Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Won’t Someone Think of the Children?

Experts highlight the importance of comprehensive sexuality education, and how imported moral panics are threatening their work.

Throughout the election cycle, politicians get asked a lot of questions - in the debating chamber, on the tiles outside Parliament, on the TVNZ debate stage, in the RNZ studio, on the side of the road. The sum of these questions can paint a picture of the values and concerns of at least some portion of the population, and of what political leaders plan to do with that information. Subsequently, what gets asked in town hall settings, by the party faithful, and how leaders respond can provide some uniquely focused insight. 

Despite ghosts of the directors of the New Zealand Company floating morosely at a public National Party meeting in New Plymouth in June, Chris Luxon touted the benefits of learning te reo when asked why it was being taught at schools and lightly pushed back when the crowd responded with a groan (while making it clear that maths, reading, and writing were the priority). That wasn’t the only concern about what was happening behind classroom doors though. 

When asked about the “sexuality agenda being pushed” in schools, Luxon did not dissent, responding that “issues of sexuality and stuff are I think issues for parents to talk about and their families to talk about”. He was asked a similar question about “woke ideology” in sexuality education a month later at a meeting in Selwyn, and responded similarly saying these issues “should be dealt with in the home”. Luxon also faced a number of questions about relationship and sexuality education in Alexandra, flanked by deputy leader Nicola Willis who is often touted as a more progressive counterpart to Luxon’s evangelical conservatism. One woman complained that rainbow charity InsideOUT was involved in developing the curriculum, and said she was concerned about “the indoctrination of the kids”. Willis discussed her four kids and said that “sexual education” was “the job for me and my husband to do with our kids, based on our values and our views of the world”. 

Experts, however, see it differently.

Comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) looks very different today to what the average aforementioned audience member experienced, as experts and the audience members alike will probably agree. “When I was in school we saw a video of rabbits having sex and that was the end of our sexual education,” recalls Sandra Dickson, a researcher with Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura who has worked in Rainbow communities and family and sexual violence prevention for 30 years.  “We’ve moved on from seeing it as something just about bodies”, Dickson says. “Nowadays there is a growing realisation that sexuality education is about all of who we are, and it's about how we navigate the emotional and social aspects of a relationship [...] and that’s about our friendships as well as our romantic relationships and hookups.” 

The Ministry of Education released new guidelines in 2020 for ‘Relationships and Sexuality Education’ (RSE) that helped make sexuality education more comprehensive and useful, which includes “addressing peer pressure, alcohol, and drugs and how that plays into what people are wanting to try, exploring sexuality and gender, gender norms around who asks for sex and who has to respond to that, all that kind of stuff” according to Dickson.

Dickson highlights how RSE can help expand the conversation around consent to other areas of our lives, because it is “something that we start navigating the first time we negotiate consent over a toy with another child when we are five. It's not something that all of a sudden we think about when we are 15 or 16 [...] drawing attention to those things can really help us when we look at sexual things as well.” Nicola Gavey, who is a sexual coercion and violence researcher at the university of Auckland, agrees that CSE “has an important role to play” in preventing sexual violence. She says that through CSE we can take collective responsibility for “equipping young people with information and (importantly) tools to question and critique some of the harmful messages that circulate in popular culture”. Tabby Beasley, managing director of InsideOUT, also agrees the importance of CSE as “a tool for prevention of things like bullying, suicidality and family and sexual violence”.

Experts fear that when it comes to sexuality education, ‘keeping it in the home’ would mean young people miss out. Burnett Foundation Aotearoa Research Officer Cameron Leakey says that while parents and caregivers should be a “part of this process and work alongside schools to tackle these conversations and support young people”, many parents aren’t may not be able to have these conversations with their children. Beasley agreed that it “simply isn't fair for some young people to miss out, or receive inadequate education in such important areas.” Gavey also points out that “not all young people” will want to or be able to have these conversations with their parents and family. Dickson highlights that because RSE is also about building relationships, it’s beneficial to learn alongside young people from a wide range of backgrounds. “We come to this with different cultural beliefs, [...] different expectations about what a good relationship looks like, and we get to talk about those things and tease them out.” 

Relying on parents alone for these lessons can be a dangerous prospect for sexuality and gender diverse young people too. “We also know that unfortunately, some young people live in homophobic and transphobic spaces, which are not safe for rainbow young people to talk about sex.” says Leakey. “Putting the onus on parents does not result in comprehensive education.” Removing CSE from schools could result in “further stigmatisation of things like HIV and STIs, which could have downstream influences, including increasing case numbers.”

Leakey and Dickson also expressed concern at the lack of “consistency of delivery” of the guidelines across schools. “It's completely and utterly left up to schools what they will and won't support. You can go to two schools even in the same city and get completely different information,” Dickson explained. This was especially the case when it came to how schools catered to queer students, and Dickson said that many schools were “terrified” of potential backlash from conservative parents. Webworm recently wrote about a Tauranga college encouraging its gay students to explore a life of celibacy. 

“One of our recent surveys showed that 85.4% of our community don’t believe that their sex education taught them the information they needed about anal sex, while 58.7% told us that porn taught them most of what they know about how to have sex,” Leakey said. 

“It’s not just about the programme itself, it's also about whether or not you allow bullying in your school towards sexuality and gender diverse kids, it’s also about whether you allow bullying of girls that are sexually active, it's also about whether or not you are giving messages in other ways that undermine what your sexuality education is trying to do,” Dickson added. 

Researchers in this space are increasingly cognisant of hateful rhetoric around them.“We are seeing an increase in anti-trans and anti-rainbow rhetoric imported from the US and the UK in Aotearoa and this is definitely concerning” said Beasley. “There is no doubt in my mind that we are seeing a rise in anti-queer, and specifically anti-trans, rhetoric in New Zealand at the moment” Dickson concurred. Both Beasley and Dickson discussed safety threats their organisations had faced in the past and other queer leaders told Critic Te Ārohi they have had to increase security measures for events in recent years.

Dickson remarked that while some people feared RSE would turn kids gay, “we know conversion therapy doesn’t work.” “What we are teaching when we show the beauty of human diversity is that we should accept people for who they are, there’s no interest in changing people’s sexuality or gender, we just want it safe for people to be who they are.” 

“There's a lot of disinformation being spread about our work, when what it all comes back to is suicide prevention for a really vulnerable population group”, Beasley concluded.

Chris Luxon, Nicola Willis, and the National party did not respond to requests for comment.

You can find further resources from Sandra Dickson and Hohou Te Rongo Kahukura at kahukura.co.nz

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2023.
Posted 9:07pm Sunday 3rd September 2023 by Elliot Weir.