What a child learns about sexual health can largely shape their own behaviour and views on sex, research shows.
But what happens when a kid skips out on formal sex education?
For years, parents in most of Ontario have been able to pull their kids out of certain sex-ed classes for religious reasons. On Wednesday, Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government announced they will implement a province-wide standardized opt-out process. Children whose parents opt them out will miss lessons on sexual health and human development.
Sex education varies across Canada, with provinces and territories having their own curriculum, some more comprehensive than others.
When a child misses out on sexual health education, they are put at an increased risk for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies, among other things, says Alex McKay, the executive director at the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN).
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“We know that sex education can have a positive impact… so it is worrisome that some children will not receive that education because their parents have opted out of those classes,” McKay told Global News.
Teen pregnancy rates
When a child does not learn about reproductive health and contraception, they may be at greater risk for teen pregnancy, McKay said. A recent study suggests that U.S. government spending on abstinence-only education programs doesn’t appear to reduce teen pregnancies, and in some areas, is having the opposite effect.
On the other hand, research has found countries with comprehensive sex-ed programs have lower teen pregnancy rates.
“The very low teen pregnancy rate in Switzerland exists in the context of long-established sex education programs, widespread expectation that sexually active teens will use contraception, free family planning services and low-cost emergency contraception,” authors of one 2016 study wrote.
In the study, researchers noted teen pregnancy rates vary with levels of education and cultural background of adolescent girls.
McKay says research on teen pregnancy and its relationship to sex education has largely been done in the U.S., but has offered Canadian educators a strong framework.
“On a general level, as sexual health education programs have been implemented in Canadian schools, that has occurred parallel to a pretty dramatic decrease in teen pregnancy in Canada,” McKay said.
Impact on sexual behaviour
One 2014 report on young adolescents and sexual health says early intervention is key in building healthy future relationships. When children are not properly educated on matters related to their sexual well-being, they are vulnerable to harmful sexual behaviours, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) noted.
A recent UNESCO study that looked at sex-ed courses from various countries across the world found that sexual education delayed initiation of sexual intercourse, decreased frequency of sexual intercourse, decreased number of sexual partners, reduced risk-taking, increased use of condoms and increased use of contraception.
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The report also found that sex-ed courses did not lead to earlier sexual activity in young people.
Other research suggests that teaching kids the proper names for their genitals at a young age is important “given that children are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse during the preschool years.”
McKay says that if a child does not know how to identify their genitals, they are going to be “less well equipped to report inappropriate touching or abuse.”
Understanding gender and sexual diversity
Not learning about gender and sexual identity in the classroom can have a lasting impact on children.
Specific groups are disproportionately affected by violence and harassment, including LGBTQ2 communities, women, and Indigenous women. According to SIECCAN’s Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, sex education can be “effective in addressing discriminatory attitudes” towards such groups, improve gender-equitable attitudes and help prevent physical, sexual and emotional violence in relationships.
McKay says when kids received accurate and age-appropriate information about sexual and gender identity, they are more likely to practise acceptance and promote inclusivity. This is especially important for children who may identify as members of the LGBTQ2 community.
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“Creating that kind of healthy school environment is difficult if the school curriculum is silent on those issues, and kids are left to the schoolyard and the internet to try to get that kind of information.”
— With a file from Reuters