Sex education -- not just about putting condoms on bananas

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Image: Allison and Cam, used with permission

Frédérique Chabot is the director of health promotion for Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights and Natalya Mason is a sexual health educator and a registered social worker who works for Saskatoon Sexual Health. Scott Neigh interviews them about this year's Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness (SRH) Week campaign, about comprehensive sexuality education as both a health intervention and a justice intervention, and about the importance of pushing to have comprehensive sex ed implemented broadly in our schools.

Comprehensive sexuality education is an approach to sex ed that goes far beyond the stereotype of putting a condom on a banana. Rather than a purely technical focus on biology or contraception, its holistic approach includes equipping people with knowledge, skills and attitudes, and an understanding of their own values, that will enable them to develop respectful relationships, make empowered choices, and be mindful of their own rights and the rights of others.

In contrast, the sex ed currently found in Canadian schools is highly uneven in its character and quality. Some provincial curricula cover things like consent, sexual orientation and gender identity -- albeit often in a very elementary way -- while others do not. Even the better provincial curricula do not meet the international or Canadian standards for comprehensive sex ed. And the actual implementation of curricula in classrooms is even more uneven.

Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is an organization that works to advance and uphold sexual and reproductive rights through service provision, advocacy and more. This includes their annual SRH Week campaign. This year's SRH Week, which runs from February 10 to 14, has the theme of "Sex ed keeps us healthy."

At the most basic level, comprehensive sex ed gives people the knowledge and the skills to make better decisions and to take better care of our health. Studies have repeatedly shown that it results in things like reduced rates of sexually transmitted infections and of unplanned pregnancies. There is a long history of rhetoric from people opposed to sex ed that it somehow leads to increases in risky behaviour, but in fact research has repeatedly debunked this myth.

And as today's guests discuss, sex education is not just a health intervention -- it is simultaneously a justice intervention. Partly that is the case because one of the reasons that negative sexual health outcomes fall more heavily on people who are marginalized in various ways is because one aspect of marginalization can be denial of access to good information about sexual health. So making comprehensive sex ed more broadly available works towards justice on that level.

Another aspect is related to the fact that almost all sex-education curricula currently used in Canada assume learners that are straight, cisgender and white. Even in the subset of curriculua that actually mention sexual orientation and gender identity, those things tend to be dealt with briefly and as discrete topics, rather than integrating the need to address LGBTQ experiences throughout. Changing this would not only make sure that all youth have the information they need, but would help to create cultures of acceptance and care that push back against those sorts of marginalization.

Indeed, part of why sex ed can't just be lessons in putting a condom on a banana is because our ability to, for example, decide on what safer sex measures to take in a given encounter is about far more than having one in your pocket and knowing how to put it on. Sexuality is intimately bound up with how we connect with other people and the world, and with how power and injustice play out in those contexts. So comprehensive sex ed is a justice intervention because it is about doing practical things to push back against rape culture, toxic masculinity and misogyny. It is about working with youth to prevent sexual violence and other forms of gender-based violence. It is about challenging homophobia and transphobia. It is about learning the skills to navigate our relationships in ways that respect our own rights and the rights of others.

According to research, the majority of youth want to be learning not just about the biology, but about how to have healthy and happy relationships, including sexual relationships.

And according to today's guests, one key element of making sex ed an effective justice intervention is integrally including discussion of pleasure -- in particular, normalizing discussion of women's pleasure as part of the practical work of talking about what healthy sexualities look like, and opposing rape culture, toxic masculinity and sexual violence.

Image: Allison and Cam, used with permission

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list. Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton, Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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