Family First gets it wrong on sexuality education also

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.

About Kevin Hague 163 Articles

Green Party Member of Parliament

18 Comments Posted

  1. I’m amazed family first gets things printed in the media ( well not really, our newspapers are a joke and quite often counter-factual ).

    But family fundy’s/first can always be relied on for alarmist views and news with a backward american ‘christian’ flavor.

    He’s still pissed off he can no longer hit children …. just like jesus did ……………. 😉

  2. Hmm. Not sure why I got two down ticks for presenting facts but never mind 🙂

    Since when did we have an official religion?

    Don – since…

    (a) our Head of State is also the Supreme Governor of the CoE and Defender of the Faith.
    (b) Parliament swears an oath to service to the HoS under the Oath of Allegiance.
    (c) Anglican cathedrals also tend to be used for State events.

    So it is a curly one and does come down to semantics, that while there is no State religion (i.e. policy by the State to support one religion over another), to all intents and purposes we do have an official one.

    Note – Bear in mind that the HRC doc is a policy position as opposed to law.

  3. do you have a link to where that general agreement (or consensus) is documented?

    Dave stringer – it’s inferred from;

    (i) NZBORA 1990, s13 “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief, including the right to adopt and to hold opinions without interference.”

    (ii) while we have an official religion – Anglicanism – it is not the State religion (though admittedly, it does get a bit murky here).

    Saying that, we’re not as explicit as our dear cousins across the Tasman where under s116 of their Constitution: “The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance…”

  4. kahikatea – we would be better getting reports from both areas, but interpreting them takes care. Remember that the suggestions and interpretations made by the US experts may actually be correct, but the experts’ suggestions may not be being followed.


  5. Indications, including the teen pregnancy rate, shows that we were worse rabbits than our present teens, in my youth.
    Of course then the girls involved went to live with an Aunt and the child was adopted.
    Considering we, in those days, were not even supposed to know sex existed until age 16, I think sex education and more openness has improved matters.

    Certainly the teen pregnancy rate is higher in areas who discourage sex education and tell teens to abstain.

  6. Gregor must be either ignorant to or afraid of the fact that teen attitudes to sex in general are pretty bad. I’m certainly no troll.

  7. if we want to reduce the rates of abortion and teenage pregnancy in New Zealand, wouldn’t we be better to get reports from experts in countries like Germany that have actually achieved this? rather than reports from so-called ‘experts’ in the US, which has significantly higher rates of both than New Zealand does?

  8. Zedd

    re “I thought it was generally agreed that there should be a line drawn between church & state”

    do you have a link to where that general agreement (or consensus) is documented?

  9. There is something creepy about all this State trying to jump into bed with children’s ideas on sex. But I do think there are some blunt facts kids should know about, from the age of about 12 or so.

    They should understand that no-one chooses their sexuality, and therefore homosexuals should be treated kindly – not condemned. That is fair. But they should not be taught that homosexuality is “normal” because it isn’t. It’s a common distortion, but a distortion nonetheless. Stick with the facts – let the attitudes evolve from there. It’s not our place to make “attitudes” (thought control?).

    They should also be taught about child abuse, sexual child abuse especially, its prevalence, and how it leads to screwed-up kids and often promiscuous behaviour. They should also be informed about the biological facts, obviously, and the psycho-emotional facts. But strictly the facts.

    And all of this can be given easily and clearly on a DVD, to be watched in their own time. And then from there, the state can get the hell out of it :).

    Don’t you know that sex is intrinsically private?

  10. People of my generation in general think of sex for selfish purposes only…

    They do not consider that if they are having sex they should be willing to take on the responsibility of a child if that should happen…

    My sister and a friend of hers were the ONLY ONES in her group of friends school when they were 13 years old…

    I smell troll bait and call bullshit on ‘Kayla’.

  11. Family First appears to have a similar temperament to many trolls who rely on an audience that’s not properly informed. The factually incorrect aspect of their argument has been easily deconstructed by Kevin Hague, who with a working knowledge has quite rightfully highlighted the inadequacies within Family First’s propaganda.

    Yesterday, the religious social conservative pressure group’s director, Bob McCoskrie, attempted to respond to Hagues deconstruction of their “report” entitled: R18: Sexuality Education in New Zealand: A Critical Review (PDF), which by most accounts is a backwards document not based in reality.

    For instance, claiming that; “students are informed that at any age, sexual freedom is a right” is clearly wrong. Most sex education programs in schools make the lawful age of consent very clear. Also, these programmes simply don’t overstate the efficacy of condoms… In fact they’re more likely to overstate the detrimental aspects of sex and contraception, rather than highlight how a healthy sexual relationship functions.

    There are various other untruths within Family First’s flawed document, but what I found most interesting is the numerous contradictions:

    First it argues that students need to be taught about the emotional aspect of sex and then it says a no-nonsense approach needs to be taken, presumably to highlight just how horrible sex before marriage can be. It states; ” we cannot expect teens to delay sexual activity while instructing them” but then gives a raft of reasons why students should be informed of the worst aspects of sex in an attempt to dissuade them from it.

    Having a goal of postponing people’s sexual activity until adulthood is commendable, but having the goal of delaying people’s sexual activity until marriage is simply delusional! It’s an outdated and a seriously flawed belief that won’t be successful, and therefore Family First’s report should be consigned to the dustbin where it belongs.

  12. As a university student who is only a couple of years out of school, I certainly think that the sex education system needs to change. People of my generation in general think of sex for selfish purposes only. They do not consider that if they are having sex they should be willing to take on the responsibility of a child if that should happen, they do not have a healthy respect for the emotional and other aspects of a sexual relationship, and anyone over 15 in many cases who is still a virgin is, sadly, an outcast. My sister and a friend of hers were the ONLY ONES in her group of friends school when they were 13 years old (now 16, turning 17) who were still virgins by that point. So where is sex education getting us?

  13. “New Zealand religious right organisation”

    You lost objective credibility right from the first sentence Hague.

    If you’re going to give a rebuttal, then actually giving counter-evidence is the correct way to do it, not this emotive crap that you’ve posted that is little more than your own (biased and non-objective) opinion.

  14. All matters relating to public health & associated legislation, should be scientifically evidence-based.. NOT warped by ‘fundamentalist religious’ NONSENSE !!
    Having said that I thought it was generally agreed that there should be a line drawn between church & state.. but then I see the speaker reading a prayer before parliament commences & I start to think that its not necassarily the case ?

    kia-ora koutou

  15. Shunda, there is a considerable body of evidence about the behaviours and psychosocial attributes (like beliefs and attitudes) that are associated with the sexual and reproductive health outcomes you mention. Evaluation of resources and programmes will measure the extent to which these behaviours and attributes change. This knowledge about what works is then also used in designing new resources. When I worked at the AIDS Foundation we maintained a superb specialist library, monitoring interventions worldwide for effectiveness evidence. We combined this with our own local research and specialist knowledge of our community in order to design resources. The draft resources were pre-tested with samples from the community they were intended for and adjusted accordingly. And then once the resources or programmes had been deployed, their effectiveness was evaluated. New Zealand has been one of the most successful countries in the world at limiting the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Family Planning and Rainbow Youth use similar processes. But while the AIDS Foundation has very good reach into the intended ‘audience’ (men who have sex with other men), uptake of these other resources is very patchy. High teenage pregnancy rates are associated with risk environments, poor or non-existent sexuality education programmes and poor access to contraception or services.

    Secondly, I think it might be good for you to read again the characteristics of successful programmes. The evidence is that approaches to sexuality education which rely on someone from outside the school coming in to deliver a programme and then leaving again are not as successful as ones where great programmes delivered by usual, trusted teachers (subject to programmes meeting the other conditions for success, of course). The very best programmes will also use organisations like Family Planning and Rainbow Youth as resources, but as an augmentation, rather than a substitute. The staff from both these organisations involved in such work are usually professionals with a training or teaching background and qualifications.

    As I say in the post, I have no objection at all to Dr Grossman or Family First having an opinion about the resources or expressing that opinion. I do object, however, when they misrepresent their opinions as facts and distort evidence to give the impression that their opinions have support from science.

  16. So the Greens want to encourage all doctors to examine the testes of all boys in puberty? Any chance? If that happened twice, once at the expected start of puberty, and once at the expected midway point, EVERY XXY boy would be discovered in New Zealand, and every boy with Kallmann syndrome too.

    Male sexual health means as much to NZ medical professionals as it does to the world wide company of medical professionals, NOTHING. Such as where is Wellington Men’s Public Hospital? It doesn’t exist!

    Is this because more males work as doctors and fiddling with female genitals is desirable, but fiddling with male genitals less desirable?

    I also want all children genetically tested at birth, their parental origins known, at birth, so if there is any discrepancy between what the birth parents say, and what the genetics prove, the doctors can tell the children of the fertile majority, that their father isn’t really the genetic provider, and in rarer instances the mother isn’t really the genetic provider. Just to even things up between the infertile minority and the fertile majority.

    That process might encourage the promiscuous among us to think more carefully before they refuse to use birth control?

  17. Our problem in New Zealand is not that the resources produced by great organisations like Family Planning and Rainbow Youth are wrong.

    How have you established the effectiveness of these resources? it certainly isn’t represented in the appalling statistics surrounding teenage and young adult sexuality in NZ.

    It is that we know what works but have failed to ensure that every school uses a sexuality education approach consistent with these criteria.

    Really? so the answer is to provide external teachers trained directly by these organizations to come into our schools and ‘spread the word’.

    That is one of the most disturbing prospects imaginable, the damage done so far is bad enough without handing responsibility for sexual education to ideologues trained by goodness knows who.

    Family first have just as much right to investigate these issues as anyone else, what are you afraid of?

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