Relationship and sexuality education has, yet again, become a political talking point ahead of this year’s election.
National Party deputy leader Nicola Willis recently told a public meeting that sex education was a job for her and her husband, “based on our values and our views of the world […] I want my education system focused on teaching my children how to read, how to write and how to do maths”.
While Willis may have had a receptive audience, interviews with parents of children between the ages of 11 and 14 show she may be in the minority. As contentious as the topic can be, many parents want to work with schools to educate their children about relationships and sexuality.
My research offers a glimpse into just how complicated, yet important, the topic of sexuality education can be – and why it it so vital we ensure all young people have access to quality relationships and sexuality education.
From sex to sexuality education
For much of the 20th century, sex education in New Zealand centred on population control and Christian moral norms.
It wasn’t until 1985 that sex education became part of the school curriculum. But parents were able to pull their children out of the classes, pointing to a general acceptance that sex education was a controversial topic. With the scare of HIV/AIDS, classes focused on physical aspects of sex and how to practice safe sex.
In 1999, sex education became sexuality education. The shift was meant to introduce a more holistic view of the topic, which includes physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects. This was much broader than sex education, which related only to the physical aspects of sexual and reproductive knowledge.
A 2015 guide from the Ministry of Education said sexuality education should take a “positive view of sexual development as a natural part of growing up”. This frames sexuality first and foremost as a source of human potential and pleasure.
Since then, the curriculum has evolved and broadened further – with sexuality education becoming relationships and sexuality education (RSE).
Introduced in 2020, RSE starts from year one and includes learning to be a good friend, sense of identity, how we care for other people, and consent. Older students develop knowledge and skills to negotiate positive intimate relationships and to critique media messages harmful to wellbeing.
The contested ground of sexuality education
My research examined the complicated and evolving role of the parent as sexuality educator – particularly in the digital age. But I also looked at how parents felt about the role of schools in teaching children about sexuality.
International research has found that teachers overestimate parental opposition to sexuality education.
In New Zealand, conservative and religious lobby groups, as well as some media, frame parents and schools in opposition to each other over who is the “best” provider of sexuality education.
But the parents who participated in my small group interviews were, in fact, supportive of relationship and sexuality education in schools. As one parent said:
There is a role for schools to play in the sexual education of children, but there’s also a role that parents play. And it’s defining where and how the two work together.
Another parent commented:
I’ve always seen teachers as an extension of parenting, personally. So if my child can come and ask me something I’d like to believe that they could go and ask a teacher the same.
A third parent highlighted the importance of the classroom setting:
I actually think it’s really good for kids to be sitting in a room with kids their own age […] all hearing the same thing and talking about it to each other and just demystifying it.
These parents also understood how important it was to ensure young people have multiple sources of sexuality education – both at home and in the classroom.
One parent discussed just how lacking her own sex education had been harmful:
Talking about the good stuff would have really helped me with those bad decisions. It would have been like, “Yeah, actually this isn’t supposed to hurt. This is supposed to be nice.” Because I didn’t talk about it with anyone, so I didn’t have anyone telling me, actually it’s not supposed to be like that.
While supportive of sexuality education in schools, parents wanted schools to consult more so parents could understand what was being taught.
A 2018 Education Review Office report found only 25% of schools were rated “good” at connecting with their communities on the relationships and sexuality curriculum. The majority of schools tended to use surveys with low response rates from parents.
What young people want
During separate research I did for the the new app Te Puāwaitanga: Beyond the Birds and the Bees, young people told us they wanted a safe, reliable platform to access information and open up conversations about sexual health, relationships, gender and sexuality.
In the absence of open discussions at home on relationships and sexuality, friends or pornography become the default sex educator. Research from the Classification Office found one in four New Zealanders first see porn by age 12, and most are not seeking it out when they first see it. A majority of young people (75%) have seen porn by age 17.
Many of the young people we spoke with said they have limited opportunities to talk to their parents about sexuality and so school becomes a safe space. School is also a place for them to hear a range of views about relationships, sex and diverse sexualities.
As one student said:
I trust my parents to tell me what they think, but school allows us to hear what other people think.
In a complex world, relationships and sexuality education aims to give young people the critical skills to navigate the uncertainty around them. It needs to be a combination deal with parents and schools working together.
But this can only happen after listening to the voices of young people. After all, isn’t education about relationships and sexuality meant for them in the first place?