Sex ed in schools can be dangerous—but not for the reasons you think

The Birds and the Bees.
The Birds and the Bees.
Image: B Mathur / Reuters
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In 2015, the Canadian province of Ontario decided to take a bold approach to sexual education—one that went way beyond the birds and the bees. The new curriculum didn’t shy away from sensitive topics like consent and sexuality. Kids as young as eight learned about same-sex families and the concept of gender identity. Twelve-year-old kids talked about how anal sex could lead to contracting a sexually transmitted infection, while 14-year-olds learned about sexting.

But all that frank talk about sex may not be around for much longer. Ontario’s current conservative premier, Doug Ford, who is known as “Canada’s Donald Trump,” has pledged to roll back the measures put in place by his predecessor, liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

“This repeal puts children and youth in danger,” says Roza Nozari, who leads We Have Your Back Ontario, a campaign aimed at preserving Ontario’s progressive curriculum. “What concerns me is that we’re taking out … the piece around gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation … when we remove it, we get this very different message, that says we actually don’t support you, and you don’t belong here, unless the parents we consult with approve.”

The tug-of-war over sex ed is not unique to Ontario. It’s been a source of contention in the US culture wars ever since the first organized sex-ed program emerged in Chicago in 1913. (The Catholic Church promptly declared the program immoral.) Today, as Bonnie J. Rough writes in The Atlantic, abstinence-only education is increasingly popular in the states—in stark contrast to the Netherlands, where children learn about everything from sexual diversity and contraceptive use.

As cultural norms around sexuality evolve, it’s become increasingly clear that children, left to their own devices, will inevitably encounter issues related to consent, gender identity, and sexual preference as they grow up. And so a growing movement is pushing for comprehensive sex education, which provides kids with “age-appropriate, medically accurate information on a broad set of topics related to sexuality, including human development, relationships, decision-making, abstinence, contraception, and disease prevention.”

Some parents may be hesitant to expose their children to this type of sex ed, whether for religious reasons or a simple desire to preserve their innocence. But research suggests that the more information kids have about sex, the better-off they’ll be—particularly for young people who might otherwise feel marginalized in mainstream society.

Sex ed in the United States

As Rough writes in The Atlantic, “In the US, talking about human sexuality, especially with kids, is still in many ways taboo.” Today, there are large discrepancies within the US on the content of sexual education curricula. According to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research and policy organization, 27 states require that sex-ed classes stress abstinence as the best option. Eighteen states require that teachers give instruction on the importance of saving sex for marriage. And only 20 states require information on condoms or contraception. Meanwhile, only nine states require inclusive discussion of sexual orientation in sex-ed classes. 

Some parents object on principle to the idea of comprehensive sex ed. This year, the Sex Ed Sit Out group, whose Facebook page has about 15,400 followers, called upon families across the country to keep their children home from school to oppose “the graphic and perverse sex education being pushed in schools” and “the indoctrination of children by abortion and LGBT proponents.” The group has organized events in the US, Canada, and Australia.

But such objections do not appear to represent the majority view among US parents: According to a nationally representative, 2016 survey of parents of children in middle or high school conducted by the University of Michigan, 70% of US parents support sex education for their children (pdf). The Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, a nonprofit that advocates for comprehensive sexuality education, reports the opt-out rate for sex education is low across the country. Although exact numbers are hard to come by, some cities that provided the council with information reported opt-out rates between 1-5%.

What should kids be learning in sex ed class?

Some parents argue that they should be the ones to determine what their child learn about their sexuality. But as Jenny Anderson has written for Quartz, US parents are doing a bad job of talking to their kids about intimacy, relationships, and sex. And exposure to sex ed has been proven to lower the likelihood of teens becoming sexually active, increase the likelihood that they will use contraception if they do, and help prevent sexual violence. And, while many parents worry that giving kids too much information about sex too soon will make them more likely to become sexually active, research shows that isn’t the case.

Sexual education really becomes controversial when it wades into cultural territory, by teaching children about LGBT issues, abortion, or gender identity, among other sensitive topics. But studies have shown that sex ed programs that address gender and power at least once are more effective at reducing rates of pregnancy or sexually transmitted disease than those that don’t. And they appear to more accurately reflect the reality of modern romance: As Julie Beck writes in The Atlantic, “Including a discussion of the effects of traditional gender roles and the consequences of unequal power in relationships better reflects the reality that young people’s choices about sex will take place in.”

It’s also important for young people who identify as queer to see themselves represented in the materials taught in sex ed class. In the GLSEN 2015 National School Climate Survey (pdf), 63% of students said that none of their classes included positive representations of LGBTQ individuals, history, or issues. Talking openly about sexuality and gender identity in sex ed can help combat bullying and prejudice in schools, too. According to the advocacy group Human Rights Campaign, “When sex education is another area where LGBTQ youth are overlooked or actively stigmatized … it contributes to hostile school environments and places LGBTQ youth at increased risk for negative sexual health outcomes.”

In fact, the Ontario government is now facing lawsuits over its decision to revert to the state’s previous sex-ed curriculum, including a suit from two transgender teens, who say it could lead to a “hostile” school environment for them. One of the students, identified only as Ryan in the case files, told The Toronto Star: “If heterosexual students are getting the sexual education they need to have safe sex and make proper decisions about that, and (LGBTQ) students are not receiving that education, what they are learning does not apply to them at all.”

Amy Lang, a sex education expert who helps parents talk to their children about sex and dating, says that while schools have an important role to play, parents also need to understand that they are their child’s number-one source of information on sexual health. “The problem is the parents, who are undereducated themselves, don’t understand what healthy sexuality looks like in general, and especially in childhood, don’t know what’s age-appropriate,” she says. “So their knee-jerk reaction is, how I learned was okay, I essentially got what I needed, I figured it out.”

But how much better—and richer—might children’s lives as they grow up be if they were taught a view of sex that didn’t involve bias or shame, right from the start? “Sexuality is really a part of being a human being,” Lang explains, “and it’s broader than just making babies and puberty, which is what most schools focus on, because that feels science-y and safe.”