For most of us, sexuality is something we thought about a lot as teenagers—whether we were deciding whether or not to have sex for the first time, questioning our sexual orientation or gender identity or the things that turned us on, dealing with peer or cultural pressures to act a certain way sexually, or wondering what all the fuss was about. If we were lucky, we weren’t left alone to untangle the confusing web of desires, identities and experiences that make up our sexual selves. Maybe we had friends or family who were knowledgeable and willing to talk about sexuality with us. Maybe we had access to books or websites or phone lines that provided us with accurate and non-judgemental info. And maybe—just maybe—we had decent high school sex ed.
The sex education I got in high school—for a two-week block of my physical education class in Grade 9—was far from perfect. Some of the information we were given was outdated, like the advice to use spermicide, which is no longer as highly recommended as they used to be. Our discussion of consent mostly focused on how to say no to sex—as if none of us would want to say yes. We never talked about the existence of queer or trans* individuals, and I remember the teacher getting flustered when I asked about dental dams.
But I was actually pretty lucky. That class taught me how to put a condom on a banana (the teacher searched several different stores to find non-lubricated condoms, so we wouldn’t be grossed out from getting lube all over our hands). I learned where the nearest abortion clinic was, and where I could buy the emergency contraceptive pill. The teacher talked about what an orgasm was and assured us that it was OK to masturbate, and she did answer my question about dams in the end.
It’s no wonder the information I received in my sex ed class was a bit outdated. The sexual education curriculum in Ontario, where I went to high school, hasn’t been updated since the 1990’s. An updated curriculum, written in 2010, hasn’t been implemented because a small but vocal group of parents object to the inclusion of topics like gay and lesbian parents in a Grade 3 class on diverse families, and an acknowledgement that masturbation can be a healthy way to explore your sexuality in a Grade 6 class on puberty.
But at least I didn’t go to a school that taught abstinence-only sex ed. The fact that my teacher was even allowed to talk about subjects like contraception and abortion means my sex ed class was more comprehensive than the sex ed in most classrooms in the United States. Since 1996, 1.5 billion dollars have been given to school boards by the US government for abstinence-only sex education. Much of this funding is provided on the condition that schools do not discuss contraception or sexual activity outside marriage in a positive way. These programs have not been shown to decrease sexual activity, but they have been shown to lower the likelihood of teens using barriers/contraceptives when they do engage in sexual activity.
Actually, I was very lucky to receive formal sex ed at all. Since 2005, Quebec has not mandated any dedicated sex ed unit, expecting discussions of sexuality to be integrated into other classes. Not surprisingly, this means that the extent to which sex is discussed, and the topics that are covered, vary widely across the province. Some organizations, like Head and Hands in NDG, and SACOMSS (that’s us!), run workshops on sexual health topics in high schools to try to pick up some of the slack, but how many students these programs reach is dependent on how many schools are willing to let these organizations come in and speak to their students.
Personally, I think that young people have the right to accurate, comprehensive, and non-judgemental sexual health information, and while schools aren’t the only place they can get that information, they’re a pretty crucial one. Most high school aged folks are in school, and schools are places where—ideally—we should be provided with information on topics that are relevant to our lives, as well as assisted in developing critical thinking skills to decide how we feel and what we believe about this information. It’s a pretty big deal that schools aren’t doing that with sex ed.
So what to do? Check out part two of this series, on how to take your sexual education into your own hands (no pun intended) and empower other people to do so.