Sex-ed curriculum needs major update: Planned Parenthood

While provincial party leaders say they would consider reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador’s sexual education curriculum, sexual health advocates say sex ed in this province needs a major overhaul immediately.

'Consent' not mentioned in curriculum outcomes, teachers not trained in sexual education

Julia Rose and Val Barter are the two staff members at Newfoundland and Labrador's Planned Parenthood. They frequently give sexual education workshops to students, but largely on a volunteer basis. (Laura Howells/CBC)

While provincial party leaders say they would consider reviewing Newfoundland and Labrador's sexual education curriculum, sexual health advocates say sex ed in this province needs a major overhaul immediately.

"It just should be done," said Val Barter, executive director of Newfoundland and Labrador's Planned Parenthood.

"I think it should have been done long ago and I'm happy it's been brought forward but it just needs to be done."

At the Status of Women debate in early November, all three provincial leaders said that they would consider reviewing the sexual education curriculum as a means of helping prevent violence and sexual assault.

If she's passed out it's not consent. That's pretty much what we learned.- Jesse Bussey

In Newfoundland and Labrador, mandatory sexual education stops in Grade 9.

The curriculum focuses largely on physiological aspects of sexual health, including understanding the reproductive system, the changes of puberty, and in the later grades, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy prevention.

Another unit of the Grade 9 health curriculum looks at dating practices and relationships.

'Consent' not mentioned

However, sexual health educators at the province's Planned Parenthood say the curriculum needs to focus more on healthy sexual relationships, and the importance of respecting boundaries.

Austin Aitken (second from right) and his friends say sex ed was "kind of a joke" at their school. Also pictured (from left), Meghan Greenland, Claire Hodder, and Chris Cleary. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Presently, the word "consent" does not appear in the health curriculum guidelines, and student Jesse Bussey says it isn't really covered in the classroom.

"If she's passed out it's not consent. That's pretty much what we learned. That's pretty much it," said Bussey, a Grade 12 student at Holy Heart of Mary High School.

Austin Aitken, a Grade 11 student at Gonzaga, said consent wasn't even discussed in his sex-ed class.

"They should have, but they just didn't," he said.

So far in 2015, Planned Parenthood's two staff members have organized 40 sexual education workshops for students in Newfoundland and Labrador. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Julia Rose, the client services coordinator at Planned Parenthood, said it's important to make sure children understand the meaning of consent from a young age.

"Consent is something that needs to be addressed as early as kindergarten, Grade 1, Grade 2, because that's when kids are learning about boundaries and how to respect other individuals' boundaries," said Rose.

Specific sex ed teachers needed

Health teachers currently have flexibility interpreting the sex-ed curriculum and Rose said some don't have the knowledge or comfort level to teach it properly.

"Yes they are teachers, but there are even a lot of grown ups who don't like talking about sex," said Rose.

"So if they're not comfortable and they're trying to teach the sex health curriculum, it's just not going to work, it's just not a good fit."

Yes they are teachers, but there are even a lot of grown ups who don't like talking about sex.-Julia Rose, Planned Parenthood

Barter said there should be specifically trained sexual education teachers in the school system.

"Like a physical education teacher, like a guidance counsellor, that should be your main role in the school," said Barter.

Several teachers bring Planned Parenthood into their classrooms for special sexual education workshops. In 2015, Planned Parenthood provided 40 educational sessions for the English School District, on top of their other services.

Jesse Bussey (right) says that as an LGBTQ person, they do not feel particularly included in the sex ed curriculum. (Laura Howells/CBC)

While some schools provide a donation for this service, Planned Parenthood isn't funded for these workshops and does them largely on a volunteer basis.

Rose and Barter recently wrote a letter to the Department of Education, calling for an update to the curriculum and for more funding so they can provide school workshops.

"We're totally OK with doing [the workshops], but we also want to make sure they understand that that's taking away from our resources here," said Barter.

Planned Parenthood receives $64,000 in core government funding per year. Although they used to receive funding for an education coordinator, that funding ceased last year.

PC Leader Paul Davis, NDP Leader Earle McCurdy and Liberal Leader Dwight Ball all said they would consider reviewing the provincial sex ed curriculum at the St. John's Status of Women debate in November. (CBC)

Barter also said many teachers leave the sexual education units to the last few weeks of the school year, and end up cramming to fit all the information in. She said sexual education needs to be a year-long discussion.

"You don't need to have a class on it every day, but just discussion and keeping the conversation going," said Barter.

'Only touched on gay and lesbian'

Rose also said the curriculum needs to be more inclusive of LGBTQ students.

While there is some discussion of homosexuality, Rose said the curriculum doesn't cover bisexuality, trans issues or other types of sexual orientation.

As someone who identifies as pansexual (sexual attraction towards people of any sex or gender identity), Jesse Bussey said they feel excluded in sex ed classes.

"I was kind of discouraged that we're not as noticed," said Bussey.

"We only touched on gay and lesbian, there's so much more they could talk about but they just don't."

"It's not enough to just say LGBTQ people exist," said Rose.

"It's about incorporating that into every part of the sexual health curriculum and incorporating that into your own language use."

About the Author

Laura Howells

CBC News

Laura Howells is a journalist from St. John's who's now working in Toronto.