Sex ed: Let’s get real – August 1, 2013

Sexual health curricula. Who writes them, and for whom?  Is a curriculum written for the benefit of students; or is their language carefully edited to assuage dissenting organizations and reassure jittery bureaucrats? When new curricula are published, opponents of sexual health education will inevitably be poised to cherry pick material to discredit the contents. Provincial governments worry about political backlash to progressive sex education that teaches about pleasure, choice, inclusion and current sexual realities.

And yet, that is the job of a sex educator.

Comprehensive sexuality education is critical to society. In Canada, it has been partly responsible for the dramatic drop in adolescent pregnancy since the 1970s, the other factors being increased availability of effective birth control, and access to abortion. But sexual health education must go far beyond birth control and sexually transmitted infections. The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality” requiring “a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

How does sexuality education support children’s development so they become sexually healthy individuals? The Canadian guidelines to sexual health education are a good start and required reading for anyone planning on offering it. But there are a few contemporary issues I would like to address.


The best curriculum in the world is useless for someone who has no control over their life.

Good sexual health education acknowledges that people’s ability to control their sexual lives does not take place in a vacuum. The realities of young people’s lives—such as prior sexual abuse, low socio-economic status, sexism and racism—must also be acknowledged and addressed. The best curriculum in the world is useless for someone who has no control over their life. For example, any curriculum worth its salt will include education about sexual abuse, sexual trauma and compassion for survivors. How else can we counter the messaging on social media that turns a gang rape into entertainment?

I have written previously in this space about parents’ roles in raising sexually healthy children. But it is schools that must be courageous and accept the challenge of helping children and youth to deal with the confusing realities of a hypersexualized and sometimes vicious world.

This means discussing pornography and pornographic images starting in puberty classes. Children by age 10 will freely admit that they have seen pornographic images (generally inadvertently). What has changed since the 1980s when research suggested that for 12-to-17-year-old boys, pornography was sex education? The answer is the increased availability and explicitness of sexual images for any child with access to the Internet. These images inculcate young minds with misogyny, the association of sex and violence, while ignoring safety, the notion of consent and the potential for equitable relationships.

Some critics of sex education bemoan a lack of values in sex ed curricula. What they mean is the lack of their values. I think the values young people need to learn are honesty, respect, acceptance, fairness and integrity. These values would inform their relationships. They may even become a backdrop to any future erotic and pornographic materials that fuel their pleasure as adults.

I admit that sex education has come a long way from talking exclusively about what a married (heterosexual) couple does in bed presumably with the intention of making a baby. Sex educators began to use gender neutral language decades ago, replacing “husband,” “wife,” “man” and “woman” with “person” or “partner.” Educators have steadily moved towards broad inclusion ever since. But we must also learn to avoid the language of a hierarchy of sexual couplings with marriage as the ideal. Adults know that one need not be “in love” or in a committed relationship to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy. Would we be censured for allowing that some young adults may consider as viable options a one night stand, a casual sexual relationship, like the occasional “booty call,” or “friend with benefits” arrangement? We need to acknowledge reality—their reality—rather than insist on a societal ideal.

One cannot attain a “state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality” and the possibility of “pleasurable and safe sexual experiences” without learning about pleasure. Students have complained bitterly for years that they want to learn more than plumbing.

While progressive sex educators do not teach how to masturbate, we tell them that it is common for people to pleasure themselves. We talk about orgasm. We answer their questions about why some women use dildos and why some people are very noisy lovers.

In order to be a credible sex educator, when we say we will answer all of their questions, we should. Some curricula discourage educators from answering questions that are not directly addressed in the curriculum. Do the curriculum creators prefer that students rely on popular media images rather than receiving clear information from reliable sources? Probably not.

We’ve come a long way from just teaching how to make babies; but we haven’t come far enough. Sexual health education must teach about life. It is personal, but oh so political.

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