Opinion: Lisa Marvelly

Sex ed is one of those things that nearly everyone remembers. Whether it was a health teacher in their 70s putting a condom on a banana, a friend who asked the most awkward question imaginable in class, or an excruciating chat with Mum or Dad about the birds and the bees, it’s hard to forget the experience of being young, curious and mortified.

Not everyone gets sexuality education, of course. Our curriculum presents an interesting conundrum. While sexuality education of some description is compulsory, it is up to schools and their communities to decide exactly what is taught.

Such a situation produces an extraordinary amount of variance between students at different schools and even different classes. Some leave the school gates well equipped to deal with sexual relationships, some leave with only the bare minimum understanding of reproductive biology.

I’ve long found it maddening and inexplicable that New Zealand would have such a lacklustre sexuality education framework, especially because we have some of the worst sexual violence statistics in the world. As a student at Rotorua Girls’ High School, I was lucky to receive fairly comprehensive sexuality education for the time (although neither consent nor LGBTQ+ relationships were mentioned). As an adult, I realised how lucky and rare I was.

When Roast Busters happened in 2013, and none of the victims ever saw justice done, the horror of the situation lit a fire within me. No young person (or any adult for that matter) should ever experience the kind of victimisation that group of Auckland teenagers did.

Sexuality education, I realised then, isn’t just a funny, embarrassing rite of passage, it’s a crucial protective shield that every teenager should have. It could mean the difference between a young person being assaulted or not. So it became something of a hot topic for me.

As a result, earlier this year I became more familiar with sexuality education than I ever expected to be. I’m not sure whether you could call me a sexpert yet, but after making a web series for teens about sexuality education (The REAL Sex Talk – you can find it at therealsextalk.com), if you threw me a question about contraception, protection, STIs or gender identity, I would probably be able to answer it.

I’ve held a faux penis as part of a filmed condom demonstration and asked a number of New Zealand celebrities how old they were when they first masturbated. I’ve said the word vulva more times this year than I have throughout the duration of my entire life to date. I can now explain how to use a dental dam correctly. I can’t say that I ever dreamed of growing up to talk about sex for a living, but it’s certainly been a fascinating path.

Working on The REAL Sex Talk made for a great conversation starter. “So what do you do for a living?” Ah. Pause. “I’m currently making a web series teaching teens about sex.” It caused a few splutters, but mostly people were intrigued. I can’t count the number of times that people told me how much they wished that a series like The REAL Sex Talk was around when they were at school.

Talking openly about healthy relationships keeps our young people safe.

Which is why I’m thrilled that ACC will be funding its programme Mates and Dates to be delivered to 180,000 students around New Zealand. The programme features information about healthy relationships, consent, identity, gender, sexuality, safety, and what to do when things go wrong. It doesn’t just focus on the mechanics of sex, but on the broader landscape of sexual relationships. It’s a step in the right direction that is long overdue.

I’ve never understood why we don’t teach Kiwi students about relationships. Even if parents don’t want to talk with their teenagers about sex, surely they want them to eventually end up in healthy, fulfilling, respectful relationships.

Talking openly about what is safe and healthy and what is not helps to equip young people to make good decisions, to step in and help their friends, and to reach out for help when they need it. It’s always seemed like a no-brainer to me.

If I have one bone to pick with Mates and Dates it’s the duration of the programme. Lasting for five one-hour sessions, I don’t believe that it is long enough. When we made The REAL Sex Talk, we covered topics like the first time, consent, contraception and protection, STIs, peer pressure, respect and relationships, pleasure and masturbation, sexuality, gender identity, drugs and alcohol, porn, sexy selfies and revenge porn, and myths and stereotypes, and even then, we only scratched the surface.

While Mates and Dates covers many (but not all) of these subjects across the different year levels, I doubt that every school will implement the programme for all students at all year levels. ACC increasing the funding of the programme to make Mates and Dates available to a large number of students is a great start, but it doesn’t yet go far enough.

If we were really serious about combating our sexual violence statistics, we would make comprehensive and evidence-based education about sexuality and relationships compulsory for all Kiwi students throughout all years at high school.

We’ve got to start somewhere, though, and I’m just grateful that something is finally being done. I’ve no doubt the decision will be controversial to some people, but with current research showing that people aged between 15 and 24 are the most at risk of intimate partner violence, the New Zealand education system would be failing the students in its care if it allowed the status quo to continue.

It may have taken five years, but we seem to finally be learning from Roast Busters. Here’s hoping that Mates and Dates helps to keep our young people safe.

Source: NZ Herald

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