Commentary  Bringing sex ed back

Mandatory sex education should be taught by qualified educators

At the end of the summer, the Quebec Ministry of Education launched a pilot project for the reintroduction of a sex education program in Quebec schools. In 2001, sex education stopped being taught as a standalone topic, and was instead integrated into other subjects at the discretion of school boards and individual teachers. In 2005, it was virtually removed from the curriculum entirely. This new pilot project, which trails similar initiatives in British Columbia and Ontario, will require 15 schools to incorporate at least five hours a year of sex education at the primary level and 15 hours a year in high school of mandatory sex education classes; the Quebec government hopes to expand the program to all schools by 2017. The reestablishment of mandatory sex education is good news. It is high time to start treating the topic like any other subject in schools – if anything, sex education will have more of an impact on a student’s daily life than the average academic class. At the same time, the rush for implementation should not impact the quality of the program: the sex education reform must be paired with an oversight body to set standards to vet educators and emphasize consent in class.

Sex education is a necessary part of the school curriculum, and has consistently been shown to help young people make positive decisions about sex and to adopt healthy sexual behaviours. Although critics of mandatory sex education suggest that it is a matter best addressed within the confines of the home, this isn’t a realistic approach. In many families, the subject remains too taboo to be discussed with the openness required for effective sex education. The omnipresence of sex in media from online pornography, to advertising, to films makes access to accurate sex education classes all the more necessary to cut through the high levels of misrepresentative information that is so available to young people. Sex is an industry, a science, a social concept, and a part of identity; it is too complex to remain a ‘household science.’

Despite its importance, sex education in Quebec is currently in an abysmal state. According to Marlo Turner-Ritchie, former executive director of Head & Hands, a community health and support organization for Montreal youth, the 2001 reform “has effectively eliminated sex education from our schools” – and there are consequences. The number of cases of chlamydia in Quebec increased by 55 per cent between 2005 and 2011, and the number of women between 15 and 24 who contracted gonorrhea between 2004 and 2008 increased by 400 per cent. The lack of information on sexually transmitted infections available to young people has clearly taken a serious toll on public health. A drastic change in sex education is needed.

Sexual health requires that healthy behaviours be widespread among the population, and – much like vaccinations – full participation in the program is necessary for the best results.

Without a doubt, the most contentious part of this project is the ‘no exemptions’ policy: no exemptions from attendance will be permitted, for religious reasons or otherwise. There is no guarantee that parents who withdraw their children from sex education will provide them with comparable information at home. Yet, sexual health requires that healthy behaviours be widespread among the population, and much like vaccinations – full participation in the program is necessary for the best results.

Just as crucially, the program will include consent education; Ministry of Education spokesperson Pascal Ouellet noted “preventing sexual assaults [and] violence in romantic relations” as goals of the new curriculum. As children often learn and practice social norms of communication and interaction at school, where moral standards can be ingrained, it is thus the ideal place for consent education. While some argue that being forced to expose their children to information about sex and sexuality is a violation of their freedom of choice or religion, this argument is not applicable. Just as learning about different religions in school is different from being mandated to practice them, access to age-appropriate information about sex is not the same as the endorsement or encouragement of sexual behaviour and violates neither a child’s nor a parent’s freedom of religion or choice.

This initiative is not without drawbacks, however. While the Quebec government aims to treat sex education like a regular academic subject, teaching standards of the class remain vastly subpar. The government offers only a half-day of training to school administrators, and a day and a half of training to those responsible for implementing the courses. In turn, those people will decide what training is necessary for teachers in the classroom. This training will likely take the form of workshops, with a Ministry spokesperson having stated that “a few hours” would be sufficient. Without further formal training, it’s likely that many teachers will be greatly underprepared. Instead, these classes should be taught by qualified sex educators, for whom the certification process usually takes a week. Without teachers able to instruct students effectively, the program to aid Quebec’s collective sexual health is likely to be unsuccessful.

One way to ensure the quality of the program would be to establish a regulatory board, or other form of organized oversight, to make sure that curriculum guidelines are being followed effectively. While it might not be possible to have sexual health experts actually teach all the course content, such individuals should serve as points of both reference and enforcement to educators.

We should certainly hope that the pilot program will come to fruition and be implemented province-wide; however, the program will not be effective unless it is taught by qualified professionals and incorporates consent education at all levels. Sexuality is inevitably a part of the public discourse. Our education system has the opportunity to steer this discourse and its effects in a positive direction, but this will only be possible with an unwavering commitment to the comprehensive and competent teaching of the program.