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(Diane Diederich/iStockphoto)
(Diane Diederich/iStockphoto)

Susan Pinker

Sex education is too important to be left to parents Add to ...

Ontario's much derided health and sex education curriculum featured a few silly nods to political correctness. But much as I tried, I couldn't find the porn. And the curriculum's sudden withdrawal last week by Premier Dalton McGuinty marked a nostalgic return to la-la land.

The heated debate on the topic brought to mind a frank discussion I had with a neighbourhood friend when we were seven. Leanne's mother had just come home with a new baby. She earnestly explained that a bird had flown over the house and had put a tiny baby in her mother's tummy while everyone was sleeping. There it grew, until finally she went to the hospital to get it out.

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"That's not how the baby got there," I said. "How do you know," she demanded. Together we ran down the street and asked her mother to settle the dispute. How did the baby get into her tummy after all? Her mother looked at Leanne blankly. "Ask Susan," she replied.

That's how most children used to learn about sex - from their friends. It's still true, except now they can also go to Ask.com, or a dozen other websites, some reputable, others less so. Thus informed, they venture out into the world.

However they get their information, Ontario teens are not exactly prudes. In Toronto, for example, 59 per cent of adolescents under 18 report they have had vaginal, oral or anal sex, according to a 2009 survey commissioned by three Ontario universities and Planned Parenthood. Though 37 per cent of the sample of more than 1,200 Toronto teens said they were sexually active, many couldn't define what sex is. As in, do blow jobs really count? Over 80 per cent said they had never talked to a medical professional about contraception. They were probably afraid that the clinic personnel might spill the beans about their sex lives to their parents.

This is an understandable fear. But it's also one reason why 4.5 per cent of teenaged girls under the age of 18 became pregnant in Toronto last year. And the very communities who pressured the government to withdraw the expanded program are the ones whose kids are more likely to get pregnant or become HIV positive. Seventy-six per cent of teens facing unplanned pregnancies have "ethnoracial minority" or "religious backgrounds" according to the Ontario report.

This attitude-versus-activity paradox has been meticulously tracked by University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus. Of the 3,400 American teens he surveyed, white evangelical Christians were most likely to believe in abstinence. Yet, they were also more sexually active than teens from any other religious background, on average having intercourse for the first time just after they turned 16.

The paradox makes sense. Few adults are actually talking to these kids about sex - despite the claims of Christian and Muslim advocacy groups that it should only be discussed at home. That's a reassuring scenario: parents sitting down with their preteens and having regular chats that are culturally and age appropriate, yet that also give them the nuts and bolts of the knowledge they need as adults-in-training. The kids learn about condoms, about how to handle complex social pressures, about confusing feelings, and about why thinking about love and sex constantly is a normal feature of adolescence - especially among boys.

So does it happen that way? Of course not. If these groups talk about sex at all, it's mostly to say "don't."

If we stop for a moment to look at the science, it becomes obvious that school sex-education programs work and preaching abstinence doesn't. In 2007, public health researcher Douglas Kirby and his colleagues assessed the effects of curriculum-based sex education on kids' behaviour. The scientists crunched the data from 83 published studies of sex-ed programs taught all over the world, including in Canada. They found that 42 per cent of these programs significantly delayed kids' sexual debuts. Only one program in 83 hastened it, and the researchers attribute that to a statistical fluke.

Yet irrational anxieties that link sex ed to promiscuity persist. "Grade 6? … Give me a break. They're going to traumatize these children - they're going to be doing everything out in the schoolyard," said Murielle Boudreau of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network.

Intercourse by the soccer nets is unlikely, but one impact of school-based sex ed is that if teens do become entangled in the back seat of someone's car, they're unlikely to end up pregnant at 16, like Juno or Bristol Palin. That's because half of the studies on the impact of sex education curriculums showed increased condom use. None showed decreased condom use. Half of the sex-ed programs significantly reduced sexual risk-taking. None increased it. More than half of the studies showed that kids' ability to refuse unwanted sex significantly improved after a sex-ed program. And that's a goal I expect most religious parents would applaud, not protest.

Many of the school-based programs showed long-lasting effects - some for three years or more after the program ended, which is probably longer than kids remember binomial equations. Compare that staying power to the outcome of the abstinence programs currently promoted in the United States. After spending $1.5-billion, the U.S. Congress authorized a rigorous scientific evaluation that summarized their program thus: "Teen sexual abstinence commonly addressed by Title V, Section 510 program curricula are found to have no association with sexual abstinence three to five years later." The researchers found that formal pledges of abstinence just don't work - either to delay the age that kids first have sex, or to reduce the number of their sexual partners. Well, Bristol Palin could have told them that. "Everyone should be abstinent, but it's not realistic at all. … Sex is just more and more accepted now among kids my age," she told a Fox News reporter.

Ontario's program wasn't perfect. If I had my druthers, teachers wouldn't be instructed to talk about "partners" instead of "parents," or to educate 8th-graders to distinguish between "male, female, two-spirited, transgendered, transsexual, intersex, gay, lesbian and bisexual." Two-spirited? I can see how this might be seen as politically correct overkill. But if I had to choose, I'd take tolerance over ignorance. Granted, there is such a thing as too much information. But as any pregnant 15-year-old will tell you, it's a whole lot better than no information at all.

Susan Pinker is a psychologist, Globe columnist, and author of The Sexual Paradox .

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