For about 20 years, Head and Hands has offered health education workshops, including alternative youth sexual education programs to teach teenagers about safe and healthy sexual behaviour..
Over the last seven months, rather than the alternative, these services have become the only option for many Montreal youth. As of last September, sexual education has not been on the curriculum of many of Quebec’s high schools. That’s because as of September 2005, sex ed was no longer mandatory.
In fact, not only is it optional, Quebec’s Ministry of Education is asking language, science, and arts teachers to teach their students about sex, rather than hiring an expert to teach the subject. Prior to this school year, there was a mandatory five hours of sex ed per year in the curriculum. Usually it was taught as part of a health class or moral and religious class.
Now, there is no specific time set aside and teachers are expected to integrate sexual education into their own curriculum. Whether this is happening is doubtful. The quality and sensitivity of the teaching is even more questionable. Sex is an extremely sensitive subject and teenagers deserve explanations from someone knowledgeable, trained and able to deal with embarrassing or uncomfortable situations.
Teen years are the best time to learn about sex and relationships in detail. In fact, according to the Sexual Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECC), in 2000-2001 the average age for males to first have experienced sexual intercourse was 16.7 years old, and for females, 16.8 years old. According to the SIECC, over 70 per cent of males and females have sexual intercourse before age 20.
So where can teenagers turn to learn about sex now that schools are not even attempting to educate them about it? There are a few options: the Internet, TV, movies, friends or their parents. Ideally, the latter over any of the former. But even parents sometimes have only limited knowledge of topics like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or birth control options.
A national survey conducted by the Canadian Association for Adolescent Heath last October said about three in every 10 teenagers aged 14 to 17 is sexually active. Out of those half-million teenagers, 38 per cent said they engage in casual sex and 24 per cent said they did not use protection against STIs the last time they had sex.
The SIECC study showed that teen pregnancy rates actually declined from 1997 to 2000, but the amount of STIs among teenagers is very high, and continues to increase. For example, the rate of 15 to 19-year-old females that reported they had Chlamydia increased by 41.9 per cent from 1997 to 2002.
Unfortunately, even as sex education is getting harder to come by, the ideas and images promoting sex are easy to find. In fact, it’s gotten difficult to avoid the onslaught of advertisements and other media touting sexual content. It must be difficult for parents to hide internet images and videos, magazine ads, music videos and every other form of sexually explicit material. As such, it’s increasingly important that young people learn about sex in a positive and honest environment.
It’s hard to see the reasoning behind ditching sex ed. Since many schools used to hire a professional to conduct their sex ed. classes, it’s possible that this was simply a financial decision. That is unacceptable. In the long run, the damage caused by sexually-uneducated teens and adults will carry a much greater price tag than the initial costs of a program of instruction. Sexual education must be reintroduced as a mandatory part of high school curriculums. Otherwise someone else will end up doing the teaching, and the effects of that could be devastating.