By Shauna Wilton
Last week, my class, Inquiry in the Social Sciences, engaged in a very important and column-inspiring discussion on the topic of sex and sexuality within school systems. Few other topics are as controversial and ideologically loaded, as recent accounts in the media have demonstrated.
When our children should be taught about sex and sexuality, what they should be taught and how they should be taught are not simple questions. Recently, Alberta has seen heated public debate over the Government’s Act to Support Gay-Straight Alliances within all publicly funded schools in Alberta. The negative reaction includes a court case representing a few independent schools challenging the privacy requirements of the government bill that stop schools from informing parents if their child joins a gay-straight alliance at school. The lawyers also called alliances “ideological sex clubs.”
Prior to the beginning of this school year in Ontario, the Conservative government of Premier Rob Ford tried to move back in time, revoking the 2015 sexual education curriculum for grades one to eight and introducing an interim curriculum that removes discussions of consent, non-heterosexual activity and identities, the role of social media, sexting and online bullying.
The Alberta curriculum for sexual education is undergoing some revisions, including Premier Notley’s commitment to include conversations about consent for all school-age children. The curriculum is taught as part of Health and Life Skills (grades four to nine) and Career and Life Management (grades 10 to 12) and focuses on puberty (grade four), reproduction (grade five), blood-borne infections, abstinence and decision making (grades six to seven), STIs and contraception (grade eight), reducing sexual risk and (finally) consent in grade nine. The high school curriculum continues with these themes and addresses gender identity. All of this curriculum is, of course, optional, as parents must provide permission for their children to participate.
Some of the issues, such as consent, could arguably be raised earlier. As well, the absence of curricular goals related to social media and the internet are troubling. Anyone with kids these days knows how much time they spend online and how much communication occurs via social media sites such as Snapchat and Instagram. More education about how these sites work, privacy and the abuse of social media was irrelevant when I was in school but is essential now.
Research shows that comprehensive and accurate sexual education helps students feel more informed, leads to them making safer choices and results in fewer unplanned pregnancies and transmission of STIs. Further research suggests that the content of sexual education curriculum should be contextual and based partially on what the kids think they need to know about (and it might not be the same as what their parents want). Increasingly, calls for education about consent, gender identity and internet safety are being taught to children at younger ages, although in age-appropriate ways. Young children, for example, can learn about respecting their bodies and personal boundaries, or discuss what they think it means to be a girl or a boy and what it means for those who might not fit into those categories.
The 2010 Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Study indicated that approximately 23% of grade nine males, 18% of grade nine females, and 31% of grade 10 males and females have had sexual intercourse. Research suggests that alcohol use may play a role. Other studies suggest that around two-thirds of grade nine and 10 students had tried alcohol at least once and over half the grade 10 students reported binge-drinking. The Government of Alberta reported that in 2013, 15.6% of all STIs reported in the Calgary Zone were among teens aged 15 to 19 and nearly half of all STIs were reported among youth aged 15 to 24.
These statistics demonstrate the importance of educating our children about healthy, diverse and consensual sexual behaviours. Promoting abstinence has not proven effective; rather our children need the tools to safely navigate their relationships and social environment and progressive and inclusive education can provide these tools.