New Zealand religious right organisation Family First has endeared itself to many with its refreshingly zany approach to evidence when constructing its arguments. Over several issues recently New Zealanders have become familiar with:
- opinion polls that are more or less useless because of their biased questions
- essentially moral conservative and religious arguments made to look ‘sciencey’ by removing the religious and values words, and inserting academic sounding language and loads of references
- references that are wrong, misrepresented, atypical of the literature on a topic or to things that sound like academic journals but are more like lobby group newsletters in reality.
So it was really no surprise to see Family First yesterday release a ‘report’ it had commissioned into several sexuality education resources, from Dr Miriam Grossman. Dr Grossman lives in the United States and is well known there for the extreme religious conservative views she brings to topics of sex and sexuality.
In this case Dr Grossman certainly maintains Family First’s academic traditions. This is actually an older polemic piece, in which Dr Grossman dispensed some cherry-picked ‘facts’ and then gave her opinion about US sexuality education, in which the US-specific programmes have been stripped out and her opinion of a selection of New Zealand resources substituted.
Demolition of Dr Grossman’s work would be a valuable (and fun!) piece of work to do, but I don’t have time for it right now (the scope is enormous and the pickings rich). Suffice to say the following:
- The resources that she examines are considered entirely out of the context of the sexuality education programmes in which they are used with young people. A fair examination would start with the New Zealand health education curriculum and then locate the resources appropriately within that.
- She does not consider even slightly the intended audience for each of the resources. These are not resources intended for use with all young people but are often highly targeted. For example, there is a website intended for young LGBTI people. The ‘get it on’ campaign from the NZ AIDS Foundation is not even intended for young people at all (it’s for gay and bisexual men).
- Dr Grossman’s use of data is highly selective and misleading. For example, on the effectiveness of condoms she selects individual studies (out of literally thousands) that support her perjorative conclusions (a study from rural Uganda, anyone?) In some cases (e.g. discussion of anal intercourse) her values are even more exposed. I’m not saying it’s wrong for her to have a values-based opinion about these subjects. But I am saying it’s wrong for this to be presented as a scientific analysis.
- Evaluations of the resources are entirely absent. Did they achieve what they set out to do, or not? Surely that should be the point?
This last point is especially important, because Family First are now spinning Dr Grossman’s ‘report’ as meaning that sexuality education programmes in New Zealand are increasing (presumably underage) teenagers’ sexual activity. In fact she doesn’t say this, but nonetheless, such a theory could only be tested by using outcome evaluations.
In fact a lot of evaluation work has been conducted. It probably wasn’t cited because its conclusions weren’t convenient for the author (or I’ll concede it could just be incredibly lazy scholarship) or her sponsors. The Ministry of Health commissioned an extensive literature review in 2008 to determine effective sexuality education. The literature review identified that effective sexuality education programmes:
- recognise that sexuality is integral to the health and well−being of all individuals, including children and adolescents, begin early and are developmentally appropriate
- recognise that youth are willing and able to make responsible decisions regarding their sexual health
- focus on the promotion of sexual health and positive sexual relationships as opposed to sex−negative behaviours and consequences
- encompass a broad−based approach that moves beyond the individual and the physical and considers the wider social, economic and cultural influences on sexual health, behaviour and choices
- ascertain student characteristics and need
- focus on educational outcomes such as attitudinal changes, interpersonal skills, critical thinking and action competence
- have sufficient class time
- are taught by a motivated and well−trained teacher
- teach specific behavioural skills and provide examples and opportunities to practice skills
- are inclusive of all students regardless of gender, culture, sexual orientation and ability
- are part of a whole school approach that encompasses curriculum, school organisation and ethos and community links and partnerships (including parents and caregivers)
- employ meaningful student assessment and an effective evaluative tool.
Our problem in New Zealand is not that the resources produced by great organisations like Family Planning and Rainbow Youth are wrong. It is that we know what works but have failed to ensure that every school uses a sexuality education approach consistent with these criteria.