Amicus Curiae: Forcing a Discussion – Policy Changes in Sex Education

Pooja Upadhyay, Content Contributor

The Ministry of Education has recently updated the formal guidelines of sexual education whereby state schools are now encouraged, but are not required, to include aspects of decision-making, sexual diversity and problem solving in their programmes.

The rationale for these guidelines is to create an informational approach to sexual education; a departure from the traditional risk-based approach.[1]. New Zealand youth will learn about “physical development, including sexual and reproductive knowledge, gender identity, relationships, friendships, whānau and social issues”.[2] Arguably this is an appropriate approach, given the high risk of teenage pregnancy in New Zealand relative to other developed nations; suggesting the present approach is inappropriate.[3]

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It therefore seems that there is a real need for education  on the practicalities of sexual encounters. However, the societal context in which sexual activities occur should also be included in sex education, and it is this that serves as the focal point of the new guidelines.

One aspect of the guidelines is premised on the desire for a better understanding of “meaningful consent”.[4] Although the requirement for informed consent is to many a self-evident requirement of sex, the lines of consent can be blurred when put in the context of youth drinking, widely watched pornography, and peer-pressure.

The Roast Busters case, where relatively young men “allegedly had sex with drunk teenage girls and boasted about their exploits online” points to a deeper issue regarding how people perceive sex.[5] Furthermore online pornography and hyper sexualized images in mainstream media may be the primary way in which youth understand “sexual socialization”.[6] Relying on these images as the standard of behavior regarding sex can be dangerous as, among other things, pornography can create “perceptions of exaggerated sexual activity in the populace” – potentially contributing to the peer-pressure to conform to these sexual norms.[7]

However, due to the complexity of sexuality itself, by no means can we attribute all social sexuality issues to any one, specific influence in society. What is clear to academics such as sexologist Liz Walker is that if we do not take action to address social sexuality education, incidents resembling the Roast Busters case will reoccur.[8]

Sexual diversity is another aspect of the guidelines. Education on this may be conducive to a more open societal understanding not only of sexual orientation but also of sexual decision-making based on culture and religion. This may work towards alleviating pressures and expectations amongst youth; helping ensure that, when the time comes, they are in fact able to understand and respect ‘meaningful consent’.

Going beyond the direct impact of these guidelines, the Ministry hopes to target broader issues such as bullying, acceptance of gender identity and relationship violence[9] to improve health and create a more participatory society as a whole.[10] The success of these ambitions is dependent on time, money and the comprehensiveness of policy implementation.

As with all issues entailing diverse values, these sexual education guidelines may be subject to parental opposition. However, parents will not be left without options. Firstly, the Ministry has produced a brochure for parents, holding information on what their child will be taught, when and guidance as to appropriate parental action.[11] Furthermore, s 25AA of the Education Act 1989 allows for a parent or guardian to exclude their child from parts of school sexual education through making a written request to the relevant authority.

Codifying fundamental legal rights under the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 is vital in safeguarding certain liberties. A freedom to practice one’s sexuality without fear can be inferred from both the codified freedom of “thought, consciousness and religion” as well as freedom against discrimination.[12] The role of education in social integration, and promoting understanding of this liberty, is equally vital. Although education may not be able to resolve all of the social issues relating to freedom of fear in sexuality, it is certainly an important step in the right direction.

[1] Ministry of Education, “Why sexuality education is important” Te Kete Ipurangi <http://health.tki.org.nz/Teaching-in-HPE/Policy-guidelines/Sexuality-education-a-guide-for-principals-boards-of-trustees-and-teachers/Why-sexuality-education-is-important>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 3 News, “At a Glance: Roast Busters Investigation timeline” <http://www.3news.co.nz/nznews/at-a-glance-roast-busters-investigation-timeline-2015031910#ixzz3bzOLOtds>.

[6] Dolf Zillmann “Influence of unrestrained access to erotica on adolescents’ and young adults’ dispositions toward sexuality” (2000) 27 Journal of Adolescent Health 41.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Kirsty Johnston “Controversial sex-ed course pitched” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 20 February 2015).

[9] Ministry of Education, above no 1.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Kirsty Johnston “Sex ed classes add consent and coercion” The New Zealand Herald (online ed, Auckland, 28 May 2015).

[12] New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990, s 25.

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