What is the most important subject in high school? Many would argue for English. After all, literacy skills are crucial for any future academic or career aspirations. Others might suggest math, which develops problem-solving skills and has applications in finance. Whatever your answer, chances are that sex education didn’t come to mind. While sex education may not be a necessary prerequisite for university or prepare students to enter the workforce, it is an essential part of our high school education.
Let’s start with the basics: sex education aims to teach students how to have safe sex. According to Statistics Canada, 30% of people aged fifteen to seventeen and 68% of people aged eighteen to nineteen reported having had sex . An abstinence-only teaching approach—one that simply tells students to wait until later to have sex—is ineffective in lowering rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or teen pregnancy . This is because those who do choose to engage in sexual activity are often uninformed about the risks of unprotected sex, and are less likely to use condoms or other contraceptives .
At MGCI, while teachers do encourage abstinence, they also ensure that students understand the risks associated with sex. They discuss STIs and different methods of contraception, such as birth control pills and intrauterine devices. Programs like this that discuss pregnancy and STI prevention result in increased use of condoms and contraceptives among sexually active students .
Some would argue that sexual health is a private matter, and should only be taught at home, not in the classroom. Parents should be discussing sex with their children, but these conversations are often centred around their personal beliefs regarding sex—particularly in cultures and religions that view premarital sex as immoral—rather than the physical risks of sex or methods of contraception . According to a survey conducted by Planned Parenthood, most parents are comfortable discussing relationships and their personal values regarding when sex should take place. However, only 60% of parents reported that they talked to their children about the use of condoms and other forms of birth control . Some parents may lack the required knowledge or be uncomfortable discussing certain topics, and it is imperative that all students are aware of the risks surrounding sex.
In addition to the risks associated with sex, students also learn about healthy relationships. Mr. Hillman, the curriculum leader for physical education at MGCI, said teachers emphasize the importance of communication and consent in all relationships. It is important for students to understand that they must give and receive consent before engaging in any sexual activity. Through learning about consent, students also learn how to say no to sex or other intimate activities, a topic that only 74% of parents discuss with their children .
Finally, sex education teaches students about sexual orientation and gender identity. According to the Ontario curriculum for health and physical education, sexual orientation is first introduced in Grade 5, and gender identity in Grade 8 . Despite this, Mr. Hillman noted that some students come into high school unfamiliar with these topics. He explained that he teaches about gender and sexuality as a spectrum and tries to include real-life stories from people who aren’t cisgender or heterosexual. These discussions help create an inclusive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) students. Sex education can help students discover or better understand their own identity or the identities of their peers. This also helps LGBTQ students feel that their identities and experiences are acknowledged and accepted.
Although LGBTQ relationships are not explicitly discussed, sex is not defined as something that only occurs with a man and a woman. Sexual activities outside of vaginal sex, such as oral and anal sex, are included in the curriculum. The goal of this is not to encourage students to engage in such behaviours but to inform them how to do so safely.
I’m not going to tell you that sex education is more important than math and English. But learning about and understanding sexual health will be more useful in your future than memorizing trigonometric ratios. If you’re still taking gym, pay attention during the sex education unit. Listen to your teacher, participate in discussions, and ask questions. You might learn something important.