Sex education is supposed to provide youth with the knowledge and skills needed for a lifetime of sexual health. However, in Canadian sex education, abstinence is often emphasized and encouraged, but is that really the ideal solution for adolescents who are participating in early sexual experiences?
In her research, Diana Peragine, a doctoral candidate at University of Toronto Mississauga’s (UTM) Department of Psychology, explores the importance of diversity and inclusivity in sex education. Her recent research on sexual activity for adolescents was published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in collaboration with UTM Psychology instructors Doug VanderLaan and Emily Impett.
In an interview with The Medium, Peragine explains that abstinence is encouraged because early sexual activity has been associated with other problematic behaviours, such as “teenage smoking, drinking, and drug use,” and has been “linked to a number of negative health outcomes in the process.” Although abstinence can be an effective strategy for preventing some of these outcomes, it is not the only one.
Additionally, Peragine argues that sexual health is not only achieved by avoiding difficult situations but is also about learning how to maintain safe sexual attitudes. “Freedom from unwanted pregnancy, disease, and abuse should be the floor—not the ceiling—for sexual encounters,” Peragine points out, particularly emphasizing this idea in early sexual experience.
In the 1990s, sex education in Canada, and particularly Ontario, was quite different. The 1998 curriculum’s primary focus was abstinence. The most current model, which was released in 2019, still places importance on delaying sexual activity and encouraging abstinence. The curriculum maps these concepts as healthy choices in sexual development because they reduce risk factors, such as pregnancy and disease.
However, Peragine notes that “healthy sexual development also includes learning to heave functional and healthy sex.” She says that because of certain limitations within the current curriculum, “students may not only be getting an incomplete education, but one that educates them away from sexual health.”
For a long time, sex that fell outside the norm for procreation was viewed as immoral and unhealthy by religious and medical standards. As a result, Peragine notes that adolescent sexuality has been “condemned, discouraged, or ignored in early education for the very same reason as same-sex sexuality,” which excludes young people who identified as a LGBTQ2s+.
But what about the different factors that have contributed to the current curriculum, and how have they impacted different groups of people within the community? Peragine and her colleagues’ research found that an “earlier sexual debut is a predisposing and protective factor for sexual health” and may have more benefits than risks, such as “greater sexual excitation and fewer sexual desire difficulties,” explains Peragine.
In her collaborative research, Peragine observes that in a survey of more than 3,000 Canadians, “sexual debut occurs at age 17, on average, when defined as first penetrative sex,” yet more than 90 per cent of those surveyed had earlier sexual experiences, which included solitary and oral sex. She later adds that “adolescence is a time of sexual discovery and experimentation,” emphasizing the need for research to update the current sex education curriculum.
Currently, there is not a single, defined strategy for reforming sex education in Canada. Peragine brings up the importance of acknowledging that individual provinces and territories have different perspectives on what good sexual health looks like, and it is ultimately up to them to tailor curriculum decisions, up to school boards to interpret the curriculum through their lens, and up to teachers to decide on the delivery and way sex education is presented to their students. All of this combines into what Peragine coins a “patchwork system.”
As Peragine says, “If sexual health is a human right, then sexual health education must strive toward full and equal realization of that right, including equal opportunities for learning to have safe, enjoyable, and healthy sex.”