Mental Health & Well-being

Is Sex Education Working?

Let’s Talk About Sex: Is Sexual Health Education Working?

By Sabrina Mehra

For today’s sexually active adolescent, the consequences of poor decisions are potentially life altering. Risk taking behaviours and unhealthy habits can lead to unwanted pregnancy, long-term emotional complications, and sexually transmitted diseases, some of which are fatal. Theoretically, educators have the power to provide their students with the information and critical thinking tools necessary to make healthy choices where sexual activities are concerned.

“Young people are constantly faced with important choices that must be made, and if one adopts unhealthy habits, it can have very severe consequences later in life,” says Dr. Tom Wong, Director of the Division of Sexual Health Promotion and STD Prevention and Control at Health Canada. “Teachers have a golden opportunity to facilitate some very important dialogue on the subject of sexuality,” says Wong.

However, whether or not teachers are equipped with the skills, support, and resources necessary to handle this golden opportunity remains an issue of debate among educators and health officials alike. With teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease infection among Canadian youth on the rise, and music videos and popular films propagating the idea that a sexually promiscuous teen is a normal teen, some educators insist that the sexual health portion of the curriculum is not getting the scrutiny it deserves in Canadian schools.

Ensuring high-quality programs are taught on a regular basis must become a priority if sexual health education programs are ever going to be relevant to today’s youth, says Dr. Alex McKay, Research Coordinator for the Sexual Information and Education Council of Canada. “Sexual health education is provided in bits and pieces and it’s really not comprehensive enough or theoretically advanced enough in many cases to really have a major impact in terms of promoting sexual health in Canada,” says McKay, author of Sexual Ideology & Schooling: Towards Democratic Sexuality Education. “That’s not to say that there aren’t good programs here and there, but I don’t think it would be accurate to say at this point that sexual health education being provided in Canadian schools is meaningfully contributing to adolescent sexual health in concrete behavioural ways.”

Reasons for this irrelevancy are numerous and debatable. Fear of parental backlash, jam-packed curriculums, and an emphasis on combatting low literacy and numeracy rates are just some of the reasons that administrators are allotting less and less time to sexual health education – and cutting back on resources to support teachers who require additional support in order to get through what can be, for many teachers, a terrifying ordeal.

“Generally, in elementary schools, the home room teacher teaches the health education, including the sexual education part, and the reality in our system now is that we don’t have a huge team of specialists to support those teachers,” says Gabriela Ostendorfer, a health consultant and sexual health educator for the Calgary Board of Education.

“Years ago, they had a whole team that would in-service teachers on everything from your own sensitivities around the topic, to how to be a really good teacher in that area, to how to be sensitive to children’s questions and needs. It was a really great way to in-service teachers, and so we felt very confident. We don’t have that anymore because of budget cuts.”

The quality and quantity of a teacher’s own sex education also play a role in the quality and quantity of sex education they provide. “There isn’t a lot of [sexual health education] training provided for teachers,” says Myra Stephen, Director of the Ontario Physical Health Education Association. “The only training is whatever is provided in teacher’s college – which tends to be limited – or training at the school board level after that, and that tends to be sporadic. Sometimes it’s great, and sometimes it’s nothing.”

But even with a reasonable dose of relevant training, the quality of sexual health education provided by qualified teachers is at risk if they’re visibly uncomfortable with the subject matter. According to Stephen, teachers need to be comfortable with more than just imparting facts about sexual health if they want to make a lasting impact. “I think when teachers are delivering information, they’re probably sticking to the facts, and students are most engaged when they’re talking about relationships, feelings, and the emotional impact of other decisions,” says Stephen. “I think what students want to know is what is titillating for them to talk about. They need to have the opportunity to talk about those things.”

Students also need to have the opportunity to practice the kinds of words they’ll need in order to be clear about what’s okay and what’s not okay in terms of their own sexual activities, says Toronto Public Health Nurse Lyba Spring. “It’s important for teachers to recognize that [students] need to have the opportunity to actually have words come out of their mouth,” says Spring. This could be accomplished through role-playing activities, she adds.

Teachers aren’t the only ones who become uncomfortable dealing with this topic in the classroom. Countless students have questions, but are reluctant to raise their hands for fear of teasing or humiliation. One way to accommodate these shy students is to provide a question box in which they can submit their own sexual health-related inquiries anonymously.

The importance of this particular form of communication must not be dismissed or downplayed, says Ostendorfer. How teachers handle the question box and the respect that they give to answering the students’ questions is especially important. “Sometimes it’s just something to do at the end of class, and sometimes it turns into a joke thing,” says Ostendorfer. “I think teachers have to be really careful there because they’re modeling some behaviours and statements and students are just soaking it all up.” School is not the only venue where students soak up information. When imparting information about sexual health, teachers are often forced to compete with the media’s portrayal of sexual behaviour – one that usually encourages unhealthy practices. “I keep thinking, what messages are 14-year-olds getting when they’re watching music videos?” says Ostendorfer. “If that’s where students are getting their information about how to be – if those are the role models – we’re in a bit of a sorry state.”

But teachers shouldn’t throw up their hands in defeat just because the media’s reach is so expansive. Teachers can incorporate the media’s portrayal of risky sexual behaviours into their lesson plans, says Stephen. “They can do things like bring in advertisements and say, ‘How is the woman portrayed? How is the man portrayed? What messages are being given?’” Stephen suggests. “I think by giving students the opportunity to really analyse and look at what they’re being told and what they want to be told, it makes them smart consumers.”

If fire fights fire, then educators should embrace the opportunity to utilize youth-friendly mediums like music videos and films to make their point, says Wong. “If commercial outlets can use music videos to target young people to sell their products, perhaps we and everyone concerned about the sexual well-being of our teens can use that same type of medium to impart appropriate information and affect young people in a positive way,” he says.

Somewhere between lesson planning and in-class discussions, teachers must strive to maintain a balance between respecting diversity in the classroom and providing relevant information in a welcoming fashion. It’s a daunting task – especially when faced with the possibility of aggressive, in-your-face parents. But according to Stephen, as long as teachers are honest, respectful, and acknowledge that both home and school have roles to play as far as sexual health education is concerned, students from many backgrounds should feel welcome. “Understand and make it clear that there’s a partnership between the home and the school, focus on the facts, and really stay away from value judgements,” she says. “Let the students make their own decisions with their families.”

According to Spring, it would be unfair to limit information because of diversity. “It would be unethical not to answer certain questions because some kids aren’t ready to hear it,” Spring says. “The kid who asks the question deserves an answer, and because we’re doing this in a group setting, everybody hears the answer.” Teachers tread in dangerous territory when their own moralistic judgments surface in the classroom, and one surefire way to avoid alienating students is to make a conscious effort not to make any assumptions where sex is concerned, Stephen advises. “Try to avoid assumptions, avoid assuming that all students are sexually active or are not sexually active,” says Stephen. “Avoid assuming that all students are heterosexual.”

For Spring, the best example of addressing diversity among students can be found in her handling of dating. “I can’t make the assumption that all the children in front of me are going to be allowed to date, because some of them won’t,” says Spring. “Some of them come from families where the adults will help them find a mate for life.”

Daunted? Squeamish educators are not alone. Resources are available, be they binders, in-service nurses, or websites for those educators who need the extra assistance.

One such online resource is Teaching Sexual Health sponsored by the Calgary Board of Education, Alberta Health and Wellness, and other educators and health professionals committed to achieving “excellence in teaching sexual health.” There are three sections in the site: one for parents, one for students, and one for teachers. The section for teachers provides lessons plans, advice on how to teach the subject, and access to supplemental resources such as pamphlets, fact sheets, illustrations, video kits, and in-service aid. “Right away you’re using a more comprehensive approach, and I think teachers feel more supported with that Web site,” says Ostendorfer.

Stephen recommends the Planned Parenthood resource, Beyond the Basics: A Sourcebook on Sexual and Reproductive Health Education, for similar reasons. “It’s a great resource that talks about reducing inhibitions and setting a tone and creating a comfortable atmosphere and how to answer questions in a factual way, as opposed to a value-laden way,” says Stephen. What impact do sexual health education programs have on an individual’s sexuality? Not much, according to McKay – but that has the potential to change. “In order to become really effective and impacting on those issues like unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, sex education programs really need to focus on behavioural skill building and the ability to communicate effectively and assertively with partners around sexuality issues,” he says. “When it reaches that kind of level, sexuality programs may have quite a positive impact on people’s sexuality in a more general sense.”

It might need improvement, but the ramifications of discontinuing sexual health education altogether would be disastrous. “People would argue and say the school shouldn’t be teaching it at all,” says Ostendorfer. “But then, who?”

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