You’re teaching our kids WHAT? - Macleans.ca

You’re teaching our kids WHAT?

From 2009: A decade ago, the buzzword in high school sex ed class was ‘pleasure’—and not everyone was pleased

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Good For Her, a woman-focused sex shop in downtown Toronto, is not your average erotic emporium, if only because it serves tea. Tucked away in a cozy converted Victorian, the store features all of the usual adult fare—vibrators, lubricants, flavoured condoms, X-rated books and DVDs—but what’s notably different is the tone of the place, inspired, it would seem, by someone’s zany, free-spirited aunt. Guided by a philosophy of inclusive, non-threatening, pleasure-focused sex education, Good For Her has become well-known for its great-sex workshops, which it offers in-store, on university campuses, and at bridal showers and private parties. The message is always the same: your body is a gift, people. Explore it. Take care of it. Enjoy it.

About a year and a half ago, Good For Her’s founder, Carlyle Jansen, started getting phone calls from an unlikely market niche: local high school teachers, asking if she would come by their classes and talk to the kids about sex. The fact is, the majority of public school teachers are never explicitly trained to teach sexual education. In many cases, it’s the rookies—perhaps trained in math or gym—who get stuck with it. “Sometimes they’d call because they don’t know enough about it themselves,” Jansen says. “Or they’re uncomfortable.” Teachers can find it unpleasant to make the leap from geometry to sexting. “They feel like they have to then talk to the kids the next day and have an ongoing relationship,” she says, “so it’s easier to bring someone in from outside.”

And so, happy to oblige, Jansen and some of her colleagues visited the Toronto classrooms and tried to get a feel for what students knew, what they didn’t know, and moreover, what they wanted to know. The more workshops they conducted—she guesses they’ve done 12 to 15 so far—the more convinced they became that high school students are navigating a huge information gap, and that in many schools, the current sex ed curriculum is woefully inadequate. “Kids are taught to death about all the bad things that can happen to them if they have sex,” she says. “They’ve said, ‘We’ve heard about sexually transmitted infections, we know you can get pregnant, but we want to know about pleasure and we want to know about healthy relationships.’ ”

In her workshops, Jansen urges teens to ask about anything and everything, from masturbation, gender identity and same-sex feelings to sex toys (which they keep on hand in case the subject comes up), why people like oral sex, and why that particular act should go both ways. She encourages them to role play in order to learn how to broach difficult conversations. For instance, how do you raise the subject of condoms in the heat of the moment? And what do you do if a boy says he won’t wear one? To help illustrate the “pleasure centres” portion of the lesson, Jansen and her colleagues bring in visual aids from the store, including a plush pink vulva puppet. “People laugh. They can’t believe it,” she says. “But they don’t know what a vulva looks like. Adult women don’t know what a vulva looks like.” To describe the male anatomy, they bring a dildo. “We usually bring one that is silver-coloured and we say, ‘This is the head of the penis. This is the shaft. These are the sensitive parts.’ ”

Soon, even more teens will be able to take part in the Good for Her version of sex ed. Jansen has helped launch the Sexual Health Education Pleasure Project (SHEPP)—a non-profit organization devoted to providing free, pleasure-based sex ed workshops for youth in schools and community groups in Toronto. Visitors to SHEPP’s newly minted website, Shepptoronto.com, will note that parts of the lesson plan sound more like the table of contents of Cosmopolitan than anything a high-schooler might traditionally learn in class: “The art of dating—in person, online and texting”; “Negotiating what you want—in and out of the bedroom”; “Pleasure centres and anatomy basics (what feels good, what doesn’t, and where to find it)”; and “Cool, safe, and hot sex.” The goal, Jansen assures, is not to urge kids to get out there and do it, but to present them with facts and choices so they can make informed personal decisions.

Now say you’re the parent of a 14-year-old, and your kid comes home one day and tells you that the owner of a sex shop came into her classroom, dildo in hand, and talked to the kids about ways to make their love lives “hot and sexy.” Are you going to breathe a sigh of relief that someone else is telling your kid this stuff, or is your inner Bill O’Reilly going to surface? Maybe you’ll want to know what, pray tell, was wrong with the old euphemistic puberty puns and plastic pelvises?

Like it or not, Jansen isn’t the only person pushing for more “pleasure” in sex ed. The fact is, while parents were looking the other way, and many do prefer to look the other way, a substantial shift has been unfolding in the world of sexual education. The old model of simply mapping out basic anatomy and issuing warnings about diseases is giving way—not only in pockets of Canada, but also in the U.S. and abroad—to a pleasure-focused brand of sex education, which emphasizes the healthy and fun sides of sex. Its growing network of proponents sees pleasure-focused sex ed as an urgent necessity in an age of sexting, Internet porn, and Disney heroines-gone-wild. It’s not about advocating sex, they say. Rather, it’s the belief that radical openness will demystify sex and help give teens the confidence to make smarter choices. “What we have found is, if you talk about how to prevent STIs, youth tune you out,” says Jansen. “If you talk about how things work and what are the different options, they pay attention. There are safer-sex messages implicit in what we say, but it’s within a package that’s more interesting to them.”

Recently, Oprah Winfrey drew attention to the subject when her show’s resident sexpert, Dr. Laura Berman—a staunch pleasure proponent—introduced her audience to the idea of “cradle to grave” sex education. By Grade 2, she said, kids should know the truth about where babies come from. By Grade 5, masturbation, orgasm and the mechanics of sex should be covered, and by Grade 6, kids should know about “safer-sex” options. Perhaps most controversially, Berman told the audience of aghast moms that when their daughters hit 15 or 16, they might want to consider buying them a clitoral vibrator to teach them the joys of exploring their own bodies. The rationale, she says, is that it’s an opportunity to boost self-esteem: “You’re teaching them about pleasuring themselves and taking the reins of their own sexuality so that they don’t ever have to depend on any teenage boy to do it for them.” (As outrageous a birthday gift as it may seem, some parents are listening. In recent years, Jensen has started to notice more mothers coming into Good For Her with their daughters, ages 13 to 16, for precisely this purpose.)

In the U.S., a Washington-based non-profit called the Coalition for Positive Sexuality provides information, resources and an online forum to teens, advising them that access to candid sex information is their right. Its “Just Say Yes” campaign says, “we’re tired of people telling us what we can and can’t do. There’s no preaching. No moralizing. Just the facts.” In addition to all the standard safer-sex information, CPS’s website offers suggestions for safe and fun ways teens can “get off.” The idea being that if you want to steer kids away from the riskiest types of behaviours, you have to provide them with fun, creative alternatives. (Among its suggestions: “suck, kiss, touch, bite, fondle, nibble, squeeze, and lick” and “look at sexy pictures and videos.” The list gets more explicit from there.) One of CPS’s promotional posters features three teenage girls whispering to each other, one of whom is holding an open binder filled with little plastic bottles. “The secret to great sex . . .” the tag line reads: “water-based lube!”

The vast majority of Canadian parents—more than 85 per cent—agree that some type of sex education should be mandatory in schools. But what’s harder to agree on is content—the what, the how and the how much.

In the past two years, a spate of high-profile incidents—creative flourishes of individual educators—has had more parents wondering what actually goes on in the classroom. In Winnipeg, for instance, parents were irate after a public health nurse allegedly introduced 12-year-olds to flavoured condoms. More recently, a teacher in Cambridge, Ont., sent Grade 9 boys to the local drugstore to buy condoms, and then had them race back to be the first to affix one onto a wooden penis. Speed is, after all, of the essence in the real world, too.

But perhaps no one has caused more of a ruckus over pleasure-focused sex ed than the British government. In July, Britain’s National Health Service published a pamphlet for teens called “Pleasure”—featuring the slogan, “An orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”—that made headlines around the world. The pamphlet advised youth that they have the “right” to a pleasurable sex life, and that regular intercourse can be a good cardiovascular activity: “Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week,” it says. “What about sex or masturbation twice a week?” It also said that by experimenting sexually, teens can learn that there is not one “proper” way to have sex. Not surprisingly, the backlash came fast and furious from family and religious groups who called it obscene. Dr. Trevor Stammers of Family and Youth Concern called it “nothing less than encouraging child abuse.”

In fact, the push-back against new “progressive” approaches to sex education is growing almost as quickly as the phenomenon itself. Among those leading the charge is Dr. Miriam Grossman, a former UCLA campus psychiatrist and the author of the new book You’re Teaching My Child What?: A Physician Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child. Grossman believes sex education in North America has become so “steeped in liberal ideology” that it has created a reckless atmosphere of sexual permissiveness among youth, evidenced by climbing rates of STIs. “If [sex educators’] priority is our children’s health, they must focus on fighting herpes and syphilis, not sexism and homophobia,” Grossman writes. “They must grow up, shed their 1960s mentality, and enter the 21st century. Then they must respond to this catastrophe by declaring war on teen sexual behaviour—yes, war, just as we’ve declared war on smoking, drinking, and trans fats.”

Whether they’re advocating pleasure or military action, most sex educators have the same goal in mind—to get teens to have less sex. That’s no small task. The reality is, according to Planned Parenthood Toronto’s Teen Survey Report, released in June, that roughly a quarter of youth have already had sex by the age of 16; a quarter of all teens say they have given or received oral sex; and seven per cent have had anal sex. The report also found that young people themselves are the ones who feel they’re not armed with enough information. According to Lyba Spring, a Toronto Public Health nurse who has been teaching sexual education in schools for almost three decades, many of them are venturing online to get it, and what they’re seeing would blow parents’ minds. “Before they saw the odd porn video the older brother had in the house, or whatever,” she says. “Now, they’re messed up because of their exposure to graphic, frightening images. The questions that they ask reflect the fact that they have seen stuff they shouldn’t be seeing.” So the dilemma becomes, how do we properly equip them for the world they live in without, you know, equipping them?

Sex education has always been a twisted, highly politicized jumble of moral, cultural, religious, and medical perspectives—and as always, teachers bear much of the responsibilty for helping kids wade through it. In Canada, while every province and territory teaches some form of sex education, overall the lessons are uneven at best. In 2007, the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (CFSH) released Sexual Health in Canada, the first ever comprehensive statistical portrait of Canadians’ sexual health. According to the report, students received on average only three to eight hours a year of instruction in sexual health issues. Public health nurses are available to schools for five hours a month on average, with just one hour allocated to sexual health.

Schools are meant to follow national guidelines for sex ed, broad recommendations set by the Public Health Agency of Canada in 2008 for creating sex-positive, inclusive, non-judgmental, comprehensive sex ed programs, which provinces follow to varying degrees. However, many schools and school districts don’t fully implement the curricula. “What one grade may get, another may not, and what one school gets, another may not,” says Stephanie Mitelman, a certified sexuality educator and McGill University instructor who travels the country training nurses and teachers on how to teach a comprehensive sex ed program. “It really comes down to the teacher.”

In 2005, Quebec took the controversial step of eliminating discrete sex ed classes in all of its schools. Instead, the province offers a “holistic” and integrative approach, meaning that teachers of all subjects are now asked to integrate some sex education into their lessons, whether they be math or chemistry or geography—a tricky thing for teachers to do even if they wanted to. According to Mitelman, many don’t. Coincidentally, a study by the public health department found that the rate of gonorrhea in Montreal has surged to 44 cases per 100,000 in the youth population—a 100 per cent increase between 2004 and 2008.

Kim Mitchell teaches physical education at a Toronto inner-city high school to Grade 9 and 10 girls. When it comes to the sex ed component of her classes, she faces layer upon layer of challenges: conflicting parental values, students of different cultures, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and a range of sexual experience. One thing she has implemented in her class is the “secret question box” where girls can ask anonymous questions about sex in order to get the conversation rolling.

“When you have a class of 30, you get a pretty wide range of experience,” she says. “Sometimes the questions are exploratory to fill in the blanks of what they’ve heard from their friends or from the media. Then we get some kids who are embarrassed that they don’t know anything at all. Especially those who haven’t been in the country for a long time. They may come from a place where genital mutilation is still occurring and the idea of a woman masturbating would be very upsetting to the parents, so you just have to navigate these land mines as a teacher.”

One thing Mitchell can safely say is that she’s never had a student ask her about basic biology. “I’ve never had a kid ask me about a fallopian tube or the vas deferens,” she says. Instead, the questions run the gamut from myth-dispelling (“If I think my friend is pretty, does this mean I’m gay?) to wanting something they heard about online or from their friends spelled out. (“What’s fisting?” “What’s S&M?” “What’s a strap-on?”)

“I don’t think answering the questions means they will go out and engage in these acts,” she says. Often, the kids simply have no context for what they’re seeing, and no safe, reliable forum (depending on their situation at home) to ask the very candid questions they need to ask. “The questions typically are the means by which we go on to discuss other important social issues of sexuality, power relations, gender, religious and moral beliefs. I really think it’s better to have the kids talking about it. If we silence them, what are they going to do?”

One thing that Mitchell and other educators agree on is that the assumption that this generation is necessarily more sophisticated because of their heightened media exposure is entirely wrong. “Kids don’t know more,” says Mitelman. “What they know more of are buzzwords. They tell you about the clitoris or blow-up dolls or whips and chains—the stuff they see in media. But they know very little concrete information.”

The CFSH survey confirmed that Canadian youth are plagued by misinformation: “They do not consider themselves to be at risk for HIV/AIDS and their overall knowledge base about the disease has declined since 1989,” the authors concluded. “Youth, particularly under 16, are now more likely than in 1989 to believe there is a cure for AIDS, that birth control pills protect against HIV, to be confused about how to use condoms correctly.” Other urban legends remain pervasive—that anal sex is “safe” because it won’t get a girl pregnant, and that Mountain Dew can be used as a spermicide.

In fact, misinformation may be one reason that, although teen pregnancy rates are down nationwide, STI rates among teenagers in Canada are surging. In the CFSH survey, young people 15 to 24, although they represent about 14 per cent of the population, reported over two-thirds of chlamydia infections between 1997 and 2004. Also on the rise are incidents of gonorrhea and syphilis. The report found a clear link between the rise of all STIs and the non-use of condoms. Older teenagers, they determined, concerned primarily about pregnancy, prefer to rely on the pill. A 2006 survey by the Canadian Association for Adolescent Health found a quarter of sexually active youth between 14 and 17 did not use a condom the last time they had sex.

This, Grossman says, is the very reason pushing pleasure is a disaster. Overcoming the fear of pleasure is not teens’ problem, she says. “People are going to discover on their own what feels good,” she says. In expending so much time “normalizing” everyone’s sexual proclivities, Grossman believes that sex educators are prioritizing the wrong kind of information, not to mention downplaying the emotional and psychological ramifications of casual sex. “I think a lot of fear is a good thing,” she says. “There are life and death infections involved here.”

What we need to present, she believes, is an ideal—one based on health and not pleasure—and that ideal is abstinence. “Is everyone going to follow that ideal? Of course not,” she says. “That’s ridiculous. I’m looking at the obligation to present an ideal and tell kids that the closer you can get to that ideal, the better for you.”

In some places, parents, horrified by what schools are teaching—or what they think schools might be teaching—have introduced an exit clause. In June, after much debate, Alberta’s Tory government passed Bill 44, a highly controversial amendment to the province’s Human Rights Act, so that Alberta parents can pull their children out of class during planned discussions on religion, sexuality and sexual orientation. (The bill has been viewed by many to be less about health and safety concerns than keeping kids away from lessons on same-sex relationships.)

Amid the pedagogical warfare, inevitably teenagers are going to do what they’re going to do. And what information they don’t find in the classroom, they will seek elsewhere. Helping to fill the info gap are popular websites like Columbia University’s website Go Ask Alice!, gURL.com, and Scarleteen.com (dubbed “Sex ed for the real world”), where teens are invited to ask anonymous questions and solicit advice. Often, untrained peer counsellors are the ones answering their questions, and they’re doing it in stunning detail. In addition to safer-sex advice, these sites offer info on the joys of oral sex, how to use “safe words” in S&M play, and even how to fake an orgasm. Or there’s the Midwest Teen Sex Show, an infotainment webcast for teens ages 13 to 18 that uses raunchy, teen-friendly humour to cover everything from fetishes and “backdoor business” to “how to make your own dental dam.”

And that, of course, is the good, clean stuff. No matter how distasteful frank sexual conversations seem to some adults, having them needs to be our No. 1 priority, says Lyba Spring. When you combine all of the misinformation out there with rampant Internet porn and a sex-crazed popular culture, you have a recipe for disaster. “They’re so messed up,” says Spring. “We have to make an effort to turn it around.”