Love (and Sex), Canadian Style

There’s a controversy brewing to the north of us. After Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that the most-populous Canadian province would update the sex-education curriculum used in public schools — modernizing its sex-ed materials to include discussions about gender identity, sexual orientation, masturbation and contraception — conservative politicians and pundits were quick to condemn the changes.

Religious groups and right-wing organizations like the Campaign for Life Coalition and Parents As First Educators also raised their voices in protest, citing concerns that the new curriculum was too extreme and violated personal values and parental rights. Some groups even called for a one-week strike, asking parents to pull their kids from school as an act of protest against the revised sex-ed curriculum.

In response, Planned Parenthood of Toronto started a Twitter campaign asking people to weigh in on why they supported the changes using the hashtag #SupportSexEd. Faster than one of the Canadian Clippers that chilled the Northeast to its core this past winter, responses to that plea flooded in. Within 24 hours, tens of thousands of people had tweeted their support of (or opposition to) comprehensive sex education in Canada (and elsewhere across the globe).

Canadian social media is now being consumed by an intense debate about sex and sex-ed. But this debate isn’t about whether sex education should be offered. Rather, it’s about how comprehensive the curriculum should be.

That’s a good thing. Those of us who live to the south could learn something from our neighbors. The sad truth of the matter is that American youth learn very little about sex and sexuality in public schools.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-profit organization that works to advanced sexual and reproductive health and rights, only 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in all public schools. New York is not one of these states. Nor are many of our neighbors, including Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania. Similarly, the three most populous states in the Union — California, Texas and Florida — do not require sex-ed to be part of the public curriculum.

Even when sex education is offered, much of what is taught is riddled with half-truths or bald-faced lies. Only 13 states require that the information provided be medically or scientifically accurate. Again, New York is not one of these states. A recent Congressional study catalogued many of the unproven claims, questionable conclusions or outright falsehoods that students have been taught in high school sex-ed classes across the country. These include such so-called “facts” as: use of contraception and abortion leads to depression and suicide, that condoms are ineffective in preventing the spread of HIV, and that touching another person’s genitals can result in pregnancy.

Our sex education curriculum is also full of holes. Thirty-seven states require that sex education, if it is offered, provide an abstinence-only message that emphasizes the importance of sex within marriage. In more than half of those states, teachers are forbidden to discuss contraception.

Among that illustrious list of states are the five that have the highest rates of teen pregnancy in the US: Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.

These states also tend have higher than average rates of sexually transmitted infections like gonorrhea and syphilis. It should come as no shock then that a west Texas school district recently made the national news for an outbreak of chlamydia among its students. One in 15 high school students in the Crane Independent School District, just outside of Odessa, tested positive for that sexually transmitted disease. Not surprisingly, Crane is one of the districts in Texas that offers no sex education classes to its students.

None of this makes any sense. Sex education is not the same as teaching kids to have sex. In fact, numerous studies have shown that teens are no more likely to engage in sex if they receive sex education than if they do not. About 50% of all teens report having sex before they graduate, regardless of whether or not their district offers sex-ed as part of the high school curriculum. More importantly, similar studies have found that rates of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are actually lower among teens that receive comprehensive sex education, as compared with those who receive abstinence-only education or those who get no sex-ed at all.

Today’s teens don’t learn about sex in the classroom. They learn about it by watching television, by going to R-rated movies, and by surfing the Internet. Sexually explicit material is ubiquitous in modern life. That’s not going to change.

What can change is our attitude towards sex education. Providing comprehensive sex-ed in our public schools — education that includes a frank and open discussion of sexuality, of contraception and pregnancy, and of sexually transmitted diseases — won’t encourage teenagers to have sex. Their hormones will do that. Our teens are going to have sex anyway. What comprehensive sex education in our public schools can do is encourage them to have sex responsibly.

Comprehensive sex education also doesn’t take away an individual’s right to decide what values and morals around sexuality they want to teach their kids. Rather, it is a way to encourage teens and parents to have a frank and open discussion about sex, and what sex means within the larger context of their culture and their religion.

It’s time we started acting like adults (or Canadians) and mandate that our public schools provide comprehensive sex education to all adolescents.

[This blog entry was originally presented as an oral commentary on Northeast Public Radio on May 7, 2015, and is available on the WAMC website.]

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About Sean Philpott-Jones

A public health researcher and ethicist by training, Sean holds advanced degrees in microbiology, medical anthropology, and bioethics. He is currently Chair of the Bioethics Department at Clarkson University's Capital Region Campus and Director of the Bioethics Program of Clarkson University-Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Director of two Fogarty-funded programs to provide research ethics education in Eastern Europe and in the Caribbean Basin. Until his term expired in August 2012, he served as Chair of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Human Studies Review Board, an advisory panel that reviews the scientific and ethical aspects of research involving human participants submitted to the EPA for regulatory purposes.
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