2 min

Stumbling through sex ed

BC's untrained sex ed teachers aren't doing us any favours

When I think of sex ed, I think of the ram’s head. That, and the used condom passed around my Grade 9 classroom by some woman brought in specifically to teach us about sex.

I quickly flipped the condom to the staunch Mormon sitting behind me before realizing the woman meant “used” as in from an already open package – not “used” as in previously filled with cum.

Of course, back then I barely knew what cum was. The ram’s head from my Grade 6 introduction to fallopian tubes looked like it was drawn in the 1950s, and the curriculum probably hadn’t been updated much since.

I vaguely knew about orgasms from a great book I’d found when I was seven that compared them to special sneezes. My mom encouraged me to read that book and to ask her any questions I might have. I can’t remember what I asked, or even the name of the book now.

Which is too bad, because it sounds like our teachers could use it.

According to a 2004 study by BC’s Options for Sexual Health (Opt), good sex ed is “hit and miss” across the province.

“Teachers don’t get any pre-service training in the area,” Opt’s senior health educator, Kristen Gilbert, says. “When they go to teachers college, nobody learns sex ed. Even if you are going to be a Planning 10 teacher, there is no special training.”

Some teachers seek more training on their own, but not enough sign up for the courses Opt offers.

“It’s the most challenging subject to teach, and many teachers don’t teach [it], so it’s just left out,” says Myriam Dumont, who recently completed Opt’s courses.

“There are no university courses to teach sex ed,” she confirms. “Although it’s mandatory in the curriculum, it’s left out, and as a new teacher you’re thrown into a classroom expected to teach it.”

Too many teachers are either “relying on things they find on Google or experience in their own life, and that’s not good enough,” says Glen Hansman, vice-president of the BC Teachers’ Federation.

Hansman is particularly concerned about the curriculum revision coming this fall, which seems poised to roll sex ed into phys ed.

“Where are PE teachers supposed to go to teach this material responsibly?” he asks, noting the already scarce resources available for on-the-job sex-ed training.

Sex-ed classes here and in Ontario already tend to ignore gay teens entirely. Unless students luck out with a particularly cool teacher – like the hot phys ed teacher I was madly in love with in Grade 9 – what are the chances that the situation will improve?

The Vancouver School Board passed a policy three years ago reminding its sex-ed teachers to be “aware of the potential presence of lesbian, gay or trans-identifying students in the class (or students that engage in same-sex sexual practice, regardless of self-identification)” and to choose their resources accordingly. But the rest of BC is slow to follow.

“I would say that it is entirely up to the teacher teaching how inclusive or not inclusive their lessons are,” Gilbert says. “There actually isn’t anything in the kindergarten through Planning 10 learning outcomes about ensuring that queer kids are represented in the curriculum.”

As the push to foster gay-friendlier schools spreads slowly across BC, it’s worth wondering how uncomfortably delivered, straight-focused sex-ed classes sustain the homophobic culture we’re trying to change.

What do kids take away from their untrained teachers’ stumbling, embarrassed attempts to convey their own, likely narrow, understandings of what should and shouldn’t go where?

Imagine what they’d learn instead if we valued sex as much as other skills considered essential for life, like reading and writing, and taught it accordingly, inclusively and with ease. Would we still need anti-homophobia policies?