As much as I enjoyed talking about contraception and STIs with my Grade 9 teacher and 20-odd other sweaty 14-year-olds, sex ed class was an uncomfortable experience.
Sex education was a cautionary tale for us — lessons centred on actions-to-avoid-at-all-costs. Sure, sex was natural, we were told. But first and foremost, it was imminently dangerous.
We learned to always use contraception. And to never have sex without knowing the sexual history of our partner. (Or else you could get a sexually transmitted infection that might never go away and could haunt you for the rest of your life.)
Surely everyone had questions, but raising your hand to ask about sex wasn’t easy in a group of dozens of your peers.
Sex was already an intimidating subject. Junior high, with its proclivity for preying on every unintended social miscalculation, compounded that fear of speaking up. So, tacet, we learned the rules of what never ever to do.
Sex ed didn’t miss the mark because it taught us sex was dangerous, however. Those warnings were valid and, of course, important to keeping young people such as us safe.
Looking back, the class disappoints because it focused too much on scaring us – whether that was the intention or not. The thrust of what we were taught was about the perilous impacts of negative decisions, not the positive choices we could make about sex.
The Department of Education and Early Childhood Development says sex education, which is part of the mandatory health curriculum for students in Kindergarten to Grade 9, gives students “the knowledge and skills to effectively deal with topics as they arise and change overtime.” But in Newfoundland and Labrador’s health curriculum guides, positive decision-making concepts such as consent are virtually absent. According to the department, consent only appears in the province’s health curriculum insofar as promoting a “No Means No” approach to conflict resolution in Grade 1 and dealing with inappropriate touching and body-based harassment in Grade 2.
Teaching older students about consent before sex – one of the most important ideas students could be introduced to in sexual education classes – is markedly absent from the province’s curriculum guides. Other provinces, meanwhile, have taken a more proactive approach. Ontario, which released a long-awaited new sex ed curriculum for its schools in February, will teach a “Yes Means Yes” model for consent starting in September. Students will learn that during any sexual encounter, they need expressed consent from their partner. With “Yes Means Yes,” there’s no grey area on when consent is given, and it’s centred on a positive action – asking for a yes rather than waiting for a no. It’s a formula for respect inculcated in students while they also learn the typical sex ed lessons about contraception and STIs.
Ever since Ontario revamped its decades-old sex ed curriculum, provincial sex education programs have been scrutinized up and down the country. The problem is, most of the comparisons between different provinces’ curriculums have revolved around the ages at which students learn different sex ed lessons. The bigger issue should be how that information gets delivered, not when.
We need to be teaching students more than how scary sex can turn out if they aren’t careful. By teaching better ways of thinking about sex, Newfoundland and Labrador students could learn how to make better, more rational decisions – beyond avoiding an STI.