THE SEX EDUCATION MYTH
THIS IS WHAT THEY ARE TEACHING YOUR KIDS
There’s been huge debate recently about the agenda-driven nature of sex education in New Zealand schools. One parent, scientist RICHARD O’KEEFE, was concerned enough to ask for a copy of the book kids are being given lessons from. What he discovered will shock you
“The Sexuality Road: Discovering Me, Year 8”, written by Jennie Down, published by Family Planning in 2009.
– Reviewed by Richard A. O’Keefe, 2012.
My younger daughter’s school will be teaching her from this book next term, and before agreeing to that I wished to read the material, so they loaned me a copy over night. Some things seem worthy of comment.
Provenance. It troubles me greatly that the course material in school represents the views of a single organisation. If any organisation has the knowledge and skill to produce such material, Family Planning should be that organisation. Given their aims, it would be irresponsible of them not to produce such material, whether any school uses it or not. I expect that Jennie Down reacted to the opportunity to write this book with pride, enthusiasm, and an honest determination to do the best she could for the children of this country. What troubles me is not her writing it, but taxpayer-funded schools using it as their sole source.
There is a wide spectrum of views in this country about what kinds of sexual activity are appropriate, by whom, and under what conditions. There is even a wide spectrum of views about how we can tell what should count as right or wrong. You may find it interesting to explore your own moral attitudes and frameworks at www.yourmorals.org, where you will find that human cultures seem to base their moral systems on five basic issues: Fairness, Harm, Loyalty, Tradition, and Purity. Different cultures put different weights on these. It turns out that “liberals” are keenly sensitive to Fairness and Harm, while “conservatives” take all five as important. The biblical statement “we are members of one another” is a platitude to a conservative, unintelligible nonsense to a liberal.
This book appears to come from the extreme “liberal” end of the spectrum: the rightness or wrongness of a sexual act does not depend on what the ancestors think, on whether the act fulfils conditions of sacredness, on what the extended family or village will think, on whether it counts formally as adultery or not, even on whether it is legal or not, but apparently (pages 117 to 121) on whether it is by mutual consent, and feels good, and whether safer sex, protection against pregnancy, and protection against STIs have been “talked about” (as opposed, say, to having been dealt with effectively). The idea that “I am in love” might be relevantce to the rightness of sex is presented, but the traditional idea that “my partner is loyal to me” is more relevant is not.
This is an attitude held by many people in New Zealand. But it is only one view. There is nothing evil about someone sincerely writing from such a view point. But there is something wrong about the Government privileging this view in schools. You don’t have to be a Christian to feel excluded: you could hold traditional Indian or Chinese or Samoan or Muslim values and feel alienated. There is talk about diversity, but what this means is (see page 15) that other views are to be somewhat patronisingly tolerated, not that they are allowed any expression in the course material itself. Community consultation is something that happens (page 13) after this book is adopted, not before.
What’s ironic is that page 5 has a section “What values underpin The Sexuality Road program?” including a bullet point “Being exposed to a range of values, attitudes, and opinions helps us when developing and consolidating our own.“ Perhaps other volumes in the series do that; the Year 8 volume most emphatically does not. For example, quite a lot of the material is devoted to explaining that “gays” are ok and that it is bad to say anything against them. No contrary view is allowed a look-in; anyone who would expect that children deserve to be told that people might honestly have what they think to be good reason to disapprove of homosexual acts must come from another planet.
If it comes to that, the idea that a couple might have sex because they want a baby is not to be found in this book (p 149: “recommend use of condoms on every occasion and with every partner when engaging in sexual activity” – my emphasis).
Availability. The school held a parent information evening to discuss the course. That was good, but it was quite impossible in the course of a couple of hours to give adequate insight into the material. It really is necessary to read the book in order to make an informed decision about whether to let your child be taught from it. Such much is available on the internet these days that you would naturally look for this book there. You will not find it. What you will find is the information that a single copy of a year 8 kit is $180. Ouch. The book is 156 pages, several of them (like pages 117 to 121) in very large print. It’s spiral bound, and printed on glossy paper with a card cover. A lot of money could have been saved using electronic distribution and print-on-demand.
Accessibility. For that kind of money, I expect an index. You really would expect the sentence “It is not legal for anyone to have sex with you until you are 16, no matter who and no matter how much you want it“ to appear prominently. (At least as obvious as “have tried other things” on page 118.) So look it up in the index. Whoops, no index.
There is a minor bullet point lurking near the bottom of page 57: “The legal age to have sex in NZ is 16.” That doesn’t really explain that it is a crime for someone else to have sex with an under-age partner, for which they can go to gaol. This is outweighed by three “activities” (pages 111-115) discussing the situation of some 13-year-olds. In “Keisha’s Story” on page 115, there is no mention that “Tim” was trying to commit a crime.
In the course of preparing this review I was constantly frustrated by the absence of an index, and I imagine that a child wanting to look up a point they wanted to review would find it equally frustrating.
Alcohol. There is a famous longitudinal study of young people from Dunedin. One of the results from that study is that the commonest reason for an unplanned pregnancy is “I was drunk.” “Keisha’s Story” on page 115 is welcome for its link of alcohol and unintended sex. I just wonder if this is really enough, and if the lesson is even intentional, because the very next page talks about “are you ready”, so the focus is apparently Keisha’s readiness, not her getting “pretty drunk pretty quickly”. I don’t think alcohol is mentioned anywhere else, the lack of an index is such a pain.
This book is part of children’s health education. Alcohol can be used responsibly, but in this country it is too often used irresponsibly, and too often with bad results. Alcohol education is an important part of health education, and it needs to be integrated with sex education.
Relationships . As a young teenager, I knew perfectly well where to find any facts I wanted to know, and indeed, found more facts than I had any use for. What I didn’t find was things like “what do you talk to a girl about, if not electronics?” “what do girls want?” “how can I make friends?” “what do you do if the one girl you have made friends with is rude about you?” “do I need to learn to dance?” Relationship stuff. Children today need to be taught how they can have a valuable friendship with someone of the relevant sex without it having to involve copulation. They won’t find out from TV! So let’s turn to lesson 6, “Relationships”, starting on page 51.
Whoops. It may be called “Relationships”, but the lesson content is (1) gays are discriminated against, (2) accept diversity in relationships, (3) tell off people who are not politically correct, and (4) pity people in relationships that others disapprove of. Anything that a teenager might need to know about how to be a good person to have a relationship with? Nothing.
These days we have to ask what children are taught about abusive relationships and how to avoid them. I couldn’t find the topic in the index, there being no index. There is some material about feeling comfortable in a relationship and not pressured, before going further. But how do you spot a potentially bad relationship in time to get out before any harm is done? Wouldn’t that be more use to more students than “gay is good“? At year 8 level, avoiding bullies should be more pressing than avoiding pregnancy, and it never stops being important.
STDs, condoms, and clear thinking. I admit it. I’m a scientist. Numbers speak to me. Waffle when I could have been given honest numbers offends me. People 12 to 13 years old are big enough to be trusted with numbers. Like “how many people in New Zealand have STDs?” “What are my chances of catching an STD?“ “How bad is it to get an STD?” “How much protection do condoms actually provide?” “What’s more likely to kill me, AIDS, smoking, or a car crash?” You won’t find those numbers, in this book, nor where to find them.
There is a distinction between “condoms are an effective tool for controlling reproduction and disease at the population level” and “condoms will always keep me safe from unwanted pregnancy and disease”, just as there is a distinction between “compulsory use of seat belts will save many lives at the population level”and “wearing a seat-belt will always keep me safe” This is not an easy or a natural distinction for people to make. One of the tasks for our education system is to train people to make such distinctions. It’s a distinction this book is careful to avoid making, sadly. “Key messages for young people” on page 151 is explicit: “Condoms, used consistently and correctly, are effective against STIs transmitted by fluids” (my emphasis). The message any young person will take away is “condoms will keep me safe.” But they won’t.
First of all, condoms are obviously going to do nothing about lice, or any disease transmitted by skin-to-skin contact, and unless you put an extra condom on your mouth, they aren’t going to do anything about diseases spread by mouth-to-mouth contact. The only way to be safe from such things is not to have intimate contact with someone who has one.
The educational point here is that condoms can be effective at the population level by making enough people safer without making me safe. We have quite a lot of theory about the spread of epidemics through networks these days. We have enough computers in enough schools that we could very easily have students explore an STD simulation model as a joint health/IT lesson. We could make it vividly apparent in schools that to have many sexual partners is to choose to be a menace to public health. Why don’t we?
Another important educational issue is the distinction between statistical significance and practical importance. To put it simply, statistical significance is about signal to noise ratio: how confident we are that a perceived effect is real. It has nothing to say about whether or how much the perceived effect matters. There might be statistically significant evidence that toothpaste X left your teeth 1% shinier than toothpaste Y, but would anyone care? Statistically significant evidence that condoms offer some protection is not necessarily evidence that condoms are practically effective, and they can be practically effective for some diseases without being practically effective for others.
The book cites the report “Effectiveness of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted infections by Holmes, Levine, and Weaver. Trusting, as I do, that the author made an honest attempt to present the truth as she knew it, I can only conclude that the author did not read or did not understand that paper. For example, “Nonetheless, HSV-2 infection was acquired, although rarely, even by people who reported using condoms during 100% of sexual activity” (p455) is not reflected in the book’s praise of condoms, nor is “Of the girls who reported using condoms each time they had had sex …, 17.8% of them had at least one STI” (p457). Figure 1 of the paper is particularly illuminating: the evidence is consistent with condom use increasing the risk for male HSV-2, bacterial trichomoniasis, bacterial vaginosis, trichomoniasis, “multiple STIs”, female HPV, cervical intraepithelial neoplasia, invasive cervical cancer, and papular lesions. Indeed, for male HSV-2, male “multiple STIs”, and papular penile lesions the point estimates are that condom use makes the risk about twice as bad.
Two conditions of particular interest in New Zealand are HPV, against which Gardasil has been introduced, and chlamydia, our commonest STI. “A meta-analysis of 20 studies found no evidence that condoms were effective against genital HPV infection” (p457). Not in the book. The paper reports reductions in chlamydia risk from 26% to 50%. This is a very useful reduction from the point of view of managing public health. It is nowhere near big enough to count as effective prevention from an individual point of view. The “key message for young people” in this school textbook is seriously misleading. Suppose your chance of catching a particular STI on one occasion is 1 in 10. Then 7 such occasions are enough to push your chance of getting ill over 1 in 2. Now suppose that using a condom reduces your risk by a factor of two. Then 14 such occasions are now required to make your chance of getting ill more than 1 in 2. You’ll still catch it in the end, it just takes longer.
Once again this is something that could be explored in a vivid simulation. Why don’t we do that? We live in a complex society and a basic understanding of the idea of risk is an important part of good citizenship. Why not kill three educational birds (understanding risk, using IT to understand natural systems, health education) with one simulation stone? A child who can use a web browser can use a simulation.
Sometimes when people are given safety devices (like seat-belts, say) they feel so much safer that they engage in riskier behaviour. If there is a warning against overconfidence in condoms in this book, I have been unable to find it. Did I mention that there is no index?
Oddities. The diagram of “Male External Reproductive Parts” on page 133 has the label “foreskin” attached to the glans of what appears to be a circumcised penis.
Page 132 (males) and page 139 (females) both say “Pubic hair is for protection and warmth — not just for decoration.” Really? What does it protect against? Why aren’t we told what the health hazards of shaving are, then? We get armpit hair at the same time as pubic hair, do our armpits need extra warmth? Our ears and toes could really do with some warmth, why don’t we get pubic-style hair there? Children are smaller than adults so lose heat much faster; if children need warmth more, why do adults get the hair? This had me howling with laughter.
Age-appropriateness. Evidently the ministry of education and the schools believe it is appropriate. Thinking about my own daughter, I’m not so sure. It must be appallingly hard to write a single book that will serve the bright as well as the dull, the fast developers as well as the slow developers, the good readers and the poor readers, the native speakers of English and the ESL, the boys and the girls, the emotionally intelligent and the near autistic. This is one reason why I am troubled at the idea of a single book dominating the schools, no matter how good.
But there is a patronising air, and an air of unreality, about this book. Consider for example the activity on page 77, where students are forced to stand in various places to indicate their attitudes. At that age, I would have deeply resented being made to reveal my opinions on such matters in public and would have found it very stressful. This is almost admitted with the advice to teachers “some students may hold quite different opinions on certain topics and be afraid of expressing them. * If a student is standing on his/her own in a corner, stand alongside them so that they feel supported and are not on their own.” Why the blindness to the possibility that it might simply be wrong to force children to express ideas they are afraid of expressing? Does the author seriously imagine that a child standing on his/her own would not realise that the teacher doesn’t really share their opinion? That they might resent being “babied”? When the next bullet point says “* if a corner has no-one standing in it, move into that space…”, one wonders if the author noticed that a teacher trying to follow the instructions might need to stand in three different places at the same time, each of them insincerely?
Conclusion: culturally insensitive, one-eyed, preachy, sloppy about risks, and very weak on relationships qua relationships. There has to be something better for schools to use, and if there isn’t, there urgently needs to be.
“The Sexuality Road” by Jennie Down, published by Family Planning NZ