The topic of sex education is a battleground of competing studies, clashing values, and alarming statistics with all the combatants sincere in their beliefs that they alone fight for the good of the young. On one side of the ring stand the religious and social “conservatives” who want abstinence in and condoms off. And on the left side of the ring are the religious and social “liberals” who want condoms on and are skeptical of abstinence. The crowd watching the fight, restless in their seats, are the young people. By age 19, 96 per cent of Canadian males and 68 per cent of females have engaged in sexual intercourse at least once. Canada has the fifth highest teen birth rate among industrialized nations. The rate of chlamydia for Canadian females aged 15 to 19 is nine times the national rate for all other age groups.
It is the sincere hope of those who plan and teach sex education in the public school system to turn some of those statistics around. The “why” is obvious. It is the “who” and the “how” creating the debate. The National Post released the results of their national poll on education in September. Fifty five per cent of respondents believe that schools need to teach sex education because parents do not. Yet, how the schools teach sex education may not be compatible with the morals or faith values of many parents.
The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality printed an article entitled Common Questions About Sexual Health Education in its Spring 2000 issue that included the following questions and answers: “Does teaching adolescents about contraception/ condoms lead to earlier or more frequent sexual activity? The answer to that is a definitive No.” And, “Should Sexual Health Education Teach Only About Abstinence? So-called abstinence-only sex education programs are sometimes suggested as the solution to teen pregnancy and STD infection¼ However, these programs are clearly deficient in a number of respects¼ Other evaluation studies and reviews have found that abstinence-only interventions did not significantly reduce sexual behaviour.”
Yet, the statistics and studies produced by “the other side” tell a different story. Focus on the Family Canada recently ran a print ad in newspapers across the country proclaiming, “Abstinence. It works every time.” The True Love Waits abstinence campaign in the United States reports more than 2.4 million teens have pledged to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. Ten thousand teens made the same pledge in Canada when the program started here. Other abstinence based programs claim similar victories. The American Consortium of State Physicians Resource Councils released a report citing evidence that adolescent birth rates in the U.S. had declined specifically because more are choosing abstinence.
Dr. Mark Genuis, founder of the Calgary-based National Foundation for Family Research and Education, says, “Abstinence programs work. If you teach a child math, they learn math. If you teach a child sex, they learn sex. The programs that have been pursued in Canada have not led to increased health,” he says. “That is not an opinion, just look at the statistics: increases in the transmission of HIV, STD’s and pregnancy. We have been running down the wrong road. We’ve been teaching kids to put condoms on bananas when we should have been giving them decision making skills and the ability to defend those decisions.”
Sex education now almost inevitably deals with issues around sexual orientation, creating more concern for parents for whom that is a moral and religious issue. The Elementary Teacher’s Federation of Ontario, at its annual meeting this year, voted to ask school boards to fund gay materials for students as young as four in Ontario classrooms. Genuis’s response? “It is entirely inappropriate. What are we trying to promote? With kids that young, it is not education, it is promotion.”
A similar controversy erupted in Surrey, British Columbia in 1996 when the Gay and Lesbian Educators of B.C. petitioned the Surrey School Board to approve a list of books to portray homosexual relationships positively in the classroom. In Canada, school boards have the responsibility to approve resource materials for the classroom. The Board declined the books, deciding they dealt with sensitive material that may cause parental concern. A court case and appeal ensued. The end decision, by the B.C. Court of Appeal, upheld the right of the school board to refuse the use of the materials in the classroom. The court determined that parents have the right for their will to be respected regarding the religious and moral education of their children.
Jan Bracken, of Citizen Impact Canada, an advocacy and education group committed to encouraging Christian principles in the public square, stresses the importance of parents exercising that right. She told The Interim “The guts of this discussion is the authority of parents and the relative function of school boards and teachers. Boards and teachers have a delegated authority from parents. It is parents who must maintain the final say, and they must be vocal at the board level. The B.C. case is a precedent we must know about.” Bracken, who helped write ground breaking sex education curriculum for Ontario classrooms that include an emphasis on abstinence, stresses that parents must also know what is going on in the classroom during sex education classes. And they should know long before the classes take place.
“Any parent can go on to the website for the Ministry of Education and find out what the learning expectations are for each grade,” explains Bracken. “Parents then can find out how any teacher intends to fill in the gaps. Ask questions. Inquire what speakers the teachers may be bringing in. What videos will be watched? Then you have the option of explaining to the teacher that these are not congruent with the beliefs of the family and have the child stay home that day. Or, prepare your child. Discuss it ahead of time so your child can exercise their discernment and then discuss it again afterward.” Bracken encourages parents to be involved at all levels of the system. “Boards have to approve materials. Parents can challenge at that level too. The key is not to be blind-sided.”
The curriculum for sex education that Bracken helped write was applauded by many parents in 1998 for including abstinence as a valid option for kids. “It gives a kid who chooses to wait for marriage to have sex a place to stand. That was not the case before. But, it can be lost in the translation by the teacher,” warns Bracken. “There is no place to rest for parents.”