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Sex Education in BC’s Schools: An Explainer

What and when do kids learn about contraception, consent, abortion, gender identity and more? A sex ed primer.

Akhila Menon 9 Dec 2022TheTyee.ca

Akhila Menon is a journalism fellow with The Tyee through Journalists for Human Rights inaugural Enhanced Access for BIPOC Youth in Canadian Media program.

What do British Columbia’s youth learn about sex, sexual orientation and gender identity in school, when do they learn it and how is it taught? These are questions that affect the well-being of every child in the province — and fuel debate and political action among adults.

The questions are so charged that in the most recent school board elections across the province, 28 candidates ran under the banner of ParentsVoice BC, a group with strong Christian conservative ties opposed to the current sex education approach in public schools. Some socially conservative trustee candidates also opposed B.C.’s SOGI, or Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity directives, which help educators make schools inclusive and safe for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities.

Parents and students might understandably be confused and wanting more information. Which is why The Tyee interviewed several education experts and practitioners to create this explainer.

Why do we teach sex ed in schools?

Twenty per cent of all B.C. youth in Grades 7 to 12 are sexually active according to a 2018 Adolescent Health Survey.

Comprehensive sex education in the classroom has been shown to improve decision-making outcomes. “Comprehensive” is important here. UNESCO’s 2018 Technical Guidance on Sexual Education defines comprehensive sex ed as “learning about the cognitive, emotional, physical and social aspects of sexuality. It aims to equip children and young people with knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that will empower them to: realize their health, well-being and dignity; develop respectful social and sexual relationships; consider how their choices affect their own well-being and that of others; and, understand and ensure the protection of their rights throughout their lives.”   

Students who’ve had comprehensive instruction are more likely to have their first experience of sexual intercourse later, to have sex less frequently, to have fewer sexual partners, to engage less in risky sex and to use contraception, according to UNESCO.

Several of the experts The Tyee spoke to for the story stated that sex education is a human right. Yet in 2013, the BC Adolescent Health Survey found that the majority of young British Columbians in its sample reported that they were not learning where to get tested for a sexually transmitted infection (57 per cent) or where to get emergency contraception if they needed it (52 per cent). Many had not learned where to get free condoms or contraception (38 per cent) or where to access birth control (47 per cent).

Such findings prompted the province to update its approach to teaching sex ed in schools.

The province’s Physical and Health Education, or PHE curriculum, was redesigned and implemented between 2016 and 2019, including new standards for sexual education, developed by a team of teachers from public and independent schools and government experts.

“The language in the current PHE curriculum [in terms of sexual health content] is meant to destigmatize mental and sexual health and ensure non-judgemental language is used,” a spokesperson for the Education Ministry told The Tyee. “Rather than talking about the risks of certain activities, the focus is on promoting overall healthy sexual decision-making.”

What are kids taught about sex and when?

Sex ed starts in elementary school and progresses in a “developmentally appropriate way” as students get older, the ministry told The Tyee.

Kindergartners are taught to respond to unsafe and/or uncomfortable situations and demonstrate respectful behaviour.

From first to third grade, some of the important elements of sex ed include establishing boundaries, such as saying no without guilt.

In Grade 5, students learn about “physical, emotional and social changes that occur during puberty, including those involving sexuality and sexual identity, and changes to relationships.”

The curriculum recommends that sixth, seventh and eighth graders are taught about practices that reduce the risk of contracting STIs, reliable sources of health information and awareness of how to respond to risky situations.

And in Grade 10, the learning standards include an emphasis on healthy sexual decision-making as well as the intricacies of healthy relationships. 

Currently, topics on human sexuality and reproduction in the PHE curriculum are mandatory for all B.C. students from kindergarten to Grade 10.

However, precisely what they learn in sex ed classes depends on who is doing the instruction.

Who teaches sex ed in BC schools?

In secondary schools, it was supposed to be mainly gym teachers when the B.C. sex ed curriculum was moved from health and career to physical and health education in 2015. But often it's staff teachers or school counsellors who teach the curriculum and in many circumstances the responsibility is contracted out to independent sex ed facilitators.

In elementary schools, classroom teachers or resource teachers deliver the health-related curriculum, including the portions of it pertaining to puberty, the reproductive system, etc.

So what students are taught in sex ed can vary from one school to another?

Yes, significantly. “Individual school districts, schools and educators are responsible for determining resources used in classrooms and ensuring that they meet B.C.’s curriculum standards,” the Education Ministry spokesperson told The Tyee. So, each school district decides who does the sex ed teaching, including who might be contracted to do the job. 

What might students be told about abortion, for example? Students in schools in Abbotsford, Langley and other nearby cities may be taught by facilitators from Advokate Life and Education Services. Advokate operates “crisis pregnancy centres” which actively counsel pregnant women against seeking an abortion.

Or consider how abstaining from sex is presented compared to explaining how to practice safe sex.

An Advokate job posting from August 2022 to hire a sex ed presenter requires the candidate to be “fully committed to Advokate’s vision, mission and values, including a commitment to teaching and affirming abstinence as the best way to avoid sexually transmitted infections and unplanned pregnancies.”

Research shows that an abstinence-only focus when teaching sex ed can contribute to shame and stigma.

Jared White, executive director of Advokate, told The Tyee that “part of healthy decision-making is recognizing that sex has adult consequences.” Teens engaging in premarital sex not only risk pregnancy and contracting disease, they go on to have higher rates of divorce, he claimed, citing a book his organization uses in teaching sex ed titled Hooked: The Brain Science of How Casual Sex Affects Human Development.

The Instagram account for Advokate’s sex-ed program Sexual Health and Integrity for Teens seeks to convince teens that if you have sex with someone who you decide you dislike, “Whether your [sic] like it or not you will naturally connect to that person.”

The Tyee shared the Advokate Sexual Health and Integrity for Teens presentation outline with Kristen Gilbert, a sex ed facilitator for over 18 years who is the education director for the non-profit Options for Sexual Health. Her judgement of the Advokate approach? “Rather than offering relevant, useful information on sexual decision-making, [they claim] that the opposite of abstinence is casual sex/sex addiction. They’re essentially offering abstinence-only education.”

Contrast Advokate’s offerings with how Saleema Noon, with the organization Sexual Health Educators, teaches sex ed in many Vancouver schools. Her “primary goal is to aid young people with the knowledge and the skills they need to enjoy their sexuality, both physically and emotionally, and stay safe and healthy. Whereas abstinence-only sex ed is fear-based. And problem-focused.”

“We start with the basics,” says Noon. “And we scaffold information as kids get older in a way that's relevant to their stage of development and their experience.”

For kindergarteners and first graders, the basics include a review of the three private parts of the body: mouth, breasts and genitals, as well as a discussion about consent. Students are taught the scientific terms related to anatomy and reproduction (i.e., vulva, penis, testicles, vagina, urethra, anus, uterus), that the baby is born through the vagina, and that families are formed in different, unique ways.

Tenth graders receive a more comprehensive three-hour session, split in two parts, that provides information about “healthy sexuality, self-care, safer sex, sexual decision-making, consent, healthy relationships and online safety.”

How Noon teaches evolves with the times, she adds. It’s important to adjust and ensure that the content being provided is relevant to young people’s lives, using language that is inclusive and helps every student feel seen and heard while being medically accurate, she says.

A comprehensive, inclusive sex ed program, according to Noon, makes no assumptions about, for example, penetrative vaginal sex being the only type of sex. It recognizes the breadth of sexual experiences, and how we're all unique, in terms of our sexual orientation and gender identity.

“We know from research that it delays sexual activity. Because it’s so much more than just having sex or not having sex,” she told The Tyee. “It’s about intimacy and communication and healthy relationships and connection, and pleasure and consent, and all that good stuff.”

Some B.C. school boards have attempted to standardize their sex ed courses. Vancouver’s trustees mandated that sex education delivery must be ethical and avoid a reflection of the facilitator's own values and present information that is unbiased and factual, for example.

Gilbert questions whether programs like Advokate’s would meet these standards.

Where is there room for improvement in BC’s sex ed curriculum?

As we’ve seen above, there can be a range of views on this one.

“Our curriculum is more current and reflective of the needs of students than many other provinces,” says sex ed facilitator Noon. “But it has become vaguer and less prescriptive in its learning objectives.” For teachers who are comfortable “running with it,” according to Noon, this is a good thing. “But there’s little guidance and support for teachers who may not be comfortable or don’t have as much experience teaching sex ed.”

“An ideal sex ed curriculum would be an evidence-based, comprehensive one,” says Brandy Wiebe, Noon’s colleague and a sexuality professor at the University of British Columbia.

Wiebe notes that while the current curriculum makes an effort to address issues around gender and sexual identities, “The tough thing about the curriculum is that it’s quite broad.”

Gilbert believes some of the content should be taught earlier. “According to the curriculum, I don’t talk about how babies are made until Grade 6,” she told The Tyee. “That is absolutely bananas. There are sometimes one or two kids in a Grade 6 or 7 class who I can tell by their faces are learning about it for the first time. And that’s far from ideal.”

She adds: “It isn’t harmful or inappropriate for children to understand how babies are made. It’s perfectly normal for children to be curious about this and it’s quite simple to explain using age-appropriate language.”

In addition, Gilbert says that being informed can help “protect children from abuse, as the parent can clarify the rules about touching, and establish themselves as an ‘askable adult’ who the child can come to with any concerns or questions.”

Predators who target children are more likely to look for a child who doesn’t know the rules about touching, and who hasn’t learned the scientific names for their body parts.

According to the 2018 Adolescent Health Survey, about 20 per cent of all girls surveyed, ages 12 to 19, had experienced sexual abuse.

Taylor Arnt, an MA student at UBC and participant in the Level Youth Policy Program comprising Indigenous and racialized immigrant and refugee youth across B.C., wrote a policy proposal for comprehensive sex ed in B.C. Arnt pointed out that the current curriculum doesn’t use the term “consent.”

The Tyee reported on this issue earlier this year.

“Schools need to explicitly mention the word consent in their sexual education lesson. It’s important that be included because, in cases of sexual violence involving the law, the issue of consent always comes up,” Arnt said.

Research backs up Arnt. A recent Canadian Women’s Foundation study found that 55 per cent of Canadians don’t fully understand consent when it comes to sexual activity.

A recent Ministry of Education press release mentioned updated health guides and the expansion of kindergarten-to-Grade-12 curriculum resources that will support educators in teaching consent with an age-appropriate and non-discriminatory approach in the classroom.

Starting in early 2023, “the province will offer additional learning sessions through Safer Schools Together for parents and students about consent, online safety and healthy relationships.”

What is the difference between sex ed and SOGI instruction in BC schools?

In the recent past, a number of socially conservative groups have voiced concerns about SOGI 1 2 3.

In an email interview with The Tyee, Reg Krake, the executive director for SOGI 1 2 3, clarified that while sex education and SOGI 1 2 3 are often confused, the latter is a set of tools and resources to help create safer and more inclusive schools for students of all sexual orientations and gender identities, rather than a set education program.

“[SOGI 1 2 3] includes policies and procedures, inclusive learning environments and age-appropriate teaching resources that are aligned to B.C.'s K-12 curriculum, and that are designed to be woven into the delivery of B.C.’s curriculum, not as additional requirements of the curriculum.”

When asked about the public response to SOGI 1 2 3, Krake said that as per their internal evaluation process, educators who are part of the SOGI Educator Network are increasingly reporting that they have both the support and resources needed to deliver SOGI-inclusive education in their school or district. 

“Each year we have tens of thousands of people accessing tools and resources from our website to help them create safer and more SOGI-inclusive schools, which speaks to the need that SOGI 1 2 3 helps address within the education field,” he added.

SOGI 1 2 3 does not, as some have claimed, “take away” from delivering math, language, arts, social studies or other core elements of the curriculum.

A recent EGALE survey of 4,000 students found that 62 per cent of 2SLGBTQIA+ respondents reported feeling unsafe at school. Schools have a responsibility to create safe and inclusive spaces for all students and SOGI 1 2 3 helps achieve that, Krake said.

It encourages inclusivity — and all students need to see themselves reflected in the world around them and to be seen for who they truly are — so that they can be free to be their most authentic selves and live their best possible life.

Can parents prevent their children from learning about sex ed in school?

In instances where students and their parents feel that topics like reproduction and sexuality might cause discomfort if addressed in a classroom setting, there is the capacity for students with parental/guardian consent to learn about the topics by an alternative means, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told The Tyee.

However, “The alternate delivery policy does not allow students to opt-out of learning about these topics.”

Students are still expected, in consultation with their school, to demonstrate their knowledge of the topics arranged by alternative means.

White, who also ran for school trustee under the banner of Abbotsford ParentsFIRST in last month’s school board elections, strongly believes that parents should have an equal say in their children’s education.

“I think parents are typically the people who know their kids the best and love their children the most,” White said about his stance. “And they're in the best position to be able to guide their children when it comes to healthy sexual decision-making.”

He told The Tyee that many districts have policies that require parents to be informed when their children are receiving sex education in school. Informing parents of what their children are being taught will help them reinforce those things at home.

“I know a lot of parents don’t feel equipped to speak about it with their children. And it might be good for schools to go a step further and have evening or weekend sessions for parents, where the parents can be informed because they may also have some gaps in their own knowledge.”

Parental opposition to sex education in schools is also a lot rarer than one might think. A National Parent Survey conducted by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada in 2020 found that 90 per cent of parents surveyed in B.C. agreed that sexual health education should be provided in schools.  [Tyee]

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