News  Lack of sex education takes its toll in Quebec

Since the Quebec government’s 2005 cancellation of formal sexual education in the province’s high schools, the subject has all but disappeared.

When it implemented the reform, the province encouraged teachers to integrate sex education into core subjects rather than address it separately. But more than two years later, the government has yet to evaluate the success of the change. Without statistics, it is difficult to determine what, if any, sex education high school students receive.

Jerome Ramcharitar, a student at Montreal’s Westmount High School, said that since the reforms were implemented, his teachers have never addressed sex.

“I had [sex ed] in grade seven and eight, but then I didn’t have it at all,” Ramcharitar said.

The government education reforms privilege core subjects, like language, math, and history, at the expense of those considered peripheral, like sex ed, which fall under the Personal and Social Development (FPS) subjects.

Stéphanie Tremblay, the communications officer for the Quebec Ministry of Education, explained that before the reforms, FPS classes had allocated only five hours annually for sex ed. She was confident that schools could maintain this level of sexual education if teachers integrated sexual discussions into their lesson plans.

“All notions relating to the biology of sex, the reproductive system, pregnancy, contraception, and [Sexually Transmitted Infections] are covered in the science and technology classes. The notions are looked at, but not in a class dedicated specifically to sex,” Tremblay said.

Quebec is now the only province in Canada that does not mandate sexual education.

Uninformed and unhappy

The reforms have left some unsatisfied. Mary Sanner, a mother with children in NDG’s Loyola High School, said the current system neglects sexual education, depriving children about issues like HIV and AIDS.

“You will not convince me that cutting funding and ad hoc conversation about sex is going to do any educating,” Sanner said.

While Tremblay asserted that the reforms were not introduced to save money or in response to budgetary constraints, since 2005 schools have received virtually no financial resources for sexual education.

Upon learning that a teenaged girl in her neighbourhood had been diagnosed with AIDS, Sanner tried to bring an alternative informational source to students. She suggested that Dr. Sharon Walmey, a pre-eminent HIV/AIDS specialist who offered to visit Loyola High School free of charge, talk to the student body about sexually transmitted diseases.

“The message is not getting through, and I think it’s due to a total lack of education about safe sex,” Sanner said, explaining that sex education could diminish the prevalence of AIDS among young adults.

Sanner brought the offer to the Loyola parents’ committee’s attention in 2005, but it rejected her proposal, deeming it inappropriate.

Let’s talk about sex, baby

With more control over their finances than public schools, private schools can afford to be flexible in their approach to sex ed.

Villa Maria, a private Montreal Anglophone Catholic high school for girls, kept its sex educator Desire Brenner on staff despite the reform guidelines.

Brenner wondered how teachers without training in sex ed would negotiate the challenging situations that often arise during frank discussions about sex. With a BA in Sexuality from Concordia and 22 years of experience, Brenner felt her background helps her stay composed when confronted with shocking questions from students.

“[Teachers] say, ‘I’m not qualified and I’m not comfortable.’ They haven’t been informed yet – when you give someone a book to read, that doesn’t mean they’ll know about it and feel comfortable,” Brenner said.

Christina Foisy, an employee at NDG community centre Head and Hands, worried that teachers without formal training in sex ed would pass on out-of-date knowledge to students.

“Some teachers still think that oral sex there is not risky, they don’t know what a dental dam is, or are not trans-sensitive. As time goes on we need to educate the educators,” she said.

A helping hand

Foisy and Head and Hands launched a program called the Sense Project to provide supplementary education to students following the educational-reform implementation. Foisy, who coordinates and acts as a funds researcher for the Sense Project, explained that many teachers are uncomfortable with sex ed material and do not prioritize it over other subjects in their classes.

“Teachers say, ‘How is this relevant to my learning objectives?’ There are no concrete learning objectives associated with sexual health,” Foisy said.

Serving six Montreal schools, the Sense Project offers non-judgmental, harm-reductive, and holistic workshops on sexuality led by young adult volunteers.

According to Foisy, the Sense Project often has difficulty scheduling workshops because teachers resist compromising their lesson plans.

“Before, with FPS, that class in itself had a built-in section for sex-education, and there were no scheduling issues. [Now] there is no time so we need to make time; an hour in History or an hour in English. It’s interesting how much of a challenge that is. Teachers get upset,” Foisy said.

In tandem with the workshops, the Sense Project recruits and trains students as peer educators. In a 30-hour training session, Head and Hands teaches volunteers about confidentiality, referrals, trans issues, and gender identity. The peer educators then produce projects, like a radio show or poster campaign, to enrich sexual education at their school.

Since the government cutbacks, much sexual education actually happens outside of the classroom in conversations between teens, Foisy said, making peer educators a valuable resource to the Sense Project.

“Peer education is free and it’s sustainable,” she said. “We try to tap into school culture. School yards and cafeteria spaces are part of the school and they can be educational.”

Remembering his experiences with sex ed in his early years of high school, Ramcharitar suspected students would feel uncomfortable talking about sex with teachers they see every day.

“You already know your teachers, and don’t want to ask something personal… People from outside are better because you’re not affiliated with them from before and there are no pretenses.”