When words such as “my vegeta is swollen and itchy” or “am I pregante?” reached meme status on the archive that is Yahoo Answers, the question was posed in comment sections worldwide; how is sex education taught? In a world where facts of life can be sought and taught on Google or Pornhub, how does the New Zealand education system fare?
With a great amount of discretion on how sex education is taught in high schools, there seems to be significant debate on online teaching forums about how to address not only sex, but connected issues such as sexual health, abusive relationships, gender identity, LGBTQI+ relationships and safety and privacy in an online world.
Coming from a Catholic high school, the curriculum seemed to balance on a tightrope between wanting educated students and preserving Catholic values around sex. Sex education was covered in occasional health sessions where the teacher could not answer with a straight face, and would giggle and give vague statements to avoid answering questions. While contraceptive methods were touched upon, emphasis was placed on abstinence and never being intimate online. Questions were left unanswered and contraception remained an unexplored frontier.
One lunchtime, a more experienced student decided to take matters into her own hands, holding secret classes in the underground toilets at our school. She brought with her a range of items from Family Planning and demonstrated, using a glue stick, how to put a condom on. And that my friends, was how I was taught (and dodged Yahoo Answers). But perhaps, others may not have had the chance to learn. Or perhaps they did?
I took to the student community to hear their experiences about how they were taught sex education, their opinion on the state of sex education in New Zealand, and if there is anything they think should be taught for generation Zoomer and beyond.
“I went to a co-ed high school. We were taught sex education for one month in science, this was in Year 10. By that time, it’s already too late.”
“We need to know about sex beyond biology, but in health class, sex was only mentioned in an occasional, ‘masked’ way, only in Year 10 and not as an ongoing topic.”
“We were taught from a 1970s animated cartoon video with elderly teachers.”
“Sex education, and health classes in particular, need to acknowledge a changing and opening society, through a curriculum which covers mental health and relationships and the fact that girls and boys may be curious about sex earlier than in Year 10. We also need to consider and address in sex education the fact that women are being sexualised younger, which means addressal of safety too.”
“I got a brief sex education class in Year 6. Boys and girls were separated, and girls were taught about erections and periods. The general impression was that we shouldn’t discuss that stuff with boys.”
“At my single sex high school, we never covered contraception or consent. There was a Sex With Attitude presentation about healthy relationships, but the general message was abstinence until marriage, anti-abortion and no mention of contraception.”
“We also didn’t learn about gay sex, homosexuality, asexuality, bisexuality or anything non-heterosexual. We also didn’t learn about orgasms or foreplay, very little on sex itself, mostly anatomical discussion and labelling.”
“I come from a multicultural and highly religious country. Where I grew up, ‘baby dumping’ is very common, where babies are born in secret and abandoned. This is because there is a strong stigma against sex and unwed mothers. We were taught about sex in biology, but it was mainly activist feminist groups who taught contraception. They were seen as ‘encouraging’ young students to have sex, so public opinion was against them.”
“While this may seem very conservative, my observation is that New Zealand is not that different after all. There are many religious schools which prioritise abstinence and are in denial that young people will be having sex regardless. Sex education here needs to be less ‘secret’ and more educational.”
“We were just mostly taught about condoms. There needs to be more education on ineffective methods, like the ‘pull out method’ and how that’s the dumbest shit ever. My biggest point would be about safety in using dating apps. Do you know how many young people are on Grindr?”
“Same sex relationships should be covered in school, especially because high schoolers don’t want to be outed.
This is so there is a safe way to have questions answered, such as the pain and requirements of anal sex.”
“I feel like some guys don’t take condoms seriously too, this is notorious in the gay community. This should be discussed and explained, rather than young men having to learn through experiences which can be toxic or exploitative.”
“Sadly, I learnt through a pregnancy scare. I find that sex education, if at all, tends to cover contraception briefly and is usually only focused on basic anatomy. It would have been helpful to know about different methods of contraception and how these suit different lifestyles. Birth control pills may not suit someone who may lose things frequently or has to move between family homes regularly. Perhaps other methods such as an IUD or Depo Provera could be raised.”
“Though we know that sperm and egg makes an embryo, there were so many questions I had about conception.
At the time, my partner’s condom broke. What were my options? What would happen?
Can I still get pregnant from pre-cum? Can I get pregnant with intimacy in a spa pool or shower environment? How long does sperm survive on the skin? Can sperm still survive without the semen which holds it?
The science behind sperm, what makes it survive and what makes conception work would be helpful in being mindful of times to have sex and also how to clean up after.”
“We were taught about STDs and STIs but in a heteronormative context which was almost completely about diseases from penetrative sex. Chlamydia and herpes can still be spread without penetrative sex e.g oral.”
“Family Planning is doing essential work in New Zealand. But the responsibility shouldn’t only be on clinics and in expecting young people to know what they need to ask. Schools should take more responsibility for the sake of science and health.”
“I had sex education at school in Years 6, 7 and 8. I remember in Year 7, a particularly stern teacher standing at the front of the room and showing us boys a sex education video from the 90s. You could tell how old it was because the protagonist had strong feelings for Friends era Jennifer Aniston – with a poster of her above his bed.”
“However, in high school, I never had sex education. It was a small private high school, but they didn’t cover anything. We had a reproduction unit in Year 11 biology which luckily covered the basics – though not all students took biology.”
“I’m fortunate to have very proactive parents. I’m the youngest of three – and my mum is a health professional – so they sat me down for ‘the talk’. Regardless, it was poor that my school did not even inform parents that sex education was not going to be taught, nor facilitate a safe space where students may have been able to learn more about sex and ask questions away from their families. I feel as a result that some of the students I went to school with really missed out on the important opportunity to learn about sex and sexuality. I hope their parents gave them the talk.”
“I think there should be more specific universal standards for sex education in New Zealand. I attended a single-sex religious high school and received a lot of information about contraceptive methods but received little to no education about gender and sexual orientation as this did not align with the religious character of my school.”
“I think regardless of whether you are LGBTQ+ this is an important topic to cover so you can have a respect and appreciation for the experiences of others. This should be standard in sex education across New Zealand, and issues of gender should be taught pre-high school.”
“I think this could have the potential to address some of the homophobia, transphobia and discrimination we see in New Zealand today.”
*Names have been changed to protect students’ identities