Nova Scotia·ATLANTIC VOICE

Sex ed should focus more on relationships research shows

University of New Brunswick professor Lucia O'Sullivan says it's clear from her research and others that what young people really want is more information about the psycho-social aspects of sexual health. The relationship stuff.

'Young people aren't that obsessed with sex, what they're obsessed with is romance'

What kids really want to know about sex involves the heart as much as the rest of the body.

Recently in Ontario, thousands of parents pulled their children out of class to protest a new sex ed curriculum coming this fall .

In many ways the new program, the first update since 1998, will bring Ontario in line with provinces such as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. For example children in Ontario will be taught the proper names for their genitalia in Grade one. In New Brunswick, that happens in kindergarten.

Ontario students will learn about sexually transmitted infections in Grade 7. Students in Nova Scotia get that lesson in Grade 5.

Lucia O'Sullivan is a professor in the department of psychology at the University of New Brunswick, and holds a Canada Research Chair in adolescent sexual health.

She says protests such as those in Ontario aren't surprising; there is always a vocal minority — and it is, she says, a minority — of parents who disagree with the new curriculum. But, she says their fears are unfounded. 

"We know from decades of research that our curricula need to be comprehensive, that the sexual health and really the broader health and well-being of young people is dependant in many ways on their getting information, accurate information and comprehensive information."  

O'Sullivan says it's clear from her research and others that what young people really want is more information about the psycho-social aspects of sexual health. The relationship stuff.

"So how do I know if I'm ready? How do I know if she loves me? How do I get over this break-up? Why do I feel so jealous when X happens?....really the components of our sexual and romantic lives that few people really give us useful information about," O'Sullivan said.

She says those issues are addressed more often in the curricula of Scandinavian countries for example, the "poster child" for progressive sex education. As a result, those countries have much lower rates of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

By contrast, O'Sullivan references the George W. Bush era abstinence-based sex ed programs in the United States. Those were like a "long-distance train wreck, " she says, where the rates of teen pregnancies and STIs actually went up.

"We are sexual beings and there are so many other messages telling young people that a sexual life is good and fun and if you don't give them the whole range of information about how to go about this in a meaningful way, a healthy way, a positive way, guess what? They are limited in the choices they can make and they often make bad ones as a result." 

Meanwhile, O'Sullivan says during her many years as a sex researcher she's made observations that might surprise some parents, teachers and school administrators.

"Young people aren't that obsessed with sex, what they're obsessed with is romance." 

She says in tracking studies where scientists note what kids are thinking at a particular point in the day, they are almost always thinking about their love interest.

And she thinks that information should be part of how sex ed is taught.

"You know that sexual behaviour, and sexual partnered behaviour should be respectful, positive and one where it's ideally with someone who cares about you and loves you would be the best. And more progressive curriculum do that." 

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