Sexuality education in New Zealand in the 21st century typically covers information on sexual relationships, safer sex, contraception and sexually transmitted infections. However, some young people find this information too medical and clinical, and not particularly relevant to their lives. In the early 2000s, 17–19-year-olds rated friends as the best source of information on sex, followed by school sexuality-education programmes and parents.
Learning about the basics
In a major study in the early 2000s young people said that they wanted to know practical things such as how to get condoms, how to find out if someone you liked wanted to have sex, and also what Peter (18) described as ‘just like the basics, like positioning or whatever’. His girlfriend Amy (17) said that without this knowledge ‘you’ve got basically no idea, you’re just going to stuff around for ages and … most times it’s painful, if you don’t know what you are on about.’1
Early sex education
The introduction of sex education in schools was debated in Parliament in 1910, but for a long time there were no coordinated programmes. Students got information from books, pamphlets and lectures outside school hours.
Often referred to as ‘sex hygiene’, sex education in high schools in the early 1900s focused on sexual purity and preparation for marriage. Students were told to avoid premarital sex and masturbation, which was seen as a vice and a cause of mental illness. Against the background of ideas about ‘race improvement’, sex education was sometimes used to encourage those who were white and middle class to marry within this group.
Sex education was prohibited in primary schools until the Education Amendment Act 1985 permitted it under certain conditions. Limited sex education was offered in some high schools from the late 1960s. Parents had to be consulted, the school committee had to approve sex-education programmes following a written report by the school principal, and parents had the right to withdraw their children. A new health syllabus, Understanding change in puberty, was introduced in 1987, and in 1989 legal restrictions on advising under-16-year-olds on the use of contraceptives were removed.
Sex education or sexuality education
Sex education in schools concentrated on reproductive issues and was highly medicalised and clinical. Often it was used to respond to perceived social problems and health issues. After the first reported case of HIV/AIDS in New Zealand in 1983, fears about the spread of the virus led to a strong focus on condom use. In the 21st century the focus was less on the risk of HIV/AIDS and more on preventing sexually transmitted infections and reducing unplanned pregnancies.
When the new health and physical education curriculum was introduced in 1999, sex education became ‘sexuality education’. Attempts were made to move away from a narrow focus on biology, reproduction and contraception towards broader issues, including the physical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of sexuality.
A special exclusion
Sexuality education is the only part of the curriculum from which parents can have a child removed. Under section 105D of the Education Amendment Act 1985 parents can apply to the principal, in writing, to have their child excluded from these classes. Health education is also the only part of the curriculum on which principals are required to consult with the school’s board of trustees, and with parents of children currently enrolled and those likely to enrol over the next two years.
Gay, lesbian and bisexual identities
Sexuality education has often ignored gay, lesbian and bisexual identities, or presented them as negative, deviant or different. When a group of same-sex-attracted 16–19-year-old high-school students were interviewed, one said: ‘Everything that comes out about sex is straight and being gay is an alternative thing, like they don’t treat it equally.’2 A senior high-school student interviewed for a different research project said that when homosexuality was discussed it was often in terms of HIV/AIDS, and was associated with danger and disease.
Sexuality education in the 21st century
In the early 21st century sexuality education was compulsory until year 10. After that, only senior students who chose health as a subject received further sexuality education. Students were least likely to receive sexuality education at the time when most were having their first sexual experiences.