• Tracy Clelland is a lecturer and health educator at the University of Canterbury

The website Pornhub has released its 2016 year-in-review report, which identifies New Zealand as fifth in the list of countries that watch the most pornography. This seems to echo the fact that, increasingly, parents are asking how they can discuss the issue of pornography with their children.

As a parent of a 12-year-old boy I have had first-hand experience of talking to my son about pornography. He told me about inappropriate material going around the school grounds and we discussed what he knew and thought about pornography.

By listening, and not judging, we had one of those precious conversations that makes you realise how critical and insightful young people can be when given the opportunity.


However, we also know some parents find talking about certain topics extremely difficult and are happy to leave "sex ed" to the health teacher.

Arguing over whether sexuality education should be the role of parents or teachers (public or private) fails to get on with supporting our young people to critically analyse what they are seeing, what is real and, most importantly, what is needed for positive sexuality and healthy relationships.

The provision of sexuality education to children and adolescents has always been a contestable and complex area of education, fraught with emotion and personal feelings. These feelings are often based on inaccurate or biased societal assumptions about young people.

The ongoing debate about whether sexuality education is the role of parents or the school fails to acknowledge that our young people are living in a changing world where learning about sexuality occurs across a multitude of sites. Social media, the internet, music videos, school, culture, religion and peers - all give messages to young people about gender roles, what it means to be sexy, what it means to desire and be desired.

Children as young as 5 pick up on messages from television advertisements that identify toys specifically for boys or girls. These messages subtly identify what is expected of genders, yet on the other hand we tell our children to be themselves.

As a health educator and university lecturer I have had long discussions with young people about sexuality education and most often the silences that pervade New Zealand society. Some young people have identified quality sexuality discussions in the home or school but that number is far outweighed by those who had hoped for more, especially past Year 10.

Research with university students found that young people feel they were exposed to limited, although improving, sexuality education from both school and parents. They argue for more time discussing emotions, feelings, consent, situational decision-making, love, pleasure and, yes, even desire.

It is time parents joined in the sexuality conversations, not as the experts and holders of all knowledge, but rather as guides in the life-long sexuality journey.


Focusing on the biology of sex ignores the wider questions young people have about feelings, relationships, identity, intimacy and respect.

To meet the needs of young New Zealanders, research indicates we must acknowledge our young people as sexual beings who can make their own decisions.

Research shows many parents worry their child is not ready for sexuality education, but if a child is asking questions then it's an excellent opportunity for parents or teachers to answer them.

We know young people who have poor general communication with parents are more likely to turn to peers for information.

Furthermore, young people who perceive their friends to be sexually active are likely to feel more pressure to conform to strong peer norms.

If young people feel they can't talk to their parents or their parents don't want to talk about sexuality, and sexuality education was not taught in schools, where would that leave our young people? Exposure to sexuality education from a range of perspectives ensures young people's needs are more likely to be met.

In 2015 the new sexuality guide for schools was released by the Ministry of Education. It clearly identifies the difference between "sex education" and "sexuality education", with sexuality education being holistic.

This includes exploring the physical, mental, emotional and social aspects of sexuality. Extensive research with young people in New Zealand has identified this is what they want. However "sex education" which the media and Family First consistently refer to, relates to the physical aspects of sexual and reproductive knowledge and often promotes fear and an incorrect idea of what sexuality education is about.

The sexuality education teachers who train at the University of Canterbury's college of education, health and human development aspire to be sexuality educators who listen to and meet the needs of young people. They understand the importance of developing communication skills so that young people can talk about sexuality topics.

However many young people still identify difficulties in talking to their parents.

It is time parents joined in the sexuality conversations, not as the experts and holders of all knowledge, but rather as guides in the life-long sexuality journey.

It's time we adults grew up and recognised that quality sexuality education, from a range of sources, supports our young people to be better informed, critical thinkers who develop healthier, happier relationships.