The provision of sexual health education in the elementary and secondary schools has ignited a substantial amount of debate over the years.
Our school system has a responsibility to ensure that all Canadian youth have access to sex-ed, and this should be non-negotiable. The public, private or religious basis of a school should not play a role in whether sex education is provided.
Several conservative and religious groups argue that providing this information corrupts young minds. The notion that allowing students to learn aspects of sexual health promotes earlier or more frequent sexual activity is ridiculous and wrong.
There is strong evidence from health agencies worldwide demonstrating that programs do not accelerate or increase sexual behaviours and actually delays or decreases these behaviours while increasing the use of protective measures, such as condom and other contraceptive uses.
In a review carried out by Kirby, Laris, and Rolleri, from the United States National Library of Medicine, 83 studies measuring the impact of curriculum-based sex and HIV education programs on sexual behaviour amongst youth under 25 years of age were assessed. Two-thirds of the programs had a significant positive impact on behaviour, with many delaying or reducing sexual activity, increasing condom and contraceptive use, or both.
The review also found that in general these programs did not have negative effects. Out of the 52 studies that measured program impact on initiation of sex, only one study found accelerated initiation of sex. It is noted that due to the large number of studies and tests of significance for that outcome, that one could have occurred by chance.
In another study carried out by the Canadian Education Association, adolescents who received comprehensive sex education had a lower risk of pregnancy than those who received abstinence-only or received no sex education. Programs that focus on abstinence without discussing safer sex behaviours also do not appear to reduce the risk of HIV. Some abstinence-only programs can decrease teen sexual behaviours, although the effects are modest and short term.
Many argue that it should be left entirely up to parents to teach their children about sex, but is that how we approach other facets of education? The simple answer is no.
So why should we withhold the opportunity for students to acquire knowledge that will empower them to make informed choices regarding their own sexual and reproductive health?
According to the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, sex-ed should be accessible to all people and should be provided in an age appropriate, culturally sensitive manner that is respectful of an individual’s right to make their own educated choices.
The guidelines recognize that Canada is a pluralistic society in which different people have different perspectives and values regarding sexuality. With this is mind, the framework for many of our school-based sex ed programs is based on an educational philosophy that is inclusive, respectful of diversity and reflective of the fundamental principles of education in a democratic society.
Abstinence-only programs veer away from providing a comprehensive education and purposefully do not teach the importance of consistent contraceptive and condom use. There is a substantial amount of evidence which clearly indicates that teaching abstinence-only is an ineffective approach to reducing adolescent sexual behaviour. Why do you think teen pregnancies are an issue? It’s easy to make the connection here.
The Public Health Agency of Canada states that in order for sexual health education programs to be effective, they have to support informed decision-making by creating opportunities for individuals to attain the knowledge, personal insights, motivation and behavioural skills that are consistent with one’s own personal values and choices. It is important that the topic of abstinence is included as a component of a broadly-based program.
A solid sexual health curriculum needs to encompass a multitude of learning modules — a few of which are self image, sexual diversity, applicable anatomy and physiology, pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection prevention strategies and discussion of the legislation surrounding age of consent.
Ultimately, the provision of sexual health education in a school setting is non-negotiable. If we refuse to provide the next generation with information that they have every right to, we are refusing to enable them to make the best possible decisions regarding their own health.
Graphic: Cody Schumacher/Graphics Editor