This state of affairs has professionals like Dr Debi Futter-Puati concerned at current taboo-like attitudes towards love, sex, sexuality and sexual relationships within Cook Islands communities.
In the hope that she could help parents to better understand the importance of being open and honest with their children about sex and sexuality at a young age, Futter-Puati completed an extensive study which saw more than 600 aronga mapu (youth) take part in a questionnaire relating to love, sexuality and sexual relationships in the Cook Islands.
Late last year Cook Islands News reporter Shae Osborne spoke to Futter-Puati about her research and was shocked at some of her findings.
This story is the first of a two-part series which examines those findings in a bid to better inform Cook Islands parents on how current ‘no-talk’ attitudes towards sex and sexual relationships are leading their children down unsafe and unhealthy lifestyle paths.
According to Futter-Puati’s study, most young people in the Cook Islands have sex before they are 14-15 years of age – a staggering statistic for a predominantly Christian nation.
The study also found that the Cook Islands has a higher number of teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections per capita than New Zealand.
Futter-Puati believes that religion and culture play major roles in contributing to these statistics.
“There is this attitude amongst our local people that the more sex is discussed and explained, the more likely our youngsters are to partake in it,” she says.
“When in actual fact, the more sexuality, sex and sexual relationships are discussed with our children, the more likely they are to wait and delay sex until they feel they are both emotionally and physically ready, and capable of making the decisions associated with keeping themselves and their partners healthy.
“It is proven that countries which start discussing love, relationships and intimacy at a younger age have found that youth are having their ‘sexual debuts’ at a much older age.
“In some cases, communities who were open and honest about sex, intimate relationships and sexuality found that the age at which individuals sexually debuted was four years older than those communities that held a ‘no-talk, closed-door’ attitude.”
Futter-Puati’s research further highlighted that education surrounding contraception was also limited. Her data revealed that Cook Islands youth rarely have the knowledge they need about contraception – which leads to higher pregnancy rates.
When interviewed, young individuals said they did not have control over the use of contraception for a range of reasons. These included having to ask face to face, knowing or being related to the person they had to ask for condoms, or being too scared.
Furthermore, a study conducted in 2006 with antenatal women found that only a third of pregnancies in the Cook Islands are planned.
Futter-Puati does note that the Cook Islands has made a small step in the right direction recently, with the installation of condom dispensers around Rarotonga, including in several nightclubs.
However, she says the outer islands are still without access to free contraception, a worrisome problem that will continue to result in teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.
When looking further at the lack of education and discussion surrounding sexuality and sexual relationships, Futter-Puati discovered that youth left without substantial and relevant knowledge regarding intimate relationships sought the information elsewhere.
Evidence suggests that Cook Islands youth often obtain their knowledge about relationships from their lovers and friends – not from their parents or family.
“The less we talk to young people about sex and relationships, the more likely they are to start investigating it for themselves,” says Futter-Puati.
“They go to places such as the internet, and it is there that they are subject to things such as porn. And what research has shown about pornography is that young men and young women think that what they see in these videos is what a real-life relationship and intimacy is supposed to be like.”
“Then when they start to develop relationships with real people, they realise that it isn’t what they have seen on the internet.
“Guys realise girls don’t want to be manhandled, but in fact they want to be loved and respected as people – not as sexualised objects. Sometimes this realisation does not come until much later in life, and this creates an unhealthy foundation with which to start serious, future relationships.
“If we leave our sexuality education to the internet then our kids are really going have a warped perception of what good, healthy intimate relationships are.
“For most of us, sexual relationships are an accepted, usually expected dimension of adult life. In making the transition from youth to adulthood, all young people need to learn about the many aspects of love, sex, sexuality and sexual relationships.”
Futter-Puati also believes that as the Cook Islands has become more influenced by transnationalism and globalisation, the difference of understanding between generations in regards to sexuality is becoming more prominent.
She says it is time to start talking openly and honestly about sex, sexuality and sexual relationships with Cook Islands youth.
“If we don’t start being honest and realistic about sexuality in the Cook Islands, we are going to continue on with an unhealthy cycle of sexually uneducated and bewildered individuals.”
“And if we don’t start explaining love, intimacy and relationships to them at a much younger age, then we are really doing our children – Cook Islands children – a great disservice.”
- Shae Osborne