Sex ed curricula varies widely across Canada with serious consequences — including sexually transmitted infections (STIs)— for students learning outdated and insufficient sexual health information, experts say.
“Despite the advances that have been made, we are still not close to the point where we could say that sexual heath education in Canadian schools is delivering the information and skills that young people will need, both currently and in the future,” Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada, tells Yahoo Canada News.
Alberta is the latest example, with critics saying that outdated curriculum — and the ability of parents to opt children out of sex ed altogether — is setting the province’s youth up for serious consequences including STIs.
Under Alberta’s human rights act, parents can opt their children out of all or parts of the sexual health curriculum. The province doesn’t track the number of students who receive exemptions, or for which parts of the curriculum. Alberta’s sexual health curriculum was last updated considerably in 2002.
“Alberta’s the only province that actually has in its government legislation the right for parents to opt their children out of any planned or deliberate discussion of sexuality or sexual health info in schools,” Kristopher Wells, director of programs and services for the Institute of Sexual Minority Studies and Services at the University of Alberta, tells Yahoo Canada News.
At the same time, the number of Albertans who test positive for HIV is increasing annually, according to Alberta Health. The province is also dealing with a spike in the rates of syphilis and gonorrhea with cases of the former doubling from the previous year, and up 80 per cent for the latter, according to Alberta Health Services.
“If we’re not giving them the information, or their parents are opting them out of learning the information, then we pay for it further down the system,” Wells says. “We’re seeing increased STI rates amongst youth, and a host of other health outcomes that we have to end up paying for somewhere else.”
Some experts tie STI outbreaks and other public health consequences to the failures of sexual health education in Canada not just in Alberta but across the country. In recent years, outbreaks of syphilis have been reported by public health officials in Halifax, Ottawa, northern Manitoba, Winnipeg and Newfoundland, among other parts of the country.
There have also been outbreaks of gonorrhea in Toronto and the Yukon, and national chlamydia rates have increased every year since 1997, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. And according to the agency, STIs have the highest incidence rates among young Canadians.
“There’s no question, when we look at the data that is available in Canada, that the incidence of STIs in Canadian youth and young adults is high,” McKay says. “This is a serious public health issue that is not being sufficiently addressed, and that has some pretty severe negative outcomes.”
A patchwork approach
Standards for sexual health education vary considerably across Canada.
“What we’re really lacking is a national approach so we could avoid this fragmentation,” Wells says.
The current patchwork approach lacks a national framework that would ensure that all Canadian young people get a basic standard of sexual health education, he says.
Instead, there is currently significant regional variation in what is learned and when. Students in Alberta and British Columbia are expected to know the names of body parts by kindergarten, according to Global News reporting, but not until Grade 6 in Prince Edward Island or New Brunswick. Those in Quebec are introduced to the idea of sexual orientation by the time they are five, but it’s not clear when Alberta students ever would be.
What’s also important is what isn’t being reported. Many provincial curricula leave out honest and open discussion of sexual identity, gender identity and other LGBTQ concerns.
“One of the weaknesses of sexual health education in Canadian schools is that it typically has been delivered in an entirely heteronormative context,” McKay says. “In terms of diversity with respect to sexual orientation, gender identity and ability, as well as ethnocultural diversity, we have a lot of work to do.”
They also leave out issues like consent: what it is, what it looks like and why it matters. And outdated curriculum can lack a realistic reflection of the factors that children and teens today are actually dealing with — sexting, for example, or social media posts.
But when provinces try to update sexual health curriculums, public protest can be the result. This was the case in Ontario when the provincial government recently released a new curriculum for sex education, to the complaints of some parents.
Public education is about teaching students what they need to know in our general society, Wells says, and that includes evidence-supported information about sexual health. Giving young people that information at school doesn’t preclude parents from teaching their own values and beliefs about sexuality at home — in fact, Wells says, it can give them an entry into those conversations.
“It’s not that we’re silencing parents,” Wells says. “What we’re trying to do is promote parents to engage in these conversations.”
Research shows that ignoring the realities of human sexuality fails to protect students from the consequences of sexual activity, or to delay that activity itself. In the United States abstinence-only education has failed to prevent students from engaging in sexual activity while negatively affecting their sexual health, according to the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States.
And surveys by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada show that more than 90 per cent of Canadian parents and young people do want sexual health education in schools.
“There are fundamental things that every citizen needs to know,” Wells says. “The key is open informed conversation. It needs to start young, it needs to start early and it needs to continue — not just during formal education but throughout the life cycle.”