Why Comprehensive Sex Education is Important
Comprehensive sex education is one of the two most common sex education curricula. The goal is to help youth build a solid foundation in sexual and reproductive health to take with them into adulthood. Another form of sex education is abstinence sex education. Abstinence-based models emphasize abstaining from sex until marriage, but they fail to cover topics that comprehensive sex education does, such as safe sex methods, consent, sexual health, reproductive health and anatomy, gender identity, and much more.
Sex education in Ontario
Sex education in Ontario has been a topic of great debate. In 2015, the Ontario Ministry of Education implemented a new Health & Physical Education curriculum for kindergarteners to 8th-graders. This new comprehensive curriculum addressed various topics, such as reproductive anatomy and physiology, consent, healthy interpersonal relationships, online safety and sexting, sexual orientation, and gender roles/identity. This new curriculum better aligns with comprehensive sex education curricula.
Before this revision, the sex education curriculum was last updated in 1998, which was a socially and politically different time from today. For example, the use of smartphones and technology is now rampant, porn is easily accessible, and same-sex marriage is legal.
Despite over 90% of parents in Ontario being supportive of the revisions, the change came with outcry from opposing parents. After going back-and-forth between the 2015 and 1998 curricula, a revised curriculum was solidified by a new government in 2019. This resembled the 2015 curriculum, but parents could exempt their children from various aspects of the curriculum.
The rise of risky sexual behaviours in youth
According to the World Health Organization, a third of new HIV infections around the world are among youth aged 15-25.
In Ontario, ¼ of grade 7-12 students have engaged in sexual activity. By the age of 15, 22% have engaged in oral sex and 16% in intercourse.
This shows that youth are engaging in sexual activity. However, sexually-transmitted infection (STI) rates are rising because young people are often unequipped with the skills to practice safe sex, such as using a condom during intercourse.
The glamorized portrayal of sex in media geared toward adolescents, such as on TV shows like Euphoria, gives young adults unrealistic expectations of sex and relationships. Youth of this generation are also both physically and socially maturing earlier than previous generations, and are impacted by the widespread use of social media. Since porn is easily accessible on the Internet, youth will turn to it to learn about sex when inadequate information is provided in sex education. This is an issue because porn often promotes violence and misogyny, and could encourage dangerous sexual behaviours.
Abstinence-based sex education
Abstinence curricula isolates students due to the lack of discourse. For example, students are simply taught that sex before marriage is ‘bad’. Since adolescence is a time of discovery and fluctuating hormone levels, youth will engage in sexual activity regardless of what authority figures tell them to do. There is also no substantial evidence that abstinence education delays teenage sexual activity. This curriculum model withholds useful information from youth, which leads to unprepared young adults who lack the skills and knowledge to make responsible, safe, and informed choices.
Abstinence-based models are also heteronormative – they exclude students who do not identify as heterosexual and/or cisgender. There is a lack of dialogue on sexual health for LGBT2SQ+ youth, and, when it is included, the information is often stereotypical and stigmatized.
Youth with disabilities are not considered in sex education
Youth with disabilities in Ontario are frustrated with the lack of sexual health education available to them, largely because it lacks information specific to their needs. Guardians and healthcare professionals often feel ill-equipped to provide adequate sexual health education to young people with disabilities. This can create feelings of inferiority in these youth as compared to their able-bodied peers, and can be attributed to the stigmatized perception that people living with disabilities are asexual, which is inaccurate and harmful.
Comprehensive sex education and next steps
Youth will benefit from a comprehensive sex education curriculum, as it teaches the importance of protective methods, like condoms and birth control. This helps prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancies. It also covers important topics like consent, gender identity, and sexuality, appealing to a wider range of youth and reflecting a variety of identities and realities.
According to youth, sexual health workshop facilitators/educators need to be familiar with and sensitive to the different backgrounds of youth; the material presented should be culturally relevant and culturally safe.
To challenge the stigma that youth with disabilities face, there need to be discussions surrounding disability and sexuality in formal and informal sex education environments. Additionally, training for teachers and educational instructors in sex education needs to be in place to provide youth with adequate skills and knowledge in sexual health.