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Sex, monsters and outrage

by Joshua Drummond

When my wife got home from work a couple of days ago, I said something along the lines of "Did you see that terrible thing that happened with the students who got handed sex-ed literature that basically said women were sluts if they were in de-facto relationships?" 

Louise said, "That's not what happened." She explained. 

"Oh," I said, crestfallen. "I guess I didn't read past the headline." 

Since then the story about the terrible thing that happened with the students who got handed sex-ed literature that basically said women were sluts if they were in de-facto relationships has gotten massive. I've seen it shared on my own Facebook timeline about twenty times, and, more objectively, it's been reblogged by highly-read sources like BoingBoing. A Twitter search of the original NZ Herald URL is pretty instructive: 

So yeah, the story is going gangbusters. I'm sure the people who check the NZ Herald's analytics are popping champagne corks (or, more probably, Lindauer.)

The problem is, of course, that the story is more or less complete bollix. 

If you do what the inverted pyramid style of news-writing (most important stuff first, basically) is designed to enable, and you read just the first couple of paragraphs of the original NZ Herald story, you get: 

"Secondary school students were this week handed a pamphlet branding women in de facto relationships "cheap prostitutes" and "wicked fornicators", and saying "death and hell" awaited those having gay sex.

The material, produced by the American-based Bible Baptist Publications, was handed out to year 11 students at Christchurch's co-ed Papanui High School during a health studies class."

And that is all literally true. Students were handed nakedly offensive material in a health studies class. Cue outrage, cue Tweeting, Tumblring, Facebooking. A guy I know who supports the Secular Education Network (as do I) posted on FB opining that it was a good example of why religion should be kept out of schools. That was the first place I saw it. I skimmed the first few lines of the article, and felt that hot little heartburn of outrage. "Grr!" thought I. I didn't repost it - it was a particularly busy day - but I did mention it to Louise when she got home, as I figured she'd be interested. 

Nope. In fact, she'd already left a comment on the Facebook page where she'd seen it posted, pointing out that the story misrepresented the context of the actual events. I got the impression that the comment-leaving had been an exercise in futility. A lot of people had reacted just how I had, and also apparently lacked excellent partners who actually read news stories before commenting on them. 

I went back and read the story - all of it, this time. What actually happened was: the year 11 students were given the pamphlet with the aim of showing one particular "perspective in a range of societal views" on sex and sexual health. Lydia Clark, the mother of a queer student in the class, complained, and posted her letter to the school on the Secular Education Network Facebooko page. A meeting was held at the school, and the context of the lesson was explained. Clark said she was satisfied with the outcome. It transpired the lesson was taken by a relief teacher, who had omitted a critical evaluation on the material that normally would have been done by the class' usual teacher. The headlines and ledes and first few paragraphs of the stories that ran on both the NZ Herald and Stuff.co.nz were deliberately written (and/or, perhaps, sub-edited) to be as inflammatory as possible.

By analogy, it's a lot like students studying World War Two. Some knowledge of the Nazi's peculiar, perverted ideology and the conditions in which it flourished is necessary to understand how the war got going. But no-one's being taught that Nazis are rad, any more than they're being taught that unmarried women are sluts in this particular case. The lesson was - and why not have some fun with paraphrasing - intended to point out the unfortunate truth that there are a lot of dicks in the world and some of them try to force their dickery on others. I'd have thought this was a pretty important lesson, especially when it comes to sexual health, and where better to experience it than in the (relatively) safe space of a health education class?

No! said Labour education spokesperson Chris Hipkins, who thundered mildly: "It's fine for schools to be using stuff to provoke kids into thinking but there's a fine line between provoking critical thought and something that's offensive. That, I think, crosses the line."

Well, I suppose that's up for debate. Should students be privy to the extremist views of nutcases? (Extremist views, I'll add, that you can easily experience for yourself in your local Baptist or Pentecostal church, including the relatively benign ones that I grew up in.) I think they should. There may be an argument against it, but I think that Hipkins is making a knee-jerk judgement based on the offensiveness of the materials discussed and ignoring the context they were discussed in. So is everyone else. Which brings me to BoingBoing. Their snippet on it reads: 

"Year 11 students at a Christchurch NZ high school were given a pamphlet that described unmarried women relationships as "cheap prostitutes" and "wicked fornicators," and warned that gay sex would lead to "death and hell."

No big deal, said principal Jeff Smith, explaining that the pamphlet was designed to encourage students to make "informed relationship decisions." 

Cool, so now the story's devolved to "the principal is a monster" on one of the world's most-read websites. I'm sure that even people who are with Chris Hipkins in thinking students shouldn't be exposed to offensive material will agree that that's a perverse outcome. It could easily get worse. I read Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed a couple of weeks back and it gave me the screaming heebie-jeebies. Imagine if poor Principal Jeff Smith starts getting hounded by misinformed Twitter-hordes. Hasn't happened yet that I can tell, but it easily could, with someone as big as BoingBoing putting a horribly skewed version of the story out there. 

Another story that has parallels to this is the horrible tale of a poor bloke who took a selfie next to a cutout of Darth Vader for his kids in Melbourne. A nearby woman saw it, assumed he was a paedophile taking photos of her children, and stuck his picture on Facebook warning others about him. It was shared, and the man shamed in comments, tens of thousands of times before the guy in question got in contact (after handing himself in to police for what one can only imagine was a harrowing interview) and the woman issued a retraction on Facebook. Of course, the retraction was viewed and shared far less than the original scaremongering. As it (fortunately) blew over, the guy made the following statement: 

"People need to get their information from proper news sources rather than rely on drama queens who share things without thought on Facebook." 

Well, maybe. The problem is, in the case of the offensive sex-ed material, that the news sources are getting their stories from social media. 

Fortunately, the excellent GayNZ is on the case,with a story pointing out that the entire idea of the exercise was to critically evaluate extreme community opinions - and, most pertinently, noting that "Lydia Clark [the mother] says she told the reporter "there was not a juicy story there and asked her not to print the story". 

I suppose time will tell if BoingBoing print an update to their inflammatory bullshit non-story. I sure hope they do. But now that it's out there, I don't know how much help it will be

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