We need to bring sex ed to post-secondary — Part One

Sex education should be a continuous journey

A range of contraceptives on a yellow and orange background, such as birth control pills and condoms.
We can’t rely on high schools alone to provide adequate sex ed. PHOTO: Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition / Unsplash

By Victoria Lopatka, Staff Writer

The quality and content of your sexual education depends largely on where you grew up and which high school you attended. This leads to discrepancies in how much sexual health knowledge post-secondary students have. In high schools, a complicated web of parents, teachers, school boards, and religious institutions can veto or censor sex ed lessons, leading to inconsistent and sub-par sex ed. Universities have less burdens and more resources. Young adults need up-to-date, inclusive, and informative sexual education — and continuing sex ed from high school into post-secondary is the solution. 

Think back to the sex education you received in high school. Was it a fear-based affair featuring pictures of untreated Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)? Did it include pro-abstinence rhetoric and virginity pledges? Maybe you didn’t receive sex ed at all?

Global News notes, “Sex education varies across Canada, with provinces and territories having their own curriculum, some more comprehensive than others.” For example, the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada reports that, as of 2017, BC sex ed excludes LGBTQIA2S+ curriculum and consent, while Ontario sex ed covers both, in addition to lessons on contraception.

SFU’s Fall 2020 International Student Report notes that “international students represent 21.2% of the total undergraduate population.” Since sex education varies a lot between countries, students may be entering university with completely different sex ed experiences.

For example, from a young age, children in the Netherlands are taught age-appropriate sex ed, while in China and India, sex education may be absent or minimal. 

In some schools, sex education is a pro-abstinence curriculum. It encourages students to wait until after marriage to have sex, portraying pre-marital sex as “unhealthy or dangerous.” Such abstinence-only programs neither delay nor prevent pre-marital sex and leave students with no information on preventing unwanted pregnancies and STIs. 

Similarly, students who attend Catholic schools will likely receive sex ed aligned with Catholic values, excluding “important aspects of human sexuality and sexual health.” As someone who went to a Catholic high school, I can vouch that my sex ed was subpar, leaving me and my classmates without useful or tangible information on safe sex.

University is a time of growth and exploration — and for some, that includes having sex. But what happens when those with sub-standard sex ed start having sex? Well, in some cases, unplanned pregnancies, the spread of STIs, and violence against intimate partners. 

Sex ed can and should be a continuous, age-appropriate learning experience. Research by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization states “the best way to ensure just and equal access to high-quality information on sexual and reproductive health and rights is to include it in a written school-based curriculum.”

Universities and colleges can offer resources high schools may be unable or unwilling to. For example, SFU could easily hire a professional sex educator to teach inclusive sex ed that a small high school in Vancouver or Burnaby may be unable to access. 

Additionally, older students may be more receptive to such resources. Post-secondary students may feel more ready to have sex for the first time, or they may be living away from their parents’ home for the first time, and thus, have more freedom to be themselves and make their own choices.

Good sex ed is important. ActionCanada notes “the impacts of high-quality sex-ed” include more awareness about sexual health, and “increased contraception use.” Some SFU students may have received good sex ed in high school but we can’t assume every student did, due to the varied backgrounds and upbringings of our student body.

Stay tuned for part two of the argument for sex education in post-secondary, which includes how post-secondary students could benefit from sex ed, and what sex ed could look like at SFU.