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The Mathematics of Sex Ed

For this teacher, it doesn't add up.

By Karen Platt 22 May 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Karen Platt is a sexual health educator and writer in Victoria. When she isn't talking about sex, she's studying it, working toward a post-graduate degree in sexual health through the University of Sydney. She is also the editor of Parenting Teens magazine.

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Countering Lohan curriculum.

So here we are. Some teachers, three energetic presenters, a bunch of audio-visual equipment, microphones and games, a Victoria high school gymnasium with 240 sixteen and 17-year-olds, and me. We are here because at this school, today has been pronounced Sex Education Day and the powers-that-be have determined that the best way to deal with this particular subject is to gather all the grade elevens together, hit them with two hours of sex, relationships, violence prevention and decision making, and call it a day.

I make part of my living talking about sex, which actually isn't a bad way to make a buck. Today, thank goodness, I'm merely an observer. Through my workshops, parents frequently tell me they want sex education in the schools. I believe them when they say this. And even if I didn't, I've certainly read enough statistics that support what they tell me. Whether parents want schools to teach it because they don't want to talk to their kids about sexuality themselves; or they want their kids to benefit from additional, hopefully accurate information; or they believe school is where all education needs to take place, I don't know. I do know that trying to effectively present a workshop about one of life's (and adolescence's) most consuming issues in 85 minutes to 240 kids is like trying to get an erection while sitting in a tub of ice -- in other words (at least I've been told), a virtually impossible task.

I suspect the biggest learning these kids will walk away with is that we, their adults, don't really think this topic is very important. Certainly not compared to math or English or science or any of those classes we feed them five days a week, in relatively small groups of 30 or so, for years. Even resume writing is allotted more time -- and certainly smaller classes. Now consider the number of times you've needed a resume versus the number of times you could have used some sexual knowledge. I received just enough valuable math education to know that the ratio of time allotted : number of times tasks performed seems a bit skewed.

Intrepid performers

As I watch these intrepid and highly skilled presenters, I can't help but think, why bother? Don't get me wrong, I think what these people do is amazing, their energy and knowledge unparalleled and the need...well, if some of the wrong answers shouted definitively from the bleachers are any indication, the need is vast. It's just that it seems so futile. The presenters know it but keep, er, plugging along, hoping to reach that one person with just one piece of information that might make a difference. Like withdrawing after you've lost your erection is probably not a good idea if you want the condom to actually work. Trying to be heard. Trying to manage the group dynamics, because the teachers are simply sitting there.

Now, I'm not down on teachers as a group; as in business, government and Canadian Idol, there are both fabulous and rotten ones out there. (Okay perhaps CI is a stretch.) But have you ever tried "managing" 240 adolescents? If you've taught 24, you'll appreciate the magnitude of the task. These presenters were talking about respect but the set up was anything but respectful -- not to them, the students (who really needed this discussion) or the subject. The amount of money allotted to life skills education is virtually nil. The time, less. The respect, as Rodney Dangerfield would say, "It don't get none!"

I know it's important to be literate in math, English, socials and other academic subjects. I know that next to health care, the public school system is the darling of the BC axe-grinding set. I also know that teachers may be overwhelmed simply trying to get through the academic curriculum, not to mention cramming in those "life" lessons -- career prep, sports, harassment, drugs, alcohol -- that require field trips or speakers or extra work. But in the end, whatever careers our children have, whatever paths they take, whether they become bankers or ballet dancers, their lives will most likely be lived in relationships with others, and they will inevitably become intimate with some along the way. I just don't see how we -- parents, teachers, administrators -- can believe that an 85-minute program in sexual and relationship health is enough for their own, or any, teen. Put a check next to complete and move on to the next subject.

Explicit subject knowledge

That teens are bombarded by sexually explicit and increasingly violent media messages is not news. That there's no time, energy or money for balanced discussion encouraging critical thinking about these messages is a thing that should worry us. Parents scream loudly at the latest blitz of reports about oral sex gone wild, yet who's discussing decision making, gender issues, power and prevention with teens? Who lets them know that oral sex is sex and it's not necessarily safe? Who poses the idea that they can say "no" if they want to, whenever they want to? If we're lucky, that might come out in an 85-minute workshop but it's just as likely there won't be enough time. Sex and relationships is a big subject. Heck, we barely made it to the condom demo. Trust me, it's not something to skip.

Adults worry that teens will get into relationships that are unsafe or over their heads. So how much time have our programs allotted to the dialogue about healthy and unhealthy relationships, violence, equality, love, intimacy…plus all the good stuff teens intuitively know must be true about sex? Not much. Often, not any. And maybe that's okay, assuming we believe parents are having these chats with their kids at home -- discussing oral sex, how you know when you're ready for sex, what contributes to great sex…stuff like that. Somehow, in general, I don't think so.

In many European countries, sexual health is holistic, integrated, taught in the schools and in the home right from birth. An Advocates for Youth study shows these European teens become sexually active later than Canadians, have healthier, more egalitarian relationships and are much less likely to become pregnant. In France, Sweden, Norway and Germany (to name just a few places), the subject is considered a vital, natural part of life.

In Canada...well, you do the math.

Karen Platt is a sexual health educator and writer in Victoria. When she isn't talking about sex, she's studying it, working toward a post-graduate degree in sexual health through the University of Sydney. She is also the editor of Parenting Teens magazine.  [Tyee]

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