It's autumn again. The leaves have turned, quickly swept away by the wind and rain. Families are heading to corn mazes and carving pumpkins. And local sexual health educators are taking their wooden model penises out of storage and preparing for another year full of condom demonstrations.
Unfortunately, they are also steadying themselves for another difficult year. Sexual health education in the Maritimes is not always welcome, and seldom well-resourced. Assertions that programs talking about erections, vaginal secretions and masturbation are inappropriate and too explicit for youth in middle school have succeeded in watering-down countless programs in Canada.
Sadly, while these voices are often loudest, they don't represent the majority of Canadians. The Sexual Information and Education Council of Canada reports 85 percent of parents and 92 percent of high school students agree with the statement "sexual heath education should be provided in schools." These people agree programs should cover a wide range of topics, like puberty, rape and STIs.
Leaving aside the fact that middle schoolers have vaginal secretions and erections whether we talk about it or not, efforts to restrict the information youth receive about their sex and sexuality has serious consequences.
There is a large body of evidence showing comprehensive sexual health education reduces unplanned pregnancies and STI transmission rates, increases condom use and does not hasten or increase sex among youth.
Comprehensive sexual health education can be scary for adults, in part because many of us never had access to it. We may also lack quality information and have considerable reservations when talking about sex, sexuality and gender. But these cannot—must not—get in the way of the delivery of quality and evidence-based information for our youth.
Comprehensive sexual health education is age-appropriate, honest, evidence-based and thorough. Most importantly it instills skills and curiosity in youth to feel confident in seeking out quality information throughout their lives, and respects the fact that individuals will make diverse choices about their sexual lives. But that's just the start. Sexual health education must also address homophobia, transphobia, racism, colonialism and their intersection with sex, sexuality and gender.
If we meet youth where they're at and treat them seriously, we can collectively address their concerns and doubts. Questions like "Will I bleed the first time I have sex?," "Is my penis too small?" and "Can girls orgasm?" are among the most commonly asked questions in classrooms, and illustrate how sexism and gender norms inform the way youth think about sex. We will be able to address these issues when we create space where youth can openly lead exploratory and inquisitive discussions about sex.
Does the idea of a young person wondering what sex will be like the first time make you uncomfortable? That's understandable, and it's OK. Sex is powerful and important. It can be a tremendous force of love, admiration and closeness. It can also be a tool of hate and violence. It's normal to want to protect youth from these negative realities. What is not OK is denying youth's curiosity in a well-meaning but ill-informed attempt to protect them.
This fall, let's stand together to recognize we have a shared responsibility to support teachers who teach comprehensive sexual health education, to advocate for better sex education, resources for teachers and to educate ourselves so that we can support our youth.
Jean Ketterling is a feminist sexual health educator who advocates for sexual health and reproductive rights. She has no problem talking to your kids about masturbation if they ask.