Sexual education is a divisive issue everywhere. There is no way to please and accommodate everyone, and no matter how meticulous the lesson plans are, someone might still be offended. Regardless, countries’ health agencies continue to try to set goals for a comprehensive health education.
The latest edition of the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education was released in 2008, detailing a lengthy framework for teachers to follow. While classes and subjects may vary across provinces, territories, and individual districts, and teachers may stray from the designated protocol, these remain the key tenets of sexual education as written by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
1. They talk about pleasure.
Canadian sex education doesn’t shy away from acknowledging that sex can—and most importantly, should—be an enjoyable experience. The Sexual Health Education Guidelines dictate that “Effective sexual health education also: Integrates the positive, life-enhancing and rewarding aspects of human sexuality while also seeking to prevent and reduce negative sexual health outcomes.” The guidelines mention the need to define sexuality as “a central aspect of being human throughout life and encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships.”
2. They emphasize consent, respect, and negotiation.
The guidelines emphasize that setting and negotiating boundaries is a key element of healthy relationships. A comprehensive education includes learning how to honor yourself and your partner, have honest conversations about personal limits and desires, recognize and avoid unsafe situations, and how to transform safe-sex knowledge into practice.
3. They acknowledge sexual and cultural diversity.
A wide variety of sexual, gender, and cultural identities are openly discussed without judgment. While sexual education catered to individuals who identify as LGBTTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans-identified, transsexual, two-spirited, and queer), as well as those who have physical and mental disabilities or come from immigrant or Aboriginal communities, is “one essential step in ensuring quality care and inclusive service to an often invisible and underserved minority in Canadian society,” all classes are inclusive, sensitive, and nondiscriminatory.
Teachers are also urged to stay away from using language that could intentionally or unintentionally imply that there are normative and deviant sexual behaviors.
4. They are age appropriate yet comprehensive.
Sex and health education may start in kindergarten, but that doesn’t mean 6 and 7 year olds are learning the intricacies of intercourse. Each grade’s curriculum is designed to match the comprehension abilities of the students.
For example, in Ontario’s recently revised curriculum guidelines, students in Grade 1 learn the names of the body parts. In Grade 2, they learn about the stages of human development. Gender identity is introduced in Grade 3 in the context of things that make people unique individuals (like appearance, culture, racial identity, family makeup). Changes from puberty will be discussed in Grade 4. In Grade 5, students learn about the reproductive system and the language used to identify all the corresponding body parts. However, they are not learning about intercourse—just the basics of how a child is produced. Grade 6 focuses on recognizing and combating stereotypes, and in Grade 7, sexual education focuses on the definition of consent and when something is nonconsensual, and how sexual activity should stay within the limits of the participants' comfort zones. Grade 7 also covers types of sexual intercourse as well as abstinence. In Grade 8, students learn about all the different gender and sexual identities plus they expand their knowledge of sex, learn about STIs, pregnancy prevention, and what it means to be in a healthy relationship.
After Grade 8, students delve further into subjects like safe sex, HIV/AIDS, sexual assault, and workplace harassment.
5. Students are taught to think critically.
Sex education includes lessons on how to interpret and question the media’s portrayal of sex and “provides training in critical media literacies to help individuals identify and deconstruct hidden and overt sexual messages and stereotypes. Importantly, comprehensive sexual health education helps individuals to understand how these messages may affect their sexual health.” Students are also taught to examine how gender roles, stereotypes, privilege, and oppression play a role in the social dynamics of their society.