First published on Wednesday the 24th of February, 2016, this piece comes in at number 21 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2016.
“At your age, you’re gonna be having a lot of urges. You’re gonna wanna take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get Chlamydia and die… Chlamydia, K-L-A...”
Ah Mean Girls. The source of some of the most quote-worthy gags to have graced our screens. While not quite my favourite (that honour is reserved for the classic “She doesn’t even go here!”) this quote touches two tropes that are heavily featured in pop culture: the awkwardness of talking about sex and schools’ woeful sex education programmes.
While these exaggerated generalisations, hyperbolic scaremongering (and subpar spelling) are very easy to laugh at, I question whether we are in any position to be amused. Are these constructions truly all that preposterous? Are these ‘exaggerations’ really all that extreme?
If my experiences are anything to go by, such fictional tales hold a seed of truth in that we, just like our fictional peers, are being let down by our sex education system. In a system filled with inconsistencies and a voluntarily adhered to curriculum, many of our youth are entering a complex grown-up world without the information they need to navigate its social realm.
A substandard programme
Under New Zealand’s current system, sex education is a mandatory part of the Health and Physical Education strand of the New Zealand Curriculum. But while the programme is compulsory until the end of year 10, parents may legally withdraw their children at any time.
The programme is very flexible in terms of content requirement. While the topic itself is compulsory, course content is not. Schools are free to decide what they teach and how they teach it, with their only limitation being an obligatory biannual consultation with the school community.
This flexibility has been a source of increasing concern. In 2014, a cross-party inquiry found that nationwide, programmes were “fragmented and uneven” with parents pulling children out of classes and classes themselves being extremely variant in their quality of content and delivery.
Most programmes focused primarily on physical aspects of sex, neglecting to cover crucial topics such as consent and the rise of porn. And with the Education Review Office being described as “extremely passive” in their monitoring of sex education, there is nothing to stop these inadequate programmes from deteriorating further.
The importance of school sex ed
As John Oliver pointed out in his analysis of the American system, “teaching Sex Ed in schools is really important for obvious reasons. No parent wants to talk to their kids about sex and no kid wants to talk about sex with their parents.”
Have you ever been watching a movie with your parents when a steamy scene has flashed onto the screen? That awkward moment when everyone goes stiff as a board, faces forcibly deadpan as they wait in agony for the sweet release of PG content.
And that’s just watching sexual activity. Expecting kids to feel comfortable enough to discuss sex in the depth required to leave them adequately prepared is unrealistic. And when there is no adequate schooling alternative, youth are left woefully underprepared with potentially catastrophic consequences…
Ironically, various studies have found students who take part in comprehensive sex education programmes are more likely to delay their first sexual encounters, to have sex less frequently and to have fewer sexual partners than those in abstinence-only programmes. They are also less likely to experience unplanned pregnancy due to their greater employment of contraception.
Abstinence-only programmes have never been proven to delay or reduce youth sexual activity. Virginity pledge programmes have failure rates as high as 80%, and there are concerns that the inaccuracies and omissions seen in abstinence-only programmes are causing more harm than good.
When taking on this topic, I decided the best insights into the system would come from those who have actually been through the system. I therefore made contact with a small sample of about 30 students from universities throughout New Zealand, asking them to describe their experience. While this sample is by no means a rigorous, representative study, it did provide some stunning insights.
Public schools seemed more ready to accept that youth are sexually active, focusing more on safe sex than on making futile efforts at promoting abstinence. Christian schools on the other hand, and particularly Catholic ones, go to enormous efforts to promote abstinence sometimes at the cost of accuracy.
One young man disclosed that, while his all-male Catholic school did cover contraception, everything was described as “not very effective” and therefore it was best to just stay away entirely. If you were stupid enough to give it a go and contraception inevitably failed, then you better get your dad hat on because “if you let your girlfriend have an abortion, you’re not a real man.”
The most upsetting part of his tale was hearing of the priest he quoted as saying “I know someone who is glad they got raped because they have this gift [of a child] from God.”
That one made me sick to my stomach. Rape is never okay. And to suggest otherwise, especially to susceptible teenage boys, is a crime in itself.
Another respondent, from an all-female Catholic school, talked about watching video clips featuring a woman named Pam. I was already semi-familiar with the infamous Pam having heard about her in the John Oliver segment.
Pam Stenzel is an American Christian speaker who lectures to high school students about abstinence-only sex education. Here are a couple of gems that will give you taste of what she’s all about:
- “If you take birth control, your mother probably hates you”
- “God created sex. It was his idea, not yours!”
- “If you have sex outside of a permanent marriage relationship, you will pay.”
(Check out this video for a couple more stunners.)
These words are being spoken to boys and girls who are about 14-years-old. These teens are still in the process of shaping their morals and values, their understanding of the world and their place within it.
The respondent who told me about Pam also confided with me her conflicting emotions regarding sex. She speaks of a deep shame, a fierce guilt whenever she does anything even remotely sexual. While she still engages in sexual activities, these talks have had a lasting and damaging effect on her self-esteem and sense of self-worth as she condemns herself for ‘giving into the temptation’.
Christian youth are still having sex. But they are having sex with the added burden of personal shame and the engrained belief that giving into sexual temptation makes you a bad person. And that kind of mental processing, that implicit guilt, often doesn’t end when you’re an adult and have entered into a loving relationship for which you should hold no guilt whatsoever at wanting to express that love physically.
If you frame sex as a bad thing, the conflicting mental associations can and do have lasting detrimental effects on one’s ability to embrace sex and to express their love without feeling guilty.
Let’s look at the stats
There is little information available about the sexual health and behaviour of young people in New Zealand. However, that which is available points to both high levels of sexual activity and the associated potential consequences.
Most people are aware that New Zealand is renowned for its high teenage pregnancy rates. But that’s not the only thing we’re ‘winning’ at. Of the OECD nations, New Zealand fares amongst the worst in STIs and STDs, sexual assault, gender inequality, and termination-of-pregnancy (i.e. abortion) rates. We are also amongst the most promiscuous; starting younger, having sex more often with more people and on more alcohol-driven, unprotected occasions.
Comprehensive sexuality education has been proven to be effective in improving these statistics and yet we continue to put the subject on the back burner, under-regulating, under-monitoring, and effectively leaving our youth to go at it alone.
Youth are having sex. It’s happening. So give them the tools they need to do so it safely. Make sure there is consistency in providing those tools, in ensuring that every student is getting the information they need.
Were you aware some schools are actually practising putting condoms on bananas? I wasn’t. As a Catholic schoolgirl, I had no idea this was a thing. I genuinely thought it only happened in American movies, which goes to show how contrasting student’s experiences can be.
In my sampling, I was surprised to find that those in Anglican schools consistently fared best, receiving comprehensive information about contraception, what the options are and where to get them; STIs and STDs, what the symptoms are and what to do about them; and sexuality and consent, subjects that many schools overlooked entirely.
Public school students seem to have mixed experiences. Some respondents received some of the best, most comprehensive programmes I’ve come across and others were told to simply go play rugby until the period was over…
And Catholic schools? Two words: Consistently abysmal.
When schools shape limited programmes, whether driven by their community’s opposition or by their own reluctance, students increasingly turn to misleading constructions provided by porn.
The founder of the Youth Wellbeing Project, Liz Walker, describes the Australasian sex education systems as “woefully inadequate”. She says that parents opposed to comprehensive sex education programmes, “who are trying to bubble wrap their kids, don’t realise how easy it is for their kids to go to school and see porn on a mobile device.”
One of my respondents noted (of her own accord) that “a lot of [her] male friends get their sex ed from porn,” an observation I’m sure many youth can attest to. It has been formally recognised that porn is frequently used as a substitute to school sex education, and that its prominence is growing rapidly as it becomes more and more accessible via the Internet.
This is an alarming development as it becomes increasingly apparent that students who have watched porn having had little sex education (whether in schools or from their families) “often have a skewed view of sex.” And with porn tending to promote more aggressive, male-dominant sexual activities, there are concerns about the implications this could have for sexual abuse.
When students are receiving sexuality education of varying quality, the contrast becomes readily apparent in social situations. This contrast is exacerbated by the fact that those receiving the less comprehensive programmes (typically Christian students) are also less likely to be receiving comprehensive information at home in the more conservative family environment.
This disparity is something I know all too well.
I’ve never experienced as much embarrassment as I did the first time I played ‘Never Have I Ever’. ‘Never Have I Ever’ is a drinking game in which one person shares something they have ‘never’ done. Everybody who has done that thing takes a swig. The activities mentioned in the game inevitably end up being sexual in nature.
Now it’s one thing to consistently come out of the game dead sober because the ‘never done things’ could be characterised as things a ‘good Christian girl’ would never do. It’s another to spend half the game not knowing what your friends are referring to but being too ashamed to admit you don’t know what a ‘69’ is or what it means to be ‘cleaned out’.
(If you’re still scratching your head, by the way, Urban Dictionary is your new best friend.)
Though at least in this instance you can pretend to know what’s going on. It’s another matter entirely when it’s a Christian boy’s first time in bed and he doesn’t know how to put a condom on. Or is a Catholic girl’s first time giving oral sex and she unwittingly contracts gonorrhoea, unaware that it can be transmitted orally.
It could be anybody, any young person’s first intimate experience.
A girl pressured to lose her virginity because she’d been told she ‘led the boy on’.
A boy accused of rape because he didn’t understand that a girl not saying ‘no’ doesn’t mean ‘yes’.
Regardless of which school a student attends, none of them seem to be consistently providing adequate coverage of the social side of sex. Too busy talking anatomy, too busy saying don’t do it, they forget (wilfully or otherwise) to discuss consent, love and self-worth.
And so kids go ahead and do it anyway.
And so kids turn to porn.
And so kids get hurt.
And those are our kids we are talking about. Kids from schools that are decile one, and schools that are decile ten. Attending private schools, public schools and Christian schools. Kids with unplanned pregnancies, STDs and STIs. Kids with skewed perceptions of sex, developing self-destructive sexual habits, with overwhelming guilt and plummeting self-esteem.
Kids that we are letting down.
John Oliver captured it perfectly in his segment when he said:
“There is no way we’d allow any other academic programme to consistently fail to prepare students for life after school. And human sexuality, unlike calculus, is something you actually need to know about for the rest of your life.”
It may be awkward, it may be complicated, it may make us feel uncomfortable but it needs to be done. We need to overhaul the system. We need to have a comprehensive programme taught consistently throughout the nation. We need to promote open dialogue with our youth so that they are no longer left underprepared and vulnerable.
We need to empower our young people with knowledge so that they can make informed decisions.
We desperately need to talk about sex.