Katie Fitzpatrick: Quality sex education vital for schools

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Roast Busters members Joseph Parker (left) and Beraiah Hales boasted of their actions.
Roast Busters members Joseph Parker (left) and Beraiah Hales boasted of their actions.

The Roast Busters case involving allegations of sexual assault of teenage girls is deeply concerning. As parents and citizens, it is time to question a culture that encourages teenage boys to treat girls like sexual objects. The most concerning aspect of this case, aside from the lack of action by police, is the lack of knowledge and attitudes of the teens themselves.

Some of the young women involved in this case are clearly not aware of their rights and are not empowered to take action. While I applaud the victims who have come forward, other teens have neither protected them nor spoken out against the abhorrent actions of these young men (either at the time or in public).

Indeed, the youths who appeared on Campbell Live on Thursday night (with their identities obscured) seemed surprised at the level of attention and stated that, despite being witnesses, they didn't see it as their business to get involved. This reaction of passivity is alarming.

We need to allow open discussions with teens about sexual ethics, violence, consent and the responsibility we all have to intervene against violence. As Rebecca Kamm argued in Friday's Herald, myths around rape need to be addressed.

An ideal place for such discussion is in school-based sexuality education classes. Quality school programmes can educate teens about the effects of alcohol and help them develop strategies for staying safe at parties, and for helping keep their friends safe. Such programmes can also help young people to question the messages they get from the porn industry and social networking sites (Ask.fm, Facebook, and so on) about sexuality, identity and relationships.

Cultural norms that enable young men to derive power and prestige from the abuse of girls need to be questioned, challenged and discussed by young men and women. Indeed, many boys, as has also been reported, are appalled by these acts and want nothing more than to condemn them and distance themselves from such cultures. The issue of consent is crucial.

Research suggests that teens of both genders are unaware of the rules of consent, that no means no, and the social, emotional and legal consequences of ignoring this issue. The Roast Busters seem to be parodying what they believe are powerful and "cool" forms of masculinity without any awareness that their peers, and society in general, view them as criminal.

Sexuality education in schools can enable young people to think through these issues before they are put at risk in such situations (both girls and boys need to be involved in these discussions and empowered to stand up against such abuse). Such classes engage young people in thinking through the social and emotional consequences of sexual encounters, including strategies for preventing harm, as well as how and when to get help if needed. Again, as Rebecca Kamm noted, sexual assault rates go down as social awareness of these issues goes up.

Sexuality classes, as part of health education, are currently given very little curriculum time in secondary and intermediate schools. While it is a mandated part of the New Zealand curriculum, most students would be lucky to have 10 lessons a year dedicated to sexuality.

Some schools do not teach it at all and there are few (or no) checks to compel them to do so. Where sexuality is taught, it tends to be limited to years 7-10 (ages 11-14), with no provision for students in the senior years of high school (except for the few who choose health education in NCEA). Yet it is 15- to 18-year-olds who are more likely to be attending parties and beginning intimate relationships.

Schools have a responsibility to engage in sexuality education during these senior years. This can be done without impacting on NCEA assessments if schools suspend their usual timetable for a day or two and run workshops with students. This can align well with the kind of peer support programmes already running in many schools.

Parents and communities can encourage their local schools to take action by asking them what education they provide around sexuality and relationships. We can remind our schools of the responsibility they have to keep students safe and to enable young men and women to stand up for their rights and the rights of others.

Quality sexuality education should be a mandatory part of schooling for all teens aged 11-18 years, with discussions followed up at home with parents and whanau. Given just what is at stake, as this case highlights, we can't act soon enough.

Katie Fitzpatrick is a senior lecturer, Faculty of Education, at the University of Auckaland.

- NZ Herald

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