“The teaching of human sexuality is now the rule in most jurisdictions,” states Sex Education in Canada: A survey of policies and programs. “It is taught at all grade levels from kindergarten to the end of secondary school.”  But despite this universality, authors Janet Ajzenstat and Ian Gentles conclude that without “statistically sound Canadian studies,” it is impossible to know what impact sex education has on human behaviour.


With the sponsorship and funding of the Human Life Research Institute (HLRI), Ajzenstat and Gentles sent questionnaires in 1985-86 to the departments and education in the English-speaking provinces and the territories, and to the boards of education in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia.  Ministries and boards that did not respond were followed up in 1986-87.  Of the 306 boards contacted over the course of two years, 245 (80%) responded to the questionnaire.

The researches also asked boards and Ministries to send curriculum guides, guidelines or policy statements.  These reveal a subject less concerned with the biological facts of human sexuality, and more with understanding feelings, attitudes and behaviours.

Parents rarely withdraw their children from sex education classes, though in theory, they are free to exercise that option.

Reasons for this are complex, the authors report.  Some jurisdictions may tell parents the programme is compulsory, but add that they may exempt their children if they so desire.

In some Ontario jurisdictions, classes in human reproduction are options, but those in “values clarification’ – the raison d’etre of mot secular human sexuality programmes – are not.

Parental Control

Of the 111 jurisdictions which responded to the question, “Is sex education optional or compulsory?”  45 answered the former, but of these only 14 (and these principally in Saskatchewan) recommend that parental permission be obtained before students took the courses.

In the other 31 jurisdictions the onus is on parents to remove their children from sex education classes.  When public schools give the impression that parents play an ancillary role in the sex education of their children, it is not surprising that few parents ‘opt-out’ of the programme, report the authors.

Parental involvement in sexual learning is crucial, say Ajzenstat and Gentles.  They acquaint reader with the “recent authoritative finding” of a 1985 U.S. study that “when parents do intervene directly in their children’s sexual development they can exert a very powerful influence.”

Despite this assertion, the HLRI researchers “could find no evidence” that a number of jurisdictions paid any more than “lip-service” to the home as the “most important source of sexual learning.”

Almost every board thought it necessary to apprise parents in advance of sex education programmes.  But, the authors note, this “is very different from involving them in the decisions about what and when to teach.”  On being informed beforehand by a school vested with considerable authority that sex education will be provided, parents would rightly, conclude that discussion of the matter was closed.

Exclude Parents

Few boards invite parents to revise or change their programmes, the authors remark.  For example, the Toronto Board of Education voted in May 1988 to exclude parents from the committee planning the new human sexuality programme (see The Interim, July/August).  On occasion, parent groups have been able to secure fundamental revisions of a programme in place.  Manitoba parents and community groups in 1984 persuaded the Department of Education to substitute one programme of ‘personal values’ with one based on ‘universal values.’

Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Education actively supports the involvement of parents in sex education, the authors point out.  The 1985 guidelines, Health Education, modestly admit that “opinions differ as to whether the school has a role to play in supporting parents.”  They are flexible about where and when children should be taught about sexuality.

Most public school programmes are clear on the facts of life: a new human life begins with fertilization, and the embryo and fetus are living, growing beings.

But when abortion is the topic, few guidelines can face these facts, say the authors.  “It is not said that abortion ends the life of the fetus, and no reference is made to the effects of abortion on the fetus – such as dismembering or saline poisoning.”

Programmes that repeatedly ask students to seriously and carefully consider the consequences of their actions, say nothing about the well-documents existence of Post Abortion Syndrome.

Abortion is a method of “improving human-kind environmentally” according to the guidelines offered by Toronto’s East York Board of Education.  The guidelines link abortion with the dogmas of population crisis and control – population density, renewable and non-renewable resources and “man’s lifestyle on earth.”

“Abortion,” says one of the few jurisdictions to mention its aftermath, “has psychological and physical effects on the mother.  Feelings of guilt and depression are common following abortion.” (Trial District, B.C.)

The authors expected sex education programmes to reflect the diversity of the regions of Canada.  Diversity there was, but it was based on religion, not region.  They found “a great chasm between the approach to sex education in the separate or Catholic school systems and in the public systems.”

Students in both Catholic and public schools will examine the nature of love and friendship, the obligations and the joys of marriage and the consequences of sexual relations.  But, note Ajzenstat and Gentles, the formed will have “a philosophical system that adheres to objective moral standards’ to direct them; the latter will be expected to determine the best way of life for themselves by developing “subjective personal value systems.”

Subjective Approach

Educators favour the subjective approach, suggest the authors, because it is necessary in a “multicultural pluralistic society.”  Children, so teachers and trustees argue, will grow up “freer and healthier” adults if they can question and test – “clarify” – their personal values against society’s moral codes.

This approach, called values clarification, is not simply deferential to the reality of a “multicultural pluralistic society,” the authors assert.  Nor is its attitude toward other religions or cultural traditions anything but neutral.  It is a moral philosophy itself with a number of goals which its adherents believe are desirable in education.

First, unlike other moral philosophies, values clarification places the self-front and center.  The self is the final judge of the relevance to it of “society’s codes and conduct.”  This results in “guidelines that devalue all religious and all traditions.” Values clarification encourages young people from a wide variety of religious and cultural backgrounds to reject the objective moral standards of their own traditions.

Second, values clarification programmes have a “surprisingly anti-intellectual thrust” because they imply, the authors say, that say choice of “lifestyle” has equal worth.  “Young people are taught that the way of life they choose can never be shown in objective fashion to be better than any other.”

Sex education guidelines for grades 7 and 8 in Nova Scotia’s Kings County District Board inform the teacher that because “values-related positions” are not taught, “student discussion and debate on this topic should be carefully controlled out of respect for the various positions of others.”

In theory, this seems to direct the teacher and students in the way of tolerance of different opinions.  What it means in fact, however, is that neither the teacher nor the student is “allowed to try to change anyone’s mind.”  At best, the discussion will be attenuated and unreal.  At worst, it means the death of rational argument and debate.

Ajzenstat and Gentles also wonder about the effect the values clarification approach has had on the sexual behaviour of students.  Has it – or the objective standards approach – reduced or increased the incidence of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unmarried pregnancy, abortion, illegitimacy and later divorce?  At this time, without a “methodologically rigorous longitudinal study,” the authors admit, there is no way of knowing.

Damning the authors

Despite this non-committal observation, David Owen, a school trustee with the Scarborough board of Education in Toronto, labeled the survey “a general damnation of public education.”  He claimed the study was inherently biased.  Why?  Because the academics who compose the Human Life Research Institute hold pro-life convictions “I think their credentials as a research group should be questioned,” he told the Toronto Star.

Owen told The Interim he was responding to the Star story of June 22, which reported that the survey concluded Catholic schools, were doing a better job of teaching sex education with moral guidelines than public schools.  The Star, it appears, was his only source of information.

Owen hasn’t read the survey, nor does he feel he needs to.  When asked if he thought the sex education survey might have some validity, despite having been produced by pro-life researchers, he said, “I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t seen the research or how extensive the research was.  I certainly think it was proper to call it into question.”

Pregnancy rate

The authors criticize a report released in 1986 which purports to show that Ontario’s sex education programmes are lowering the teen pregnancy rate.  Teenage girls who don’t marry, but have their babies, offset by 3% the numbered who do.  And of these girls, 8% are having abortions.  “Statistics such as these,” conclude the authors, “are no advertisement for the practical success of Ontario’s sex education programs.”

The Ontario researchers marshaled data to maintain that sex education programmes were reducing teen pregnancies.  But what the same data shows is that “factors such as ethic, socio-economic, rural/urban and urban/suburban differences” are much more significant than the reputed success of sex education programmes.

In the U.S., a representative sampling of high school students who participated in the new curriculum Sex Respect reveals a more favourable disposition toward sexual abstinence.  Over 1,800 students from various socio-economic backgrounds, rural as well as urban, were tabulated for the study, project director Kathleen Sullivan told the Family Protection Report in February 1988.  She added that in all the 14 mid-western schools participating in the pilot project, students demonstrated a positive improvement in their attitude toward responsible sexual behaviour.

Ajzenstat and Gentles close their analysis and discussion of sex education in Canada with the following:

“In the absence of any statistically sound Canadian studies, it is impossible to determine whether the subjective values approach favoured by most public systems, or the objective standards approach favoured by the Catholic and a few public systems enjoys greater success in reducing teen pregnancy, STDs (sexually-transmitted diseases), illegitimacy and later divorce.”

The question remains open, grant the authors, and will remain so until sex educators submit their programmes to “rigorous evaluation.”  The health and sexual happiness of this and future generations of young people depends on the answer.