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The Dismal State of Sex Ed in Canada

September 18 2021

Sex Education in Canada

For most of us, the majority of our sex education in school might have looked a little something like this: here’s how to use condoms, STIs are a thing, having sex is bad, and oh, uh, here’s a video of vaginal birth. 

This seems to be a common them with the Marlow community too after we ran polls and questions on Instagram:

  • “Three words: abstinence, abstinence, abstinence!”

  • “Learned about anatomy, menstruation, & STIs, but nothing about consent or pleasure!”

  • “It was surface level and presented uncomfortably.”

  • It upheld purity culture!”

Not only does the education most of us receive barely touch the surface of the comprehensive sex education we all deserved, but it gave us a false idea of what intimacy would look like.

When we asked our community, we discovered that a solid 92% of individuals had received sex education through school in their youth. Unfortunately, it’s pretty clear that the quality of sex education we’re receiving is sub-par, at most, with 89% agreeing that their sex ed did not prepare them for real life.

Particularly lacking in many curriculums was any genuine understanding of consent. If you’re in your 20s or older, chances are consent wasn’t discussed in depth in your class. Considering only 1 in 3 Canadians understand what sexual consent means, and with sexual assault rates against in Canada on the rise, it is paramount that future generations are able to change this narrative with improved education on sexual consent.

We ran polls on Instagram and discovered, unfortunately unsurprisingly, that only 34% learnt about consent in school, and of those, only 7% received a comprehensive education on consent. That means that only 2% of the Marlow community received comprehensive education on consent.

While this blog is not intended to be a comprehensive summary on consent (although keep your eyes peeled for this in the future!) - here’s a definition of sexual consent, as per Planned Parenthood: sexual consent is an agreement to participate in a sexual activity. Sexual consent must include the following characteristics: being freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic, and specific.

I think too many of us have found ourselves in ambiguous situations where we haven’t said no, but we haven’t said yes, and that grey zone has resulted in us going further than we’re comfortable. Education is an important part of changing that narrative for all parties.

Inclusive Sex Education

Let’s be honest, most sex-education curriculums are developed through a heteronormative, cisgender, white, ableist lens. Again, made clear after polling our community - 95% received sex education through a hetero-normative lens. 

The reality is, there are a significant amount of students that won’t identity with traditional hetero-normative views. Most children have some understanding of their gender identity and sexual orientation at a relatively young age, and it is integral that these children feel seen and heard and are given relevant sex education. According to 2001 research article, “rates of homicide, physical and sexual assault, and other forms of victimization against and among [LGBTQ] youths tend to exceed those of their heterosexual peers.” In addition, a lack of inclusive curriculum perpetuates the idea that sex only happens between two specific types of bodies, enables the systemic erasure of LGBTQ identities through silence, and doesn’t properly teach consent in all it’s dynamics. We cannot continue to perpetuate a system that allows these trends to continue.

According to the 2020 State of Sex Ed Report, “Safe and inclusive learning environments for LGBTQI2S+ kids reduce the risk of suicide and risk-taking behaviours of all students (not just sexual and gender minorities).” 

The Impact of Sex Ed

When sex ed is good… it can be great! For those in the Marlow community who had a positive experience with their sex ed, this is what they said:

  • Fortunately, I had the best sex education and feel so blessed to have the experience I did.”

  • “My teacher opened up to us about her life, how sex has impacted her, and [other] detailed info.”

  • “[My teacher put] a condom over her arm to show us that “I’m too big” is BS.” 

From comprehensive focus on consent, to an inclusive curriculum, to the simple act of discussing topics openly and comfortably, there’s a lot of room for improvement in sex education curriculums. In addition, we need to communicate useful and actionable advice to students, such as where to even get emergency contraception, or all the different types of birth control that are available. Data collected on Canadian populations discovered the following:

  • 57% did not learn where to get tested for STIs

  • 52% did not learn where to get emergency contraception

  • 38% did not know where to get free condoms

  • 38% did not know where to get birth control

Having inadequate sex education can have serious and harmful effects on peoples’ lives. One example includes the increase of gender-based and sexual violence when youth aren’t taught about their bodies, bodily autonomy, and consent. Comprehensive sex ed can change this narrative by openly discussing consent and gender and power dynamics.

So… if sex ed sucks so much, why don’t we just change it?

So, what’s stopping us from making the changes we need for a better sex ed curriculum? Oh, the time old answer… bureaucracy. 

In Canada, sex education curriculums are developed by provinces and territories and implemented by school boards and individual schools. This can result in a pretty wide range of sex ed experiences, some students lucking out with teachers that go above-and-beyond, and some ending up with some version of the iconic Coach Carr, aka - “Don't have sex, because you will get pregnant and die!”

For this to change, we need funding, benchmarks, training for teachers, and access to sexual health experts for schools. 

Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights is an organization doing incredible work on the fight to comprehensive sex education. Not only have they drafted a comprehensive report on the state of sex education in Canada, but they have started a movement to take action in Canada (#SexEdSavesLives) and developed the The Future Planning Initiative, “a coalition of Canadian organizations working together to advocate for Canadian leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).”

Let’s be honest, this blog only barely touches the surface of the state of sex ed in Canada and how dire it is (for a truly comprehensive report, do read through Action Canada’s report). However, we hope that with this blog, we are able to contribute to maintaining the momentum in the push towards better and more comprehensive sex education. As we grow up to hold influence, whether that be as parents, teachers, influences on government, and more, remember that comprehensive sex education saves lives, and it is future generations’ right to have inclusive, comfortable and relevant conversation about their bodies and sexual wellness.