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The Importance of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in Schools

Consider The Curriculum

As a parent, I understand the fear for our kids exploring their sexuality. It is one of many nerve-wracking aspects of parenting. As caregivers we do our best to prepare our kids for all of life’s opportunities and challenges. We want the best for our kids.  We can educate them about sex and our values, but even as a sex educator, there are likely aspects that I will miss in communicating with my kids about navigating their sexual lives. I also think that it is good for them to learn from many responsible adults and reliable sources in their lives. Hence, I believe that comprehensive sex ed in schools is the best way for our kids to grow into respectful adults making healthy choices.

Teaching Kids About Sex Delays Sexual Activity

Many parents fear that sex ed encourages their children to have sex at a younger age. Much research however has concluded that curriculum-based sexuality education programs for youth delay the age of first intercourse, decrease the frequency of sexual intercourse, decrease the number of sexual partners, reduce risk taking sexual behaviour, and increase the use of condoms and contraception. Moreover, multiple studies from around the world have shown that the earlier sex ed starts with age-appropriate information, the healthier the children are and the easier it is for them to make healthy, consensual, informed decisions in their lives. And since most Canadians begin sexual activity before the age of 20, school is the one unifying system where everyone will get the same evidence-based, age-appropriate information that will be important as they make sexual choices.

Parental Values

Most schools inform parents when the sex ed classes happen so that they can complement the learning with values-based discussions at home. It is important that kids know that they can talk to their parents about this aspect of their lives. Although it is uncomfortable for many parents to have these discussions, they are a really important part of our jobs and there are many books and resources available to guide us through these discussions. After my kids have had their sex ed session in school, I like to ask them what they learned, what was new, what the reactions in the class were, and what they thought. It is a fabulous opportunity to connect with the kids, gain a better sense of what they are absorbing and furthering the conversation, adding our values to the information.

What If They Learn Things Too Early?

The curricula developed for schools are based on solid research and experience around the world. It is very explicit about what to address at what age. One person expressed their concern to me that teaching young kids about different families would necessitate discussing how gay men and lesbian women have sex. This is not part of the curriculum at this age. The discussion of different families is about what kinds of people live together and how they are related. It is partly about normalizing everyone, including those who are adopted or raised by their grandparents.

As parents we believe that our children are naïve and we often underestimate their ability to handle sexual information. The reality is that over half of what kids learn about sex comes from each other and the internet. Not all parents have control over what their kids watch (especially when they are with their friends). The average age that a child first sees pornographic materials is 10. Many kids have older siblings who love to educate (and often shock) younger siblings with sexual information. Those who object to a discussion about anal sex in grade 7 need to realize that the kids already know about it. My son learned about it in grade 4 from another child in his class who had unmonitored internet time. The curriculum is designed to give factual responses to questions kids have about oral and anal pleasure, not a how-to guide. The focus is on consent and safety. There are many myths that they will learn in the schoolyard about those activities. Thus it is important that they receive the correct information in case they choose to do it. Again, talking about it in school makes it less likely that they will engage, not more likely.

Prevention and Response to Abuse

Unfortunately, sexual abuse happens. Kids need to know the proper names of body parts, what kind of touch is ok or not ok, and how to properly report any abusive behaviour. A case in point: a young girl who was taught to call her vulva her cookie. She told her teacher that someone in her family wanted to share her cookie. The teacher unknowingly responded that it was good to share her cookie. It was years before anyone understood what was really going on. And since children are not under our immediate watch at all times, unfortunately abuse can happen. It will cause a lot less harm if they know how to report anything abusive right away than to sit alone with a horrible experience for a long time.  Experts in the field agree that young people who are educated about sex are less vulnerable to sexual predation. Education is protection.

Education Based on a Human Rights Approach

Different kinds of people, families and communities exist. Schools need to adhere to human rights codes, which in Ontario means protecting people from discrimination based on their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability. Comprehensive sexual health education encourages acceptance and respect for the diversity of sexual orientations and gender identities that exist. It is important for everyone, including kids, to feel good about who they are. Sex education is not about encouraging people to do or act in any particular way. It is about validating everyone’s place in the world, including those who are not usually represented in the mainstream. Some kids unfortunately are taught at home that some differences are not ok. It is important that school provides an alternative affirming perspective in order to help reduce bullying, depression and suicide.   

Take a Closer Look

Many of the concerns about the Ontario Sex Ed curriculum adopted in 2015 has been taken out of context and there is a lot of misinformation about its contents. I would encourage anyone with concerns to actually look at the curriculum and see what educators have to say about it and their responses to criticisms. Most concerns are misinterpretations of the documents and practices. And if a parent still dislikes the offering, there are opportunities to withdraw their children from the specific classes that they disagree with. A strong majority of parents support this curriculum.  It is better for the majority of kids to get this information than to withdraw it from all schools for the sake of the minority who want to impose their values and misunderstandings on the rest.

Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email carlyle@goodforher.com or go online to goodforher.com