The sex education controversy in Ontario has sparked debate about what sort of education is most appropriate for children. For many parents, and certainly among religious and pro-family groups, there is widespread concern and agreement that sex education should delay intercourse, prevent STIs and maintain cultural values, although there is debate as to how it should be taught and at what age.

According to Gwen Landolt, national vice-president of REAL Women of Canada, the form of sex education proposed by the Ontario government is “teaching (children) information they don’t need or want.” She told The Interim, “The Liberals are trying to intrigue or fascinate the children about sexuality when they don’t have the emotional capacity to deal with sexuality.” This causes dangerous experimentation. For example, some children who were taught about bulimia and anorexia at a premature age were inspired to try it out. Landolt said that young children should learn “the value of abstinence,” to respect their own bodies, “the integrity of their persons” and how to react to strangers.

Even some in the media saw the wisdom in delaying the teaching of explicit sexuality to young children, based not on religious beliefs or cultural values, but on developmental issues. One reason to delay sexuality education is that it interferes with the childhood latency period. According to an editorial in the National Post, a child’s sexuality is dormant from ages 6 to 12, as the child prepares for adulthood. During this period, the child is most able to be educated in “the areas crucial to cultural self-realization,” such as reading, writing and arithmetic. Children can best absorb sex education and gender identity once they are past this stage and their hormonal changes allow for it. According to the editors of the National Post, “Bending children’s imagination in a sexualized direction they would not naturally take distracts them from the work they should be devoting themselves to and raises fears … that the curricula will promote early, indiscriminate and amoral sexual experimentation.”

In the United States, abstinence and comprehensive sex education are frequently the two models followed by schools offering sexuality education. Abstinence teaches that abstaining from sex completely is the best way to ensure health, happiness and encourage moral fulfilment. Meanwhile, comprehensive sex education teaches about safe sex, contraceptives and sexual behaviours to avoid unwanted pregnancy and STIs, sending mixed signals about the appropriateness of sexual activity at younger ages.

A study in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, published by the American Medical Association, showed that abstinence-only education leads to lower rates of sexual activity in African-American teenagers. Two years after students attended different sex education programs, the study found that the chance a teen ever had sex was 33.5 per cent in the abstinence program, 48.5 per cent if the program had no sex education at all, 52 per cent in the safe sex program and 42 per cent if the student was enrolled in a program that combined safe sex and abstinence education.

Ideally, comprehensive sex education curricula should educate children in abstinence as a flawless method to prevent STIs. However, a 2004 report from the Washington-based Heritage Foundation analyzed the content of nine abstinence, versus nine comprehensive, sex curricula. It found that so-called comprehensive curricula gave much more attention to describing and encouraging contraception, with more than five times such content than material supporting abstinence and no mention whatsoever about healthy relationships.

The abstinence-promoting programs had 53.7 per cent of content related to abstinence, 17.4 per cent to healthy relationships and marriage benefits and 0 per cent to contraceptives. According to the authors of the study, “The most fundamental difference in abstinence messages between the two types of curricula is that authentic abstinence courses express teen abstinence as a clear standard or goal and encourage all students to strive to meet that standard. By contrast, the goal of comprehensive sex ed curricula is …to reduce the risk of STDs and pregnancy that results from unprotected sexual activity.”

Another example of the success of abstinence rather than sexual awareness and safe-sex practices was Uganda’s ABC Program, one of the most successful AIDS prevention programs in the world.  According to a 2008 article by Sam L. Ruteikara in the Washington Post, the Uganda government implemented a program in the 1980s that stressed abstinence to control the AIDS epidemic, which was caused by people having intercourse with many partners; condoms were only to be used as a last resort.

The results were encouraging. In 1991, 21 per cent of Ugandans had HIV, while only 6 per cent had it in 2002. Yet, once the Western world and international organizations started pushing condom-based “safe sex” initiatives to prevent the spread of HIV, rates went back up. “Condom promotions have failed in Africa, mostly because fewer than 5 percent of people use condoms consistently with regular partners … Most HIV infections in Africa are spread by sex outside of marriage: casual sex and infidelity. The solution is faithful love,” writes Ruteikara.

National sex education curricula are points of controversy all over the world. In Croatia, the sex ed program emphasized that abstinence is the only way surely to prevent pregnancy and STIs, but it was legally challenged by three feminist and abortion groups in 2009. They argued the program violated the requirement of the European Social Charter to provide mandatory sex education. Croatia, however, ultimately won the lawsuit. “The committee not only agreed that Croatia has cultural sovereignty over its moral issues, it also acknowledged the low prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancies in Croatia as compared to the rest of Europe,” said Roger Kiska, who represented the organization that created the curriculum in the lawsuit.