This week, adults wrapped up in protesting the Sexual Orientation Gender Identity (SOGI 123) policy held rallies in Vancouver, Victoria, and Abbotsford. Teachers’ organizations, queer rights groups, and progressive politicians counter-rallied. However, amid the noise and media coverage, we risk leaving important voices out of the conversation: those of youths themselves. This policy affects them most; it’s time we stopped to listen.
Students in British Columbia have a lot to say as they claim their right to sex education.
Over the past six months, YouthCO and our partners heard from more than 600 high school students in 83 cities across the province. High school students told us they want information to make the best decisions possible when it comes to sex: whether or not they are ready for sex, how to give and get consent, where to get condoms, lube, and birth control to prevent STIs and pregnancy, or even taking care of someone after a sexual assault or an HIV diagnosis. What youths are asking for is essential facts that lead to informed decisions about sex. This information goes a long way in supporting youths—whether they’re sexually active or not.
Through our project, most youths told us their sex ed classes only addressed one kind of sex: penis-in-vagina sex. This focus doesn’t cut it for LGBTQ+/2S youths. They are left out of the conversation if that’s not a sexual activity they’re having or might want to have.
It also doesn’t provide them with critical information they need to reduce their risk of STIs and HIV. As we know, especially among youths, STIs are passed by oral sex, and that most HIV diagnoses among young people in B.C. occur through anal sex. This is true regardless of whether youths identify as LGBTQ+/2S or not. The topic might make some people uncomfortable, but those are the facts.
There is a clear mismatch between what sex education youths deem relevant and what they’re getting. More concerning is that in some classrooms, the information students are getting is wildly inaccurate. For example, youths told us they learned having HIV will kill you, hair will grow on their arms if they masturbate, and LGBTQ+/2S people will go to hell. Scary stuff.
The broad direction of B.C.’s current curriculum means that educators have a lot of discretion. In some cases, this means youths are getting comprehensive sex ed; but that isn’t always the case. To realize a youth-led vision of sex education, this province’s educators need supports to offer relevant, standardized, and accurate sex ed that connects with today’s students and recognizes the diversity of sexual and gender identities.
Sharing accurate information and resources does not change the sexual or gender identity of young people or lead to youths having sex earlier. Talking accurately and openly about sex and identity leads to healthier communities—whether measured by STI rates, social connection, or mental health outcomes. By using inclusive language that recognizes the diversity of our bodies and identities and the variety of ways we can experience sexual pleasure, all of us–whether we are sexually active or not–are able to see ourselves in our classroom conversations.
If adults and educators are shaping sexual education content without input from youths—whose health is directly impacted by these lessons—we’re setting up our students to fail. Safe and inclusive classrooms with sex ed that reflect the facts and experiences of students today will help build better health outcomes for youths across our province.
And that’s a goal we should all agree on.
Ghada Dbouba, Avery Shannon, and Sarah Chown are leaders at YouthCO HIV & Hep C Society. It’s a group of youths who offer peer education and support around sexual health and harm reduction to other young people across the province. This article first appeared in the Georgia Straight on April 28, 2018.