What experts say kids need to learn in sex ed

Everyone from parents to politicians weighs in on sex ed, but we asked the experts what information kids need to make choices about their own bodies.

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A quick look at the news, filled with #MeToo allegations and nude photo scandals, makes it clear why kids need to be taught about sex, and everything that goes with it. And while parents certainly play a role in this conversation, so does the education system. “Schools are really good at making sure that, as a community, kids have access to facts that they can then use to help them protect their sexual health,” says Nadine Thornhill, a Toronto-based sex educator. She says that arming kids with fact-based information in school is crucial for everything from understanding consent to avoiding sexually transmitted infections.

Ideally, Thornhill says, sex ed should be rooted in the idea that sex and sexuality are natural and highly variable experiences. She says the curriculum should start with basic steps, such as normalizing words like “vulva.” By the time kids are teens,  “it would move into talking about sex as an experience,” says Thornhill, explaining that it should move away from the idea that there is a ‘normal’ and instead focus on how everything from body types to puberty to sexual preferences can vary from person to person. Of course, “There are still parameters,” she says, noting that consent should be at the foundation.

Unfortunately for Canadian kids, no province or territory’s curriculum quite meets that vision for sexual education. Even Ontario’s more progressive 2015 curriculum, which recently made headlines when the provincial government announced that it would be pulling it and reverting back to out-of-date teachings from 1995, had room for improvement. “It’s very good at covering the basics,” says Thornhill referring to the 2015 curriculum, “but it could be a little bit more comprehensive at explicitly acknowledging that there are a lot of different experiences around sex.” For example, she says, “There’s not a lot of space to talk about people who have intersex bodies.” And there are no blueprints for how instructors can address things like sexuality and disabilities when teaching differently abled students. Mother having a talk with her tween daughterHow to talk to your kids about sex: An age-by-age guide

Alex McKay, the executive director of Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN), says that no one in Canada exemplifies the gold standard in sex curriculum. When it comes to sex ed in schools, “I don’t think there’s a particular province that stands out above the rest as being excellent,” he says.

Though all public school kids will learn where babies come from—this is a first this year as Quebec has just reintroduced sex ed in all grades after a decade without it —when kids learn depends on their province’s curriculum. And there’s still room for improvement all around.

“I would love to see a more intersectional approach,” says Thornhill. “So that we’re not only talking about people with normative bodies or neuro-typical people.” Sex ed lessons should be applicable to everyone, including people of colour, the differently abled and those who are interested in non-traditional relationship structures.

McKay agrees. “Sex education in Canadian schools is often taught as if every student in class is heterosexual and cis-gendered, and we know that’s not the reality.” Instead, he explains, curriculums need to be explicitly inclusive and use language and perspectives that cover a range of gender and sexual identities.

McKay adds that while Canadian sex ed classes do cover important topics such as STIs and condoms, “there can be very little discussion about how to navigate relationships.” He notes that this is one clear area where sex ed in schools could be improved. “Young people really want information and skills to develop healthy relationships and the schools could do better in focusing on that,” he says.

SIECCAN, which has worked sexual health education and promotion across Canada since 1964, works to progress curriculums. In August, the organization released a draft of its Core Principles of Comprehensive Sexual Health Education, which will form the backbone for the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, set to be released this fall. The principles include discussing consent, using evidence-based teaching methods and preventing sexual- and gender-based violence. McKay explains that policy makers and educators can use the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education to identify gaps in existing programs or to create more effective and inclusive curriculums.

Of course, even the best curriculum doesn’t mean much if it’s not being taught properly, and sex ed is typically taught by health and physical education teachers who may or may not have received specialized training in the topic. Thornhill explains that sex ed teachers need to not only be comfortable with the biology but also “need to feel that they can answer questions that may not be specifically outlined in the curriculum.” A solid foundational education in sex and sexuality would better equip teachers for those moments.

And unlike math or English, where the basics are largely established, our knowledge and views on sex and sexuality are consistently evolving. As a result, says McKay, it’s key that sex ed teachers be given ongoing professional development and administrative support. One of the core principles of SIECCAN is that educators should be properly trained and supported.

But SIECCAN’s principles have no legal authority, and changes to the existing sexual education practices will likely only be implemented if Canadians make it clear that they support them. “Parents need to speak up about the importance of inclusive sexual health education in schools,” says McKay.

Parents can not only contact politicians and administrators during curriculum reviews but also champion this cause outside of review periods. That way the powers-that-be will know that better sex education is something parents value, regardless of politics.

Read more:
Why you should talk to your kids about sex earlier than you think
We need an up-to-date sed-ed curriculum

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