Commentary  What about sex?

We are taking elementary and secondary education for granted, at the expense of youth

In the wake of the release of the 2011-2012 Quebec budget on Thursday, when university tuition was set to increase by 75 per cent over the next five years with no provisions for increased financial aid, money is on many people’s minds. The number of bad decisions the Quebec government has made in regards to education is staggering. A great deal is said about the public financing of our education system. But what about sex? It’s estimated that adolescent boys think about sex approximately every twenty seconds. Yet, in their infinite wisdom, our Ministère de l’Éducation, du Loisir et du Sport (MELS) eliminated mandatory sexual education from elementary and high school curricula. The results are worrisome.

As far back as the age of eight, I remember having whole afternoons dedicated to sexual education at my elementary school in la belle province. As boring as it was at times, we were introduced to reproductive biology by specially trained educators. By the end of elementary school, sexual education actually taught us about sex, and the changes we were going through were explained plainly and clearly. We were given instruction about the pleasures we could derive from our bodies in both solo and partnered sexual activity. We were taught not to judge the sexual preferences of our peers. The dots were connected between pleasure, reproductive biology, and the pubescent transformations we were experiencing. And of course, it was repeatedly explained how to avoid STIs, and how to plan pregnancy. All of this by the age of 12.

In high school, things took an edgier turn. Our government, understanding that teen sex happens regardless of puritanical beliefs that it shouldn’t, periodically sent well-trained sex educators to engage us in open conversations about sex. They created an environment where the most bizarre questions were welcomed and answered: “No, a woman can’t get pregnant by shaking hands after you’ve masturbated.” We even had the luxury of being herded into our auditorium to listen to people like Sue Johanson discuss in plain English our genitals, orgasms, masturbation, sexual positions – all the things nobody else talked about. Some of the videos we were made to watch about how to use a condom still make me laugh: my favourite featured a wooden penis with a big smile named – wait for it – Woody.

But when MELS decided it needed to make itself appear more useful, it implemented sweeping changes to the way we perform elementary and high school education. Many of the changes were controversial, and education professionals are still quite polarized in their opinions of them. Some of the changes, however, are unambiguously stupid. Eliminating specific requirements for dedicated sexual education is certainly one of them. Now, it is simply up to a particular teacher to decide if they want to talk sex. Most don’t, and even when they do, they aren’t trained to do it right.

I have a number of friends who teach high school and were around both before and after the reform. All are reporting that when they choose to talk about sex, they now discover that their pupils are awkward, shy, and silent, or vocally ignorant and inappropriate. A friend who teaches English recently told me that when she broached the topics of pregnancy and STIs, she was shocked to discover that more than half her class was readily convinced that if you avoid insemination by not ejaculating in a woman, you also avoid all STIs! None of her grade nine students had been instructed about prophylactics of any kind. She probed further and discovered that although many of her students were sexually active, they had never been instructed about how to have sex. One of her female pupils described having regular sex, but neither her nor her partner had ever taken their clothes off: they didn’t know that was normal, and the girl had no idea that she could experience pleasure, let alone an orgasm. Forget any notion of intimacy.

This is a modern tragedy. Childhood and adolescent sexual health education is a must if we want a society that practices safe and fulfilling sex, and plans reproduction responsibly. Although we expend a great deal of energy analyzing the abundant and growing problems with our post-secondary education system, we often do so while taking quality elementary and high school education for granted. But bad policy decisions are everywhere. We need to look at our education system holistically, because we are now failing to succeed in the most basic forms of teaching, including the development of awareness and understanding of our own bodies. ο