I am 17, and lucky enough to have been brought up in a household where sex education was readily available. When I asked where babies came from I didn’t get some long-winded story about a stork, or a cabbage patch. I got the truth. This openness meant that I didn’t have to rely on puberty education at intermediate, or sex education at high school, but the fact is that our education system is many students’ only resource for learning about sex and our ever-changing bodies. However this power is not fully utilised. The curriculum still tends to shy away from some important aspects of sex education.
For example, while I completely agree that no one should rush into sex just because the opportunity presents itself, I disagree with the notion that abstinence is a form of birth control. The definition of contraception is “the deliberate use of artificial methods or other techniques to prevent pregnancy as a consequence of sexual intercourse”.
Abstinence is abstaining from said intercourse, so it cannot be viewed as a form of contraception. Let’s use an analogy. Say I’m going up to the shop and it’s raining. If I ask, “how can I get to the shop to buy some milk without getting wet?” some correct answers could be “wear a raincoat”, “take an umbrella”, or “drive”. An incorrect answer would be “don’t go”, because that doesn’t help me get the milk at all, it just leaves me dry and home without any milk.
In Year 10 PE, we all sat a sex education test. The last question went something like:
John and Jane are in a committed relationship and have been talking about having sex for a while now, and finally decided to do it. How would you suggest that they avoid an unwanted pregnancy or STI?”
I remember writing that they should use the dual birth control of a condom and the pill, but when our tests came back the correct answer for this question was revealed to be ‘Abstinence’. I struggle to see how that helps anyone to be safe when they have decided to have sex. Yes, abstinence is an important part of sex education, but it should not be classed as a contraceptive method.
The New Zealand Family Planning website is a useful source for finding out what students want to learn. I found that what younger students want to know about is: the changes to their bodies, whether their feelings and what they look like is “normal”, what happens with reproduction, how to manage things like crushes, periods, erections, and wet dreams, and how to show someone they like them. What I remember from the puberty lesson at Intermediate School was that the boys were separated from the girls, and we went into different rooms to learn about our own gender’s puberty. Not only does this raise issues for children who don’t identify as their assigned gender at birth, but it also becomes worrying that we don’t have a safe space to learn about every part of the human body, be it male or female. This promotes embarrassment between genders, as we are taught that “girls’ issues are only to be spoken of with girls”, and vice versa.
Family Planning states that what the older students want to know is: how to tell if they’re ready to have sex, information about types of sex, how to make sexual activity more enjoyable, where to get contraception, how to know if you’re pregnant, emotions in relationships, and sexual orientation and identity. The sad fact of the matter is that hardly any of these are taught in school. Instead of learning how to know when we’re ready to have sex, we are told that we shouldn’t be thinking about it yet. Instead of being taught the different types of sex, sex education latches onto the idea that all sex is penetrative sex, which isn’t the case; sex can be a myriad of things, and each person’s experience is completely unique and subjective. Instead of teaching the idea that sex can be enjoyable, we are taught that sex is a mechanical activity solely for the purpose of reproduction. Why can’t we be taught about the good parts? The fact that sex makes people feel good when they do it for the right reasons? Most of the education we get implies that heterosexual sex ends when the man ejaculates, but a guy’s climax is not the sole goal. It stuns me that even in an all-girls school we don’t learn about the female orgasm, only the male’s.
While the Ministry of Education website talks of encouraging a holistic approach based on sexuality education (as opposed to sex education), in practice this rarely seems to happen. For example, in the education we receive about our ever-changing attractions, all we get is a slightly edited hypothetical question: the aforementioned ‘John and Jane’ might become ‘Jenny and Jane’, but that’s the extent of the inclusivity.
You’d think that for such an important subject there would be some clear requirements for what schools have to teach, but the boundaries for sex (or sexuality) education are decided by each school’s board of trustees.
I think that we need a complete revamp of New Zealand’s sexuality education. We need to focus on producing safe, happy and informed students, and accept that sex is part of many people’s lives. Part of our intelligence as human beings is being connected to our psychological, social and sexual selves. We need to stop shying away from the discomfort of these typically ‘awkward’ subjects, and instead claim our full potential as healthy and informed sexual beings.
Molly Wootton is a Year 13 New Zealand high school student.