“I don’t know how to use a condom” & other tales of how sex education failed me

Photo: Mark Burnham

I thought I had pooped my pants, but who poops their pants in the fifth grade? I didn’t remember going to the bathroom that day, but I guessed I must have — in my pants. Maybe it was ‘anal leakage’ — a word that I had recently heard a family friend use in reference to what happens after eating too many greasy chips. It must be that. What else would explain this mysterious maroon streak in my underwear?

After a day of walking around with my underwear packed full of toilet paper and taking frequent bathroom breaks, I decided I would try those things in my mom’s bathroom that I always saw on commercials — you know, the ‘super absorbent’ ones that they pour the blue liquid on. They would be a more effective diaper than this bundle of T.P. in my underwear. Definitely.

I pulled my pants down, expecting to see the brownish stain I had grown familiar with, only to be surprised by a different colour: red. My memory was jogged, taking me back to the second grade when my best friend said, “My mom told me that when girls get older, they bleed from their vaginas.” I had been dreading this day for years, but it didn’t hurt like I had imagined it would. It was just kind of . . . there. Relieved that I could start eating chips again, I asked my mom if she could buy more of those diaper things — or, pads — and that was the end of my ‘anal leakage’ phase.

Later that year, I learned about menstruation in my first sex education class. This is just one of the ways that the sexual health education system in my school failed me.

My sex education resembled what you see in the movie Mean Girls: “if you have sex, you will get pregnant, and you will die.”

I grew up in Abbotsford, B.C., which is nestled in the Fraser Valley about an hour’s drive east from Vancouver. As you drive within the city limits you will see a sign that says “Abbotsford: City in the Country”, reflecting the city’s growing population and its dedication to its agricultural roots. Most importantly, however, Abbotsford is the heart of the Bible Belt of British Columbia. I like to tell people that means there is a church on every corner — which is stretching the truth, but not by as far as you would think.

In B.C., individual school districts have control over the sex education implemented in schools, compared to Ontario where sex education is provincially-mandated. There are loose federal guidelines for how sex education should be implemented, and there are resources made available by the provincial government, however in the end the school district has a final say. This means that the religious sentiments of Abbotsford citizens could implicitly be transferred into my sex education curriculum, guiding both when I started receiving sex education (too late in my case), as well as what would be talked about in these classes.

The Abbotsford school district’s policy on sex education resembles what you see in the movie Mean Girls: “if you have sex, you will get pregnant, and you will die.” District policy details its support for teaching abstinence in schools, stating that “by encouraging and promoting responsible, informed decision-making and creating a climate where abstinence is celebrated as a smart, safe, healthy choice, the board anticipates that students will choose to not engage in sexual activity, thereby avoiding the associated negative emotional, physical, and psychological consequences.” Contraception, therefore, is a bit of a taboo subject for the Abbotsford school district. The policy specifies that while information on the various methods, their risks, and their failure rates will be provided to students, students will not be taught how to use contraception. “It is important for all teachers to address this topic within the context of ‘saving sex’ instead of ‘safe sex’ or ‘safer sex’,” the policy says in regards to contraception. “All discussions about pregnancy and STD prevention must focus on encouraging students to make the responsible choice of not engaging in sexual activity.”

Needless to say, I learned how to use a condom from watching Molly Shannon pretending to be a sex ed teacher in the movie Never Been Kissed — not from my own sex ed class. Not to mention all of the other dysfunctional happenings that went on in Abbotsford, such as girls who would have anal and oral sex freely — but were waiting to have vaginal intercourse so they could remain virgins.

Needless to say, I learned how to use a condom from watching Molly Shannon pretending to be a sex ed teacher in the movie Never Been Kissed — not from my own sex ed class.

It is because of school districts like Abbotsford that Sex Week is held in residence at SFU. Sex Week is an annual weeklong program run by Residence Life which features events such as sex information sessions, burlesque classes, sex toy parties, and Valentine’s Day card-making workshops. Alex Belfer, one of the organizers of this year’s event, which occurs this week, explains that they hold this program for a number of reasons: it is fun, but most importantly, it is educational. He claims Sex Week provides “an open and healthy place” for residents to learn about and discuss sex with people they trust. The need for this program is demonstrated through the varying levels of knowledge that residents have about sex coming into university. “While you hope that they come with the knowledge,” Belfer said, “they come from diverse backgrounds . . . and each different background approaches sex differently.”

With the amount of sex and sexuality that children and youth are exposed to through scenes in movies, ads in magazines, or internet pornography, it is important to properly educate students in order to provide a context for this information. For instance, children — especially girls — should be taught from a young age about self-image and self-worth, and teenagers should be educated on the porn industry and the expectations that it can create. One would hope that this occurs before young people become sexually active — and at the very least, they should be equipped with this knowledge before moving out of their parents’ homes.

Ontario’s provincial government is trying to create a sex education curriculum that fits students of the 21st century. Beginning at a young age, the curriculum is inclusive of the diverse students in the system and a wide array of issues surrounding sexual health — such as explaining gender identity and sexual orientation, and emphasizing acceptance. This curriculum reform has caused a lot of controversy, however, with many residents opposed to the changes — mirroring the recent uproar over Burnaby’s sex education reform to include LGBT culture and issues in the curriculum.

Public education should not be impacted by the values — religious or otherwise — of a community. Sex education is a matter of physical and emotional health and well-being, and it is important that children and youth are informed on the issues at hand. While parents are a good place to start this education, there needs to be a way to ensure that all children receive adequate and effective sexual health information. The Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, published in 2008 by the Public Health Agency of Canada, argues that schools are in a unique position to provide sex education because they are “the only formal educational institution to have meaningful (and mandatory) contact with nearly every young person.” However, in British Columbia, there is no way to ensure standards of sex education because it varies between districts.

Sexual health education is too important to leave up to individual school districts — or to wait until university programs like Sex Week. Girls should be prepared for their first periods; boys should know what is happening when they get their first erections; young people should know how to put on a condom by university. These are the basics, and even these needs aren’t being met by all school districts. The B.C. Ministry of Education needs to reform so that it can dictate the sex education curriculum. Sex Week shouldn’t be a student’s first point of contact with effective sex education; it should be a fun week of events where they can explore sexuality and become more comfortable talking about it.