Responding to whānau or family and rangatahi about sexual activityAt times, rangatahi may make decisions or engage in activity that could impact their mana and oranga (wellbeing). This can include engaging in sexual activity with others.
In this guidance, tamariki refers to anyone under the age of 14 and rangatahi refers to anyone aged 14 to 18 years. For any sexual activity that involves underage tamariki and rangatahi, is not consented to or is otherwise potentially unlawful and harmful, we consider the appropriate assessment pathway.
Purpose of this guidance
Rangatahi need support to make informed and safe decisions about relationships and sexual activity with others. This guidance supports kaimahi working with rangatahi and whānau or family where the rangatahi may be engaging in early sexual activity with another person, particularly if they are:
- aged under 16 years
- are engaging or have engaged in sexual activity and we think they have been coerced or may be coercing someone else
- 16 years or older and are engaging in sexual activity with someone under the age of 16.
Parents and whānau or family are the natural kaitiaki of their tamariki or rangatahi. As guardians, parents have specific rights to make important decisions about their tamariki or rangatahi regarding where they live, education, medical treatment, and their culture, language and religion. However, as tamariki and rangatahi become older, they will want to make more of their own choices and decisions, including decisions about relationships, and this can be a challenging time for parents and whānau or family.
Where rangatahi are engaging in sexual activity, it is important that they understand their rights and responsibilities and the law in relation to sexual activity, including the responsibility they have around the rights of others.
When working with rangatahi who are engaging in early sexual activity, Oranga Tamariki is committed to respecting and upholding their rights, including the right:
- to express their own views and have their views heard in matters affecting them (article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRoC))
- to seek and receive information (article 13 of UNCRoC)
- to be protected from sexual and other forms of exploitation (article 19 of UNCRoC)
- to access information about contraception and be supplied with contraceptive products without parental consent (section 16 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977)
- of disabled rangatahi to express their views freely on all matters affecting them, their views being given due weight in accordance with their age and maturity, on an equal basis with other rangatahi, and to be provided with disability and age-appropriate assistance to realise that right (article 7 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities)
- to have the same ability as any pregnant person in Aotearoa New Zealand to legally consent to, or refuse to have, an abortion (section 38 of the Care of Children Act 2004 and section 16 of the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act 1977).
The social worker can facilitate and support rangatahi and whānau or family by working with them to:
- understand rangatahi rights and responsibilities in relation to sexual activity, and consent
- access information, support and resources that enable rangatahi to make informed decisions and have safe, healthy relationships
- develop strategies to discuss decisions about sexual activity that supports the mana, oranga and safety of the rangatahi and others involved
- express their views and be heard
- ensure that the rangatahi has opportunities to express their views and perspectives in a safe and supportive environment.
United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child – Children’s version | UNICEF
United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act
Children's rights and guardianship | Ministry of Justice
Consistent or conflicting? Sexual health legislation and young people's rights in New Zealand (PDF 158 KB) | Ministry of Social Development
Values and beliefs about sexual activity
There is a wide range of tolerance and levels of acceptance of the sexual activity of rangatahi between parents, whānau or family and communities. Different individuals, family, whānau, hapū, iwi, family groups and cultures will have different tikanga, values and beliefs around sexual activity and their rangatahi.
It can be especially difficult for some parents when their rangatahi begins to form relationships that include sexual activity, particularly if this activity is at odds with whānau or family beliefs, cultural values and tikanga. In some circumstances it may be difficult or even unsafe for rangatahi to discuss topics associated with sexual development or activity. This can prevent them from accessing information and resources to support safe decisions, healthy relationships, and sexual activity.
The social worker can:
- talk with the rangatahi and their whānau or family to understand what is happening and what support or services may be useful for them, such as sexual health and family planning services, Māori or Pacific health services, other cultural social services, or youth one-stop shops
- talk with the rangatahi and their whānau or family to understand their respective beliefs
- support whānau or family and rangatahi to kōrero safely about sexual health, sexuality and sexual activity, which would help them navigate this time in their lives and make decisions that support the mana, rights and oranga of the rangatahi
- support rangatahi to access information about sex and sexual orientations
- use supervision and self-reflection to reflect on their own values and beliefs and how these may impact on their practice
- seek cultural advice to support understanding and engagement.
Practice standard: See and engage tamariki – guidance
Practice standard: See and engage whānau, wider family, caregivers and when appropriate victims of offending by tamariki – guidance
Rangatahi Māori sexual and reproductive health literature review | Research Gate
Māori Cultural Definitions of Sexual Violence | University of Waikato
Māori health provider directory | Ministry of Health
Pasifika health providers | Health Navigator NZ
Responding to early sexual activity
All notifications, including those by other professionals made to the Oranga Tamariki National Contact Centre in relation to sexual activity involving tamariki or rangatahi under the age of 16, are covered by the Child Protection Protocol (CPP) and are referred to the Child Protection Team.
The CPP guides how the social worker and Police work together to assess the situation and respond accordingly from their professional perspectives. The social worker will assess whether the activity is placing te tamaiti or rangatahi at risk and whether there are care and protection concerns. Police will consider whether a criminal investigation is necessary. Both agencies will consider each case on its own merits and consider all the circumstances, such as:
- whether the activity is predatory, exploitative or coercive
- if te tamaiti or rangatahi or others involved are vulnerable due to a disability, intoxication or other factors
- age discrepancies
- power and control dynamics
- the impact of what has happened
- whether there has been publicity, bragging or sharing of material or information (for example, on social media)
- the type of activity
- who was involved.
Where a social worker becomes aware that a rangatahi they are working with is engaging in, or has engaged in, early sexual activity, they need to make a professional decision in the same way as if they learnt of the activity through a report of concern to the National Contact Centre. In the first instance, the social worker should:
- consider the age of those involved
- work with the rangatahi and their whānau or family or caregiver to understand what is happening
- use the Intake Decision Response Tool (DRT) to help make a professional decision on whether there are care or protection concerns and whether a report of concern is required
- seek cultural advice and support to support the social worker's understanding and engagement.
Then the social worker considers:
- the views and history of the rangatahi
- the view of whānau, family or caregivers
- the view of Police and other professionals working with the rangatahi
- whether the activity is placing the rangatahi or any others involved at physical or emotional risk
- the age of those involved in the sexual activity
- the use of coercion or exploitation
- anything that makes the rangatahi or those involved more vulnerable, such as disability
- power dynamics that may be impacting on the decisions made by rangatahi, or others involved
- whether alcohol or drugs are involved
- whether the rangatahi has been subjected to social media pressure such as having unwanted pictures posted on social media, particularly any with a sexualised content.
Overview of the decision response tool
Supporting whānau or family with early sexual activity
It can be difficult for parents, whānau or family, and caregivers to prevent their rangatahi from engaging in early sexual activity. For some whānau or family, particularly where both individuals are close to the legal age, the activity may be accepted, even if it is not necessarily condoned. But for other whānau or family, the activity is concerning or unacceptable, and they may contact Police or in some cases Oranga Tamariki.
When we are working with rangatahi who are engaging in early sexual activity and their parents, whānau or family and caregiver, we support them to use appropriate ways to encourage their rangatahi to make informed and safe decisions.
Whether or not parents, whānau or family have made a choice to accept the sexual activity of their rangatahi, they may also be worried about them and need support to keep them safe. We should:
- work with parents, whānau, family and the rangatahi to understand their perspectives, the impact of the situation and what it means to them
- help whānau or family understand the rights of their rangatahi
- help parents, whānau, family and the rangatahi identify and access support, information and resources they might need to understand the situation and kōrero
- work with parents, whānau, family and the rangatahi to develop a plan or strategies that help them support their rangatahi.
Knowledge of sexual and reproductive health for rangatahi can come from many sources, including parents, kura/school, friends, personal experience, social media and other online sites. Not all information will be accurate, so it is important that whānau or family and those working with rangatahi support them to process what they learn so they can make well-informed decisions that keep them and others safe and help them to develop and be part of healthy and respectful relationships.
The social worker should work with the rangatahi and their whānau or family to:
- understand any risk or concerns they have
- support all aspects of their health (this could include things like helping them to access a sexual health check through their GP, Family Planning, Youth Health Centre or MEDSAC)
- understand their rights and the rights of others and their responsibilities to others when they are engaging in sexual relationships
- identify the supports, knowledge, information and resources rangatahi need to inform their decision-making (rangatahi may find it difficult to have conversations with whānau or family or their social worker about their sexual activity – they may need additional support to have a voice, understand information and access healthcare, and this could be someone the rangatahi knows and trusts, an independent advocate or someone they have an existing relationship with like a youth worker, youth leader, counsellor) – work with the rangatahi to understand who they want to support them
- enable them to access accurate information and health care
- make well-informed and confident choices about relationships and their own health and safety that support their personal mana and tapu
- feel positive about their own identities
- recognise, build and require for themselves safe, consensual and healthy relationships
- understand the law in relation to early sexual activity.
Whakamana te tamaiti or rangatahi through advocacy
Supporting disabled rangatahi
Rangatahi with intellectual or other disabilities experience the same range of sexual thoughts and desires as anyone else. However, some disabled rangatahi are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, and will need additional support to access information, explore their feelings and have safe sexual relationships.
In addition to the steps outlined above, kaimahi may want to seek advice and support from their Regional Disability Advisor.
Violence against disabled people in New Zealand – new research | Office for Disability Issues
Information and support for rangatahi and whānau
There are many services in Aotearoa New Zealand that can support rangatahi engaging in sexual activity to be safe and to understand and minimise risk. Family Planning offers education and advice for rangatahi and courses and information for parents on puberty and teenage sexuality.
Family Planning will support rangatahi engaged in sexual activity even if their whānau or family does not approve. Family Planning has information about oranga taihema (sexual and reproductive health), including contraception, sexually transmitted infections, the body, relationships, pregnancy, abortion, diverse sexual and gender identities, and more.
Sexual and reproductive health | Ministry of Health
Sexual health help for young people | Health Navigator NZ
Te Kaha o Te Rangatahi Trust | Healthpoint
MEDSAC (Medical Sexual Assault Clinicians Aotearoa)
Supporting information and resources
The term sexual activity is often used when referring to activity associated with the biological and physical aspects of sexuality that concern human reproductive functions and the sexual response.
As tamariki reach puberty, or even earlier for some, interest in sexual activity generally increases. This may involve intense biological, erotic, physical, social or spiritual feelings and activity. Tamariki and rangatahi may begin to have questions about sexuality or even experiment with different levels of sexual activity and relationships.
Some rangatahi will take part in sexual activity before the age of 16 years. One report found that around 20% of those questioned had engaged in sexual activity before reaching 16 years.
Many of these rangatahi may be taking part in sexual activity without understanding their rights and responsibilities and the potential consequences of their activity, and may be vulnerable to abuse, exploitation or pressure.
The internet, social media platforms and dating apps have enabled freer access to pornography so that tamariki and rangatahi may be exposed to sexual activity and misinformation that depicts unhealthy attitudes, activity and stereotypes. This can create unrealistic expectations or understanding about what a healthy relationship or sexual activity looks like.
Sexual and reproductive health | Ministry of Health
Understanding normal development of adolescent sexuality: A bumpy ride | National Library of Medicine
While some rangatahi engaging in early sexual activity may not experience or report negative impacts, research indicates that engaging in early sexual activity can have immediate and long-term impacts for rangatahi that they may not fully understand or be prepared for. It can affect their oranga, including taha wairua, taha hinengaro, taha ngākau, taha tinana and taha whānau.
In the short term, early sexual activity can put rangatahi at physical risk and make them vulnerable to unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. It can impact and damage relationships with friends, whānau or family, leaving the rangatahi isolated.
In the longer term, early sexual activity has been associated with problems with physical and mental health, and fertility issues. Engaging in early sexual activity can also put rangatahi at risk of exploitation, sexual abuse and sexual assault and can influence their understanding of what a consensual, healthy, respectful and loving relationship is.
Different orientations and sexual choices can make rangatahi more vulnerable to sexual abuse and discrimination.
[LINK]Responding to early sexual activity
Sexual and reproductive health 2014/15: New Zealand Health Survey | Ministry of Health
The Crimes Act 1961 outlines when sexual activity becomes a criminal matter. It is important that rangatahi we are working with understand their rights and responsibilities in relation to the law when engaging in sexual activity with another person.
In Aotearoa New Zealand it is illegal to:
- expose a person under the age of 16 to indecent material (written, spoken, visual in any form or combination)
- do an indecent act on a person under the age of 16
- have a sexual connection with a person under the age of 16
- meet with a person under the age of 16 following sexual grooming
- indecently assault any person
- sexually violate or attempt to sexually violate any person
- sexually exploit a person with a significant impairment
- engage in sexual conduct with a dependent family member.
If a rangatahi is involved in sexual activity that is illegal, Police have the discretion to charge them.
In Aotearoa New Zealand, you can consent to sexual activity on reaching the age of 16. Consent within the law is not always straightforward. Some rangatahi do not understand that consent is required before any and each sexual activity with others and this may be withdrawn at any time. Consent can also be withdrawn at any stage during sexual activity.
The law also recognises that there are circumstances where rangatahi may be particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Section 131 of the Crimes Act 1961 makes it an offence for a person to engage in sexual conduct with a dependent family member under 18. This means the rangatahi must be 18 years old to provide consent if they are a family member of the other person involved in the sexual activity.
A rangatahi is a dependent family member of someone who:
- has a significant role in the care or upbringing of the rangatahi, or
- has power or authority over the rangatahi.
The offence covers a wide range of relationships, including foster parents, adoptive parents, step-parents (current or former), guardians and those related in law by marriage — the ‘family member’ may not be biologically related to the rangatahi, and the rangatahi does not necessarily have to be living with them. The focus is on the relationship and whether the family member has a degree of power or control over the rangatahi with whom they are having sexual contact.
The ages of consent are the same for all people no matter how they identify themselves or describe their sexuality.
Section 128A of the Crimes Act 1961 outlines some of the circumstances that do not meet a definition of consent.
Sexual health help for young people | Health Navigator NZ