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Around 50 gathered outside the Ontario Legislature on July 18, 2018 to protest the Ontario government's plan to roll back the current sex-ed curriculum and go back to the 1998 version.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

Two new national surveys paint a rich portrait of how parents and students actually feel about sexual health education – what should be taught, and what is sorely missing. Published in the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, the studies counter a number of myths about attitudes toward sex ed in this country.

The student study found youth are keenly interested in school-based sex ed, but only when it’s relevant to their lives. Youth wanted the positive aspects of sexuality emphasized alongside the risks, hoping for clearer guidance on what healthy intimate relationships actually entail. They wanted sex ed delivered by knowledgeable, unbiased teachers comfortable with the subject matter.

The parental study found mothers and fathers may be more open-minded about sex ed than was previously assumed, particularly during Ontario’s heated sex ed wars, when vocal conservative critics helped scrap modernized curriculums in 2018.

“The information we have now can reassure educators and administrators that negative parental reactions to sex ed reflect the views of a small percentage of parents,” said lead author Jessica Wood, a research specialist at the Sex Information & Education Council of Canada, a national non-profit organization that works to promote sexual and reproductive health. “Most parents are supportive of extensive sex ed programming for their children.”

Last January, Wood and her team asked 2,000 parents of elementary and secondary children across Canada how they feel about 33 topics, including reproduction and safer sex, sexual orientation and gender stereotypes, sex trafficking and coercion, and attraction and love.

Most endorsed teaching all of these issues in school – and starting early.

“This included topics related to problem prevention that we historically see in sex ed such as sexually transmitted infections [STI] reduction, but also preventing gender-based violence. And also, topics related to the enhancement of sexual health and well-being, like understanding pleasure and communication,” Wood said.

Parents in the Atlantic provinces were the most supportive on a wide array of sex ed subjects. Mothers and fathers in Quebec wanted the most topics covered earlier, beginning in elementary and middle school.

Two of the sex ed subjects that have been most controversial pleasure and gender identity – still garnered high levels of support from these parents: nearly 87 per cent and nearly 90 per cent, respectively. Parental backing for lessons on gender identity was lowest among mothers and fathers surveyed in the Prairie provinces, although 82 per cent of these parents still favoured having the discussion.

“There is a high level of support for sex ed that ... aims to reduce homophobia and transphobia,” Wood said.

Sexual pleasure was the most fraught topic, with more than 13 per cent of parents saying it was not a conversation fit for school.

On the lingering discomfort around the subject of pleasure, Wood said parents bring their “own narratives and ideas about sexuality,” while some educators are nervous because they fear parental complaints and don’t feel adequately trained in this area.

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The parental study found mothers and fathers may be more open-minded about sex ed than was previously assumed, particularly during Ontario’s heated sex ed wars, when vocal conservative critics helped scrap modernized curriculums in 2018.Fred Lum/the Globe and Mail

The survey of students involved 12 focus groups with 66 youth aged 12 to 19. Most were over 16; 71 per cent had experienced at least one sexual or romantic relationship. The focus groups were held at public schools and community centres in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia in 2019.

Young people wanted useful, realistic information that resonates with their everyday lives, said principal investigator Erin Laverty, project officer at the Canadian Public Health Association.

Historically, sexual health education has focused on the biology of puberty and reproduction, as well as on problems: unwanted pregnancy, STIs and sexual violence. While students did want to learn about the risks, they sought a more balanced view of sexuality, including a “more explicit focus on healthy relationships, pleasure and inclusivity,” including LGBTQ+ realities, the report said.

Laverty said students wanted to learn about pleasure alongside issues such as consent, boundaries and safer sex: “If you don’t know that relationships can be positive and pleasurable … it might be more difficult to identify if you’re in a hurtful, harmful, abusive relationship.”

Students wanted sex ed delivered by trustworthy adults who had expertise but used a conversational tone and answered questions without judgment. Laverty said youth were “super-perceptive” when teachers censored or inserted their own biases, shame or stigma into sex ed, or elided over LGBTQ+ relationships. Students disengaged and didn’t ask questions when they detected such undertones, and when resources felt dated.

Vancouver sexual health educator Saleema Noon said the research reflects the importance of listening to students to help shape curriculums.

“Youth know what their experience is – we don’t. And it’s changing all the time, so we need to revamp, readjust and revise constantly,” said Noon, who was not involved in the studies.

The findings also underscore the need to help parents detangle their own baggage on the subject, to show them that sex ed is about harm prevention, and to empower them to have more conversations at home, Noon said.

“It’s not information that leads to experimentation – it’s a lack of it.”

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