Proper sex education gives kids decision-making skills and saves health dollars

Research shows a strong link between comprehensive sex education and positive sexual health behaviours among teens.

Manitoba's curriculum lacks current information about online safety, LGBTQ identities and sexting

Parents protest against changes to sex ed curriculum in Ontario. Manitoba needs to bring its curriculum up to date, too, Nicole Chammartin says. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

Though this may be shocking to learn, research suggests that almost all of us have sex in one form or another, at one time or another.

Research shows a strong link between comprehensive sex education and positive sexual health behaviours among teens: the use of safer sex supplies increases when students understand how and when to use them.

The more youth know about their bodies and their rights, the more comfortable they will be in making decisions that are right for them.

We have seen a lot of news about what is happening to sex education for our neighbours in Ontario, which has gone back to its 1998 curriculum.

In reality, the sex education debate in Ontario, and beyond, has been going on for a number of years.

Even though Manitoba is not at 1998 standards, our own provincial sexual education curriculum is not far behind. (It was last revised in 2005.)

Our official curriculum lacks current information about online safety, LGBTQ identities, and sexting, to give a few examples of how the world has changed in the past 13 years.

Luckily, many school divisions provide professional development and can bring folks who specialize in these topics into the classroom to help them navigate teaching sexual education in this rapidly evolving world.

Educators seeking help with supporting difficult conversations in their classrooms often contact SERC (Sexuality Education Resource Centre Manitoba) and our Teen Talk program, which shows us the need for resources. Personally, I want teachers to have access to the tools they need to answer students' questions.

Foster respect for everyone

An effective sexual education curriculum is rooted in principles of consent and sexual and reproductive rights. Teachers talk with their classes about diverse relationships and gender identities, fostering respect for everyone.

A strong sexual education curriculum equips students with accurate, age-appropriate information and builds the skills necessary for them to respond to the challenges facing them, both digitally and in person.

Youth leave the classroom understanding their rights and responsibilities around sexual consent, healthy relationships, sexting and other digital communications.

Students learn about protecting themselves from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancy and have the tools to make informed decisions.

Sexuality education that is current and comprehensive is necessary to help Canada meet our obligations under United Nations conventions such as the Rights of the Child.

Education on personal bodily autonomy, privacy, consent, and freedom from exploitation and abuse are central to meeting our commitment to children's rights to the highest standard of health and to be free from sexual exploitation or abuse. Youth need to know how to protect themselves from things like infections, viruses, and pregnancy, as well as abusive and unhealthy relationships.

May delay sexual behaviours

The evidence is clear that sexuality education does not increase sexual behaviour but may delay or decrease sexual behaviours or increase use of safety and prevention methods like condoms and contraception. 

What is the impact of not enough sex education? Here is what the research tells us:

  • 65 per cent of Canadian youth age 18-19 have experienced sexual intercourse at least once.
  • Condom distribution programs increase condom use among teens and result in savings related to medical costs associated with STI infection.
  • Less than half of sexually active youth in Winnipeg reported using condoms regularly when surveyed in 2012.
  • More than two-thirds of LGBT kids have reported feeling unsafe in their schools.
  • In Canada, the direct and indirect costs of HIV/AIDS exceed $2 billion annually.

Manitoba has frequently been the chlamydia and teen pregnancy capital of Canada (I know it sounds less impressive than the Slurpee capital) and we are currently in the midst of a syphilis outbreak. Safer sex dramatically reduces the risk and costs associated with STIs.

The stigma around STIs and testing can delay treatment and reduce use of protection. The only way to stop the stigma is to stop stigmatizing sex, normalize this common and healthy human behaviour and,  just like we do with any other behaviour, give appropriate education on how to make the best decisions for a student's own health and well-being.

It is time we give our young people what they need to live healthy and safe lives.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Nicole Chammartin is the executive director of Klinic Community Health Centre in Winnipeg and the Sexuality Education Resource Centre. She is the co-chair of the Canadian Association of Community Health Centres.