Ignored by teachers, some trans youth must turn to porn for sex-ed

The Nova Scotia Department of Education acknowledges some teachers don't know how to answer LGBTQ questions. Says one student: 'I never learned that sex could be beautiful because I had to learn off of Pornhub.'

'I never learned that sex could be beautiful because I had to learn off of Pornhub'

Mason Carter is a transgender Grade 12 student at Amherst Regional High School. (David Burke/CBC)

Google and the internet site Pornhub have become fill-in sex-ed teachers for some transgender youth in Nova Scotia who say their questions about sex and gender identity are often glazed over or just ignored by their public school teachers.

But turning to online porn when the answers don't come in the classroom is giving some teens a skewed view of sex, love and relationships.

"I thought I was going to be kind of like abused and used as someone's toy for like five minutes," said 17-year-old Mason Carter, a transgender student at Amherst Regional High School in Amherst, N.S.

"I never learned that sex could be beautiful because I had to learn off of Pornhub." 

Before Carter turned to the internet for answers he tried to get the information from his teachers during sex-ed classes. He asked about several LGBTQ issues but said he was generally ignored.

"Sex was supposed to be normalized through this class and it wasn't for me. The sex that I was going to be having was put off to the side and not talked about, which was the exact opposite of the point of the course," he said.

"I did feel excluded."

He's not the only one who feels that way. Transgender students in other parts of the province also say the current sexual education program doesn't do enough to inform them about LGBTQ topics, including gender identity and intercourse between same-sex couples.

Jacqueline Gahagan is a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University. She's overseeing a study examining the sexual-health education that transgender youth receive while in school. (Submitted photo)

A study underway by Dalhousie University has gathered similar accounts from transgender youth in Kings County. 

Jacqueline Gahagan, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University, is overseeing the study. It looks into what kind of education transgender and genderqueer youth are receiving around sexual health and gender identity.   

So far her graduate student has done interviews lasting up to an hour and a half with five youth; they all say the same things.

"We've heard that LGBTQ folks and particularly young folks aren't getting the information that they feel they need in their sexual-health education," said Gahagan. 

"High school is tough enough. We don't need to make it tougher by having exclusionary policies or programs that kind of render trans kids invisible."  

The Sexual Health Centre for Cumberland County is one of the few places that LGBTQ youth can talk about sexual health in a welcoming and safe environment. (David Laughlin/CBC)

Natalie Bakody, the curriculum consultant for health and physical education for Nova Scotia's Department of Education, disagrees. She said the provincial sexual-health education program includes information on gender identity, sexual orientation and other LGBTQ issues. 

But she said the curriculum does need to evolve over time, and she acknowledges that some students are being ignored by their teachers. 

"I suspect that's because teachers don't know how to answer them themselves, and it's not that they don't hear our students," Bakody said in an interview. "It's that they don't want to do any harm, and they're not quite sure if what they say or how they say it may or may not do harm."

The Education Department is in the process of rolling out a new book that will help teachers better tackle topics like gender identity. It should be in their hands in the next six months or so.

In the meantime, if students have questions that aren't being answered Bakody suggests they talk to their guidance counsellor, youth health-centre co-ordinator, or principal. 

Natalie Bakody is a curriculum consultant for health and physical education with Nova Scotia's Department of Education and Early Childhood Development. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Carter agrees the current sex-ed program isn't all bad. It just needs to be expanded to be more inclusive and talk more extensively about LGBTQ topics. He also thinks teachers should be given more training so they feel comfortable tackling those issues. 

Gahagan is working to change that. She's done two training sessions with the Nova Scotia Teachers Union to help teachers better understand and communicate with transgender and gender non-conforming youth.

More resources inside and outside the classroom are key to helping all youth get a better understanding of sexual health, according to Rene Ross, the executive director and sexual-health educator at the Sexual Health Centre for Cumberland County.

Rene Ross is the executive director and sexual-health educator at the Sexual Health Centre for Cumberland County. (Submitted photo)

Ross often goes into schools to help augment students' sexual-health education, while the centre provides a safe place for people to gather and talk about their sexual health.

"When we do not teach youth comprehensive sexual-health education — meaning we do not teach sexual health education that covers issues of consent, pleasure, identity, LGBT rights — it means we have societies and communities with higher rates of violence, with higher rates of assault, with overall less respect. That's why sexual health education is important," said Ross.

Carter agrees. He said good sexual-health education is one of the best ways people can protect themselves from abuse. 

"You need to give us the information, otherwise it is going to hinder us for the rest of our lives," he said. "We're going to believe that sex is going to be an abusive and degrading situation until we're taught otherwise. Or we're going to put ourselves in abusive or degrading situations because it's what we think we deserve."

Read more stories from CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

David Burke

Reporter

David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.