And it is this access that has prompted provinces across the country to reassess what they are teaching and when. Mary-Lou Donnelly, president of the Canadian Teachers' Federation, says topics that would have once been raised in junior high are now regularly discussed by students in elementary school. “The curriculum that has been developed” in Ontario, she says, “ is age-appropriate for our times.”
When children get comprehensive sexual-health education from an early age, they are more likely to postpone the higher-risk activities. Lyba Spring, Toronto Public Health
Of course, parents should play a role in effective sex education. Ms. Spring says that by the time children are in Grade 3, they should already know what to call their genitals and that it is socially inappropriate to touch them in public.
“The hope is that parents are talking to their kids about this from the word go,” she says. “The reality is that some parents do and some don't.”
And young children must be prepared for certain realities, she adds, even if their parents aren't comfortable discussing them.
Some religious communities were upset that same-sex orientation would have been introduced in the proposed Ontario curriculum in Grade 3, but teaching children to understand and accept diversity does not mean that teachers are offering a “how-to guide,” Ms. Spring says.
Likewise, oral sex is introduced in the discussion of safe sex, not because the curriculum is promoting it as an after-school activity. (Young people need to learn, for example, that new cases of genital herpes in Canada are largely caused by HSV-1, which comes from cold sores.)
When sex education is handled properly, Ms. Spring says, children handle it maturely. That doesn't mean kids don't laugh when she talks about sex, but they certainly listen. Concerns that introducing sex ed at an early age will result in earlier experimentation, she says, are misguided.
“The World Health Organization is very clear about that. The research is done,” she says. “When children get comprehensive sexual-health education from an early age, they are more likely to postpone the higher-risk activities.”
Indeed, while puberty is happening to them younger, teenagers across Canada have not responded by having sex at earlier ages.
The B.C. Adolescent Health Survey, a research project that has been funded by the McCreary Centre Society since 1992, shows that while the most common age for first sexual intercourse is 15, by the end of Grade 12 fewer than half of Canadian teens have had sexual intercourse even once.
The teen-pregnancy rate has been falling steadily for a couple of decades and is at an all-time low.
‘It’s never too early’
In the Netherlands, for example, sex ed is introduced to children as young as 5. The average age of first intercourse there is nearly 17.
“People's biggest fear is that sexual education will stimulate children's sexual behaviour too early, but that is absolutely not the case,” says Sanderijn van der Doef, a Dutch child psychologist. In the past 20 years, she has published six books on sexuality for kids aged 3 to 11, and is considered a pioneer of sex education in her country.
“It's never too early,” she says of sex ed. “Research has shown sexual development starts from birth.”
On the cover of Ms. van der Doef's book for five-year-olds, two toddlers kiss on the lips. Inside, children can read about how sperm travels inside the body and why humans lie on top of each other during sex, but animals do it from behind. The book for 11-year-olds describes the birth control pill and menstruation, and includes an illustration of a young girl looking at her genitals in a mirror.