Educators say biology classes are no longer enough for teenagers navigating a world where porn, explicit music videos and online hook-ups are the norm

Key Points:

The party is in full swing - teenagers are laughing, drinking and dancing. On the couch in the middle of the room sits a girl - she's wearing a short skirt and is perilously close to drunken oblivion. She's hemmed in by a young guy. He's running his hand up and down her legs, whispering, cajoling; trying to separate her from the group, to get her alone. There are concerned onlookers - his mate, who can see what is happening but doesn't have the words to stop it. A young woman from school, whose friends think she's "a skank". Strangers who wonder if she has mates looking out for her; if the guy's her boyfriend, if she's in control of the situation. Scenes like this are played out every weekend, in towns and cities around New Zealand. But this particular scenario is fictional; a small drama penned by Shortland Street actor Sam Bunkall (he plays Boyd Rolleston on the show). Entitled Bystander: the Action Movie, it has been created as a resource for the work he does in secondary schools through Rape Prevention Education. It is just a short piece of fiction, but it effectively captures teen attitudes to sex, consent and gender roles. Bunkall has been working at secondary schools around Auckland for three years as an educator for a programme called BodySafe. Run by Rape Prevention Education (formerly known as Rape Crisis) the programme was set up to promote healthy, respectful relationships and to prevent experiences of sexual harm and violence. Bunkall says his experience as an educator has been eye-opening. He has encountered pervasive and harmful stereotypes and attitudes. "In the programme we give an example of a girl getting dressed up nicely and planning to meet a boy she likes at a party. When she's there, she has a few drinks and agrees to go into a room with the boy. They kiss, and he starts to remove her underwear. She says no, but he says it will be okay. They have sex. "When we ask the students who is to 'blame' for what happened, most of the students say it's the girl's fault. She shouldn't have worn such a short skirt; she shouldn't have gone into the room. Very few students say the boy was at fault." Bunkall's experience is common. Educators nationwide are confronted again and again by such misconceptions - attitudes that can fuel reckless and sometimes violent sexual behaviour. Teenagers are getting their sex education through online porn, racy music videos and titillating social media sites. "There is no real discussion or dialogue about consent in the media," says Bunkall. And they're not just using technology to watch sexual activity; they are also hooking up online. It has recently been revealed that although Tinder's official agreement states you need to be over 18 to use the app, up to 7 per cent of the users are between 13 and 17. Tinder and the like are set to be an increasing flashpoint for risky teen activity. Bunkall says there is also a lack of discussion in homes on sexuality and safety. "Kids aren't getting information about consent from their parents." So what information are they getting from schools? The Roast Busters case brought to glaring light the underbelly of teen sexual culture in NZ. A health select committee charged with assessing sex education in schools found it was "fragmented and uneven". The committee urged the Government to broaden the scope of sex education, to include issues around rape, consent and self-worth. New guidelines will be released within weeks but although the Government will take on some of the proposals, the Herald on Sunday understands it will still be up to individual schools to work out what they teach. That, say the experts, is a missed opportunity from which our young people will emerge the victims. When it comes to sexuality, modern teenagers are navigating perilous seas and little is being done to counter the barrage of harmful messages that saturate their culture. The Roast Busters case brought to glaring light the underbelly of teen sexual culture in New Zealand. Fuelled by alcohol and machismo, these young men preyed on vulnerable underage girls, filmed their sex acts and shared them on the internet. They have recently been cleared of all charges; but the investigation uncovered just how difficult it is for sexually abused teenagers to open up to adults. Police Commissioner Mike Bush said the investigation highlighted "the barriers which young people experience in disclosing unwanted sexual activity to adults". Detective Inspector Karyn Malthus, who headed the operation, said there was not enough evidence to prosecute. "Factors included the wishes of individual victims, the admissible evidence available; the nature of the offence and the age of the parties at the time of the offending." The media outcry accompanying the case has opened a Pandora's box of troubling teen sexual mores. "The Roast Busters case forced a lot of media to talk about sexual violence," says Bunkall. But he says that this is one "silver lining". "It has made people confront issues around victim blaming; hopefully, it will help to change the way media report issues around sexual violence." Sex education usually only deals with the biological side of things, says Dr Kim McGregor, executive director of Rape Prevention Education. Photo / File Bunkall says in his experience, parents are loath to talk to their kids about sex and consent and leave sexuality education to the schools. But even here there is no coherent message. Dr Graham Stoop, deputy secretary of student achievement at the Ministry of Education, says sex education comes under the general guidelines for health education, which is taught as a formal subject from Years 11-13. "We are working with schools, health professionals and others to update existing sexuality education guidelines for schools, following recommendations in a health select committee report released earlier this year." He says the health and physical education component of the New Zealand curriculum, which includes sexuality, is not changing. "It will not recommend when or what sexuality issues are taught, either in primary or secondary schools, as schools make these decisions in consultation," says Stoop. Lorraine Kerr, president of the School Trustees Association, says there is a general requirement to teach sex education through the health education component of the curriculum, but "the management of the school will determine what is taught in the sex education classes". Kerr says the New Zealand curriculum is designed so teachers have flexibility and freedom around what they teach. There is no mandatory teaching around consent and sexual violence prevention. For sexual violence prevention educators, the lack of commitment to a coherent message on consent and dangerous attitudes is concerning. "Sex education at schools usually only deals with the biological side of things," says Dr Kim McGregor, executive director of Rape Prevention Education (RPE). "Ninety per cent of the issues surrounding sexuality are about relationships and respect - this is what needs to be taught." In the absence of parental or teacher education on sexual matters, pornography, sexual music videos, and social media fill the gap. McGregor says women often are presented as objects in these forums, creating a warped perception of sexual relations. Such is the confusion around gender roles, school counsellors report being asked by girls if they "have to" have anal or degrading sex with boyfriends who have been fed a steady diet of porn. But she feels education services such as BodySafe can help to clarify what is acceptable sexual behaviour. "We have heard of 15-year-old boys saying, 'Now I know what I did was rape' after having the concept of consent explained to them," says McGregor. "We are teaching the teenagers that consent should be a 'mutual, enthusiastic yes'." Still from a Rape Prevention Education video. Anna-Kristy Munro-Charters, a community educator with Rape Crisis in Dunedin, says the issues are occurring nationwide. "Many still believe that women ask to be raped and invite it by their drinking. "This is clearly false and is used as a way to blame survivors and excuse perpetrators of rape and sexual abuse." She says this type of attitude makes it easy for sexual offenders to target or exploit women who are drunk, or to use alcohol as an excuse for assaulting them. "We know that survivors can be anybody regardless of behaviour, appearance, clothing or job occupation. Rape is about power, not sex." She agrees that popular culture has reinforced unhealthy stereotypes on sex and gender. "Yes, popular culture has a lot to answer for; women are systematically exploited and sexualised within music videos and also in mainstream media." McGregor says that RPE has been lobbying the Government for a national sexual violence prevention programme in schools for about a decade. ACC has recently launched a course for secondary schools, called Mates and Dates, that educates teenagers about sexual violence prevention and the establishment of healthy relationships. ACC figures reveal that 15 to 24-year-old women are most at risk of violence from current or ex-partners; and one in five females and one in 10 males experience unwanted sexual contact or are forced into sex while they are at secondary school. We need to change the way in which we engage with teenagers about sexual issues. McGregor says the pilot has run in eight schools in term three this year. "It is now being evaluated and, hopefully, there will be funding to extend it throughout the country." She is also heartened by increased male attendance at anti-rape events. A Roast Busters march last year attracted between 700 and 1000 participants, a third of whom were male. "At a Reclaim the Night march not long after, about 50 per cent of marchers were male. I've been speaking at anti-rape marches for 30 years and this is the most men I've ever seen at one. It's a great sign."

A mother's story

An Auckland mother says pop culture communicates to young women that their worth is as a sexually attractive object for men. Elizabeth Barrett is a 42-year-old Auckland mother of a 14-year-old girl. She says teenagers are more and less aware of sex issues than when she was a young woman. "I was sexually active from 15 - within relationships and always consensual. My daughter is nearly 15 but I couldn't imagine her being anywhere near ready for this. Other teenagers I know are 14 and having sex. I think it's still down to individuals." She says being at a single-sex school has taken some of the pressure off her daughter when it comes to sex. "Her friends are not particularly interested in boys so that has a handbrake effect." She feels parents and peers are the main influences of sexual attitudes in teens, but agrees that popular culture plays its part. "Generally I think music videos, TV and film - even books - are giving young people strange attitudes to sex and relationships. The pole dancing and twerking music videos seem to communicate to young women that their worth is as a sexually attractive object for men. "Some novels are full of love stories that end in marriage with incredibly unrealistic ideas about what they could and should expect from relationships." She says although her daughter isn't sexually active now, she hopes she will be able to communicate with her when this changes. "I want my daughter to eventually experience a loving sexual relationship. As she is not sexually active now I'm not sure how I will cope when it happens but I'd rather know my daughter and what she's up to than have her hide it from me."

Advice for parents

Use online resources to help engage with your children around sexual issues, says Dr Kim McGregor. Photo / File Keep a good relationship with your children. Some of the research that's been undertaken around these issues indicates that if parents tell their children not to go to a particular party, but the teenager goes and something happens to them, they will be afraid to tell. Parents need their children to know that even if they have done something against their advice, they can come to them if something has happened. It's a good idea to form a community of parents with teenagers. Let your children know that even if they don't want to talk to you about issues, there are other adults in this extended community who are there to listen. Use online resources to help engage with your children around sexual issues. The website is great resource that deals with issues around healthy sexual relationships and sexual violence. Go through the website with them and discuss issues that are raised. Kim McGregor, Rape Prevention Education