Supplied
Critics say sex education is presented far too graphically, as parodied in the skit from Monty Python's The Meaning Of Life. Photo / Supplied

It all started with a 12-year-old boy who came home from school very upset. His teacher had told his class that anal and oral sex were alternatives to intercourse and that it was okay to play with a girl's private parts as long as she consented.

His horrified parents pulled him out of sex education, triggering a nationwide debate about the appropriateness of what our children are learning at school.

A week on and the father is pleased to report that his son's school is now reviewing the content of its sexual education classes.

After initially raising his concerns with the boy's teacher - who couldn't see a problem and pointed out he had in fact signed a consent form - the father went to the principal.

"He appeared to agree with our sentiments ... I'm quite certain that he wasn't aware of some of the specific content being taught in class and has put a stop to it immediately."

The school is now planning to send a questionnaire to parents asking what they would like to see in the programme. The principal has also indicated the Year 8 class will now keep its focus on puberty.

It's a good outcome for the father, who is in his 40s, and believes our sex education is too explicit - and not helping our teenagers.

"Why is it necessary for a 12-year-old to know about anal sex? I think that the necessity is not there in reality and that leads to questions about whether the approach being taken is working?

"We have gone down this path over the last 20, 25 years and I don't think personally that there's very much evidence that it's working - in fact quite the opposite."

He is not alone in raising the point. Sex education has been mandatory in schools for 10 years now but in that time our teenage pregnancy rate has only continued to climb.

New Zealand has one of the highest rates in the developed world - with around 60 in every 1000 young women getting pregnant in 2009. That's up from around 50 in every 1000 girls 20 years ago.

In 2009, 8650 young women under the age of 19 got pregnant - 108 of whom were under the age of 15. Nearly 4000 - including 79 who were under 14, had abortions.

This week, as the debate about what is appropriate in sex education classes raged, many parents have attributed our high teenage pregnancy rate to the explicit nature of some sex education programmes, saying it's putting ideas into children's heads that they are not ready for.

Heavily pregnant teenager Amber-Leigh Erasmus went as far as to suggest she lost her virginity at 14 after learning all about sex as a 13-year-old.

Some have criticised the teenager, saying she wouldn't be pregnant if she'd paid more attention to the contraception messages in her class.

But the 17-year-old says not all 13-year-olds are mature enough to take away the important messages at that age and some, like her, just hear that sex is perfectly normal and okay, as along as you consent.

Her opinion contradicts the international research which says teaching kids about sex doesn't make them "go out there and do it".

On the contrary, good quality sex education is meant to do the opposite and studies have shown a delay in sexual initiation, a reduction in the number of sexual partners and the frequency of sex and increased contraceptive use.

The problem in New Zealand is that what's on offer is not always "good quality" or "comprehensive".

Instead it varies from school to school and isn't always age-appropriate, as was highlighted by the case of the 12-year-old boy.

His story prompted other parents to report cases where 14-year-old girls practised applying condoms to plastic penises, while 15-year-olds had to listen to their teacher giving them a rendition of an orgasm.

One health worker said a colleague stood in front of her class while discussing masturbation with a book in front of her and told students she could be "flicking her clit" in front of them and they wouldn't even know.

In another case a Year 8 teacher has been accused of getting too personal after she told her students graphic details about her own sexual experiences outside the front of a bar, and about an abortion she once had.

While few people question the need for some kind of sex education, many believe these kinds of examples go well beyond the necessary basics.

The father of the 12-year-old boy said though parents sign consent forms, few realise the explicit nature of the content their children are about to learn, and the schools need to do better.

A 2007 ERO report tended to agree after finding "the majority of sexuality education programmes were not meeting students' needs effectively".

Family Planning's chief executive Jackie Edmond believes there is still work to do before New Zealand can say it has "good quality and comprehensive" sexuality education.

"As the ERO report in 2007 proved, it's patchy at best - the quality and content of what is provided in schools - so we can't say we have had a quality and comprehensive sexuality programme running in our schools yet."

She says most programmes aimed at 12-year-olds should still be centred on puberty, puberty changes and relationships - not things like anal and oral sex.

But, sometimes children raise such things during question and answer sessions and it could be "very tricky" getting the balance right between answering their questions honestly and not going into too much detail.

"It is a skill and there isn't an exact science to giving age-appropriate responses but we also know kids are exposed to it and the research supports open, honest answers are the best way to go ... but you have to be careful not to overdo it."

Ms Edmond maintains that good quality programmes are important in schools and there is "no evidence to support any sexuality education encouraging young people to go out there and do it".

While she admits our teenage pregnancy rate is "concerning" and "hasn't changed much since the 80s", she says it's a "very complicated" issue and sex education is only a small component of that.

Ms Edmond says there are other wider societal issues involved and a good comprehensive package of support and services is needed to address the problem.

Dr Albert Mackary, who called for a campaign against promiscuity after encountering a large number of pregnant teens who couldn't remember whom they had sex with, agrees. He says teenage drinking is one of the major issues that needs to be addressed if we want to reduce teenage pregnancy.

Principals' Federation president Peter Simpson says he believes schools are doing a good job of delivering sex education - something that has "come out of a need". It should, however, be done in consultation with the community and any parent concerned about the content should talk to their school.

For: Student journalist Verity Ailsa

If we cut back on sex education lessons, but still have a society that glorifies sex, we're going to see bigger problems than one teenage mother. Amber-Leigh Erasmus' story on Tuesday about being a teen mum-to-be was always going to court controversy. The news story broke the idea that sex education classes were causing an increase in teenage pregnancies.

But Amber-Leigh admits she got pregnant because she was drunk at a New Year's Eve party. She was also duped into thinking that the withdrawal method worked. What this says is we need more sex education classes. If people fall prey to old tricks such as the withdrawal method, or "first time standing up" then we're obviously not doing enough to educate people.

We also know New Year's is short-hand for: how many guys can I pull before I fall over? We're quite happy for this to continue; it forms the best part of our teenage anecdotes. But what we're not happy to do is accept the consequences of our actions.

In Holland there are only five births per 1000 teenagers. We, with 30-40 per 1000 teenagers, are beaten only by the United States.

The difference is that Holland is a liberal country that gives sex education in a thorough way. But us? We're just uncomfortable talking about sex. If we cut back on sex education lessons, but still have a society that glorifies sex, we're going to see bigger problems than one teenage mother.

Yes, teenagers are held hostage by hormones. Yes, you're going to get some teenagers who wind up pregnant. However, we also have generations of kids who feel more comfortable in their skins, and understand about sexually transmitted diseases and how to stop them.

Finally, it is a sloppy accusation that teenagers have lost the right to say no, and save sex for someone special. This was never really a social norm anyway. If you don't see the problem with having sex, and you are fully aware of the facts of the matter, why shouldn't you? Why should you be forced to have an opinion you don't believe in?
If, on the other hand, you do want to wait until you find someone special, you do that. Not because it's the "thing to do" but because you believe in it.

Sex education must be given in school. Without it, all we will have is an uneducated generation that could fall victim to STIs, abuse, or prudery that puts the British stiff upper lip to shame.


Against: Auckland Girls' Grammar student Priyanka Kumar

Time to take a reality check. Primary school students and intermediate school students don't need to be learning all this.

I went to Papatoetoe Intermediate School for my intermediate years of schooling, and don't get me wrong, I did sex education classes too.

We were taught about how to manage and maintain personal hygiene, we were taught about the differences between the body parts of the boys and girls, we were taught about drug education and its effects on the people around us and on us personally and we were taught about what happens to us during puberty, the changes we undergo and who we turn out to be.

We were taught about how to be confident and love the body that we grow into after puberty.

Many things have changed from then to now.

Making sounds of having an orgasm and making the children lie down and imagine that the world was predominantly gay; this is clearly not what they should be taught at this age. These children are having their minds permanently damaged by what they are being taught. Sex education should simply be education about your own health, and drug education. Teachers should educate the students about the risks of drink driving, smoking from an early age, how to deal with peer pressure and maintain personal hygiene.

This will have a better impact on the children's minds then them having to learn about oral and anal sex, having a orgasm or even how to put a condom on a plastic penis.

To sum it all up, my entire family and I feel that sex education is going too far with young children.

This is their time to begin learning algebra, how to write essays, the importance of science and how the world came to be about.

Sex education is going too far in schools, and it doesn't need to go this far with this age group, it's ridiculously disgusting.

- NZ Herald

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