Mean Girls’ infamous “Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant and die” is a pretty accurate description of how sex education is taught to students in Alberta.
Scaring students into abstinence is not how abstinence works. The Alberta government’s current Program of Studies on human sexuality education needs a reality check. It improperly prepares children for that Saturday night in the future when they’re 17 and drunk in a bedroom at a house party without condoms, and mistakingly allows parents to choose whether their child should even get a sex education.
The Program of Studies for Health and Life Skills says human sexuality education is “mandatory” for students from grades four through nine and high school students taking Career and Life Management (CALM), even though sex ed is only covered in two of the 14 units. However, “Parents will retain the right to exempt their child from school instruction in human sexuality education,” and for exempt students, “Schools will provide alternative learning experiences.” To be clear, parents who don’t think it’s appropriate for their children to learn about sexual education either at that age or in a school environment, or parents who have restrictive religious views can excuse their child from such teachings. And if students are exempt, they’ll participate in “alternative learning experiences,” not alternative sex ed learning experiences, but activities created by teachers to occupy the student and still provide a “learning experience.”
There’s no opt-out clause for puberty. Children are already more exposed to sex than I was in high school, listening to Drake, watching The Bachelor and following Kylie Jenner on Snapchat. It’s hard to opt out of sexuality — there’s no “off switch” for hormones. Alberta’s education system is ridiculous: it advertises sex ed as “mandatory” but includes an asterisk and fine print that says “Just kidding.” But that’s not where my main issue resides.
My major source of dissatisfaction comes from the curriculum itself. I’m sure growing up in the Edmonton Catholic School District had something to do with it, but saying my sex education took a “we’ll scare you from having sex because abstinence is key” path is an understatement.
Buried in the Learning Outcomes, past the teachings of puberty (grade four); reproduction (four to seven); “physical, emotional, sexual and social development” like “positive self-talk” (eight and nine); gender roles and media (seven), HIV, AIDS, and Hepatitis B/C (six); chlamydia, HPV, herpes, and gonorrhoea (eight); abuse and sexual assault (eight and nine), lies sexual education 101. It’s not until grade seven that students learn about sexual intercourse, and even then it takes an abstinence is key scare tactic. In grade seven, students “examine abstinence and decisions to postpone sexual activity as healthy choices”; in grade eight, students “identify and describe the responsibilities and consequences associated with involvement in a sexual relationship” (“consequences” doesn’t have a negative connotation, right?), and learn about “basic forms of contraceptives,” with the first one being “abstinence”; and in grade nine, students “determine ‘safer’ sex practices; e.g., … maintain abstinence.”
In high school, I completed CALM by correspondence, so sex ed wasn’t actually taught. However, one specific outcome says students will “examine the relationship between commitment and intimacy.” It teaches “trust,” “values,” and “jealousy,” which could work if you don’t want to end up as a crazy, overly-attached, paranoid girlfriend meme but won’t teach you anything practical about making sure you put the condom on correctly at that house party. Luckily, another outcome “examine(s) aspects of healthy sexuality and responsible sexual behaviour” by explaining “sexually healthy actions and choices for one’s body, including abstinence,” “responsible and respectful sexual expression,” how “personal values influence choices,” and “the consequences of being sexually active.” High school sexual education is almost non-existent as CALM is inadequate, dated, and contains more of the same deferral methods from sexual activity altogether.
Much to my dismay, I never placed a condom on a banana like in the movies. I don’t remember learning anything practical about sex like pee after sex so you don’t get a UTI, the morning after pill exists over the counter, abortions are an option, you’re not going to get pregnant and die. Schools can preach abstinence, but students won’t listen. Instead, schools should teach sexuality in ways that recognize that students won’t listen. Schools shouldn’t make it seem like sex is so bad. Sure, diseases exist, and yes, pregnancy is a reality if you’re not careful, but sex can also be pleasurable, and it’s a lie to suggest it’s not.
In France, sexuality education is mandatory and parents cannot excuse their children. Students learn about “lovemaking” and how to give and receive, but they don’t teach abstinence as a method of contraception because it’s not a contraception. In the Netherlands, sex education begins at age four and in it, sex is normalized, not discouraged. In Germany, sex education begins at age nine and is integrated into multiple classes, such as citizenship, religion, ethics, and biology. In Finland, sex ed starts in grade one; in grades seven and eight, students learn about intercourse, losing their virginity, and dating; and in grade nine, students learn about masturbation (not as taboo), ejaculation, abortion, and sexual minorities. Denmark invites prostitutes and homosexuals to speak to kids, and teachers show porn in class for educational purposes. All these countries have seen a decrease in sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies.
Sex can’t be looked at as taboo in an educational environment and normalized in a highly social and mediatized one. Scare tactics don’t work. Teenagers will break the rules, disobey their parents and teachers, watch porn online, and learn about sex in another completely impractical way. So, let’s re-evaluate our sex education and actually educate kids about sexuality for a change.