Cook Islands Sexuality Workshop Broaches Sensitive Topics

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Teachers taught how to address sexual orientation questions

By Phillipa Webb

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, June 29, 2015) – Sexual orientation is one of the top five reasons youth ring the help line, alongside pregnancy and relationship breakups.

A sexuality education workshop for teachers took baby steps towards addressing this issue with a session on supporting students with different sexual orientations last week.

The session was part of an overall workshop on how teachers could become better educators of sexuality and healthy relationships, inclusive of all young people.

It was based on Cook Islands sexuality research in 2012 which included a survey with over 600 young people aged between 15 and 24 years, as well as various Government reports.

More than 70 percent of those surveyed reported being sexually active and 40 percent were sexually active before the age of 14.

When asked to identify their sexuality, nine percent of the survey participants identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT).

More than 20 percent ‘refused’ or were ‘unsure’ about which category to put themselves into which workshop leader, Debi Futter-Puati, says could account for more than 9% of young people in the Cook Islands identifying as LGBT .

To begin this sensitive session, Puati shared a quote from the former Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Brundtlant said young people need adult assistance to deal with the thoughts, feelings and experiences that accompany physical maturity.

"Evidence from around the world has clearly shown that providing information and building skills on human sexuality and human relationships helps avert health problems, and creates more mature and responsible attitudes."

Puati says while many participants at the workshop were initially wary of discussions on sexual orientation, it was good to at least broach the subject and begin to think about how these young people are marginalised in the school and community envirnoment.

"I thought it was important to have this topic in the training because in my study, all the kids said that learning about diversity is important," she says.

Puati says if you asked adults the same question, they won’t necessarily say the same thing.

To highlight this issue, Puati showed a video which uses contextual twisting to get people to walk in a marginalised person’s shoes.

The video showed a straight person in an all LGBT world, and the issues this straight person faced trying to fit in and be accepted.

Puati says the video is very hard hitting because in the clip, the girl ends up trying to take her own life which is really distressing.

"I think it’s important to show this kind of distress for people to wake up and realise the implications of their behaviour," she says.

Puati says when you talk to young people, they really understand fairness and social justice, where as adults can often complicate it.

To illustrate this, the group at the workshop were put into pairs to ask each other a question surrounding sexual orientation, with a twist.

One of the questions was, when did you choose to become heterosexual or straight?

Puati says many people said they didn’t choose to be straight, they just are.

Yet this is a common judgement placed on those who identify as LGBT, who are assumed to have ‘chosen’ their sexuality and that they can just change it.

In general, Puati says the workshop went really well and there were some positive evaluations.

"There is still some apprehension about going back to their schools and implementing their new training on sexuality education as a whole, and that’s one of the real challenges of only having one teacher from each school on the training," she says.

Puati says she feels positive about the training, but thinks there should be further workshops. "Sexuality education isn’t just about sexual intercourse or just about condoms, it’s much bigger than that."

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