09/14/2012 05:26 EDT | Updated 11/14/2012 05:12 EST

When it Comes to Sex Ed, Less is Not More


This is a response to an article posted earlier today by Yoni Goldstein, entitled "Why Schools Don't Need Sex Ed."

Like Yoni Goldstein, I too am the product of a private, religious school that didn't offer classes in sexual education. I mostly figured it out on my own by going to the library and reading books, and later with a little trial and error. Armed with my "slightest modicum of common sense," I managed to stay out of trouble. It was a self-taught curriculum in sexual education, so to speak. It must have been a pretty good curriculum, because I went on to get a graduate degree in the field of human sexuality and went even further by becoming a gynaecologist. So you'd think I'd agree with Goldstein that schools don't need sex ed. In fact, I couldn't disagree more.

The problem with Goldstein's argument is that he believes everyone is just like he and I. We both somehow managed to "figure it out" and stay out of harm's way. I'll even go so far as to assume that, without the benefit of any kind of structured sex ed, not only has Goldstein avoided infection and unintended pregnancy, but that he has a very pleasurable, fulfilling and satisfying sex life. I'll further assume that if I asked Goldstein's sexual partners, they too would tell me that he has indeed figured it out, and they are as pleasured, fulfilled and satisfied as he is.

That fact is, though, that not everyone is like Goldstein and I. Even those with the "slightest modicum of common sense" can get tripped up in the complex world of sexual health and sexual relationships. If common sense were all it took to keep one healthy, then I wouldn't see so many sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancies walk through my office door.

There wouldn't be as many drunk driving deaths, either, and we wouldn't have to educate our kids about the dangers of mixing cars with alcohol because common sense would tell them that it's a dumb idea. If little Mary's schoolyard lessons about the birds and the bees was sufficient to reassure women about normal anatomical diversity, then I wouldn't have so many women asking me about whether there's something wrong with their perfectly normal breasts or genitals.

We probably wouldn't have to teach her about nutrition, either, because she would have learned that lesson in the snack aisle at the convenience store. If pornography was a good example of real-life sex, then I wouldn't have so many couples coming to me with the mythological beliefs that everyone should want to have sex all the time, sex lasts forever, and everyone orgasms all at once. We could also skip the lessons on public safety, because they'd already know from the movies that Batman will save them if they get into trouble.

There's a lot of know about sex. Pregnancy, periods, erections, contraception, modes of infectious transmission, normal anatomical variations, and the physiology of desire, arousal and orgasm are all complex topics. Not every child has a parent who is willing or able to teach their kids about these things. Sure, you might pick up a little good information off the street (or the schoolyard or the Internet), if you're lucky. But you might miss some important stuff, too. Worse yet you might pick up some bad information. You might pick up a little math betting on your favourite sports team, but that doesn't mean it's not worthwhile to teach it in school.

Schools are one of the few institutions that have meaningful, ongoing contact with virtually all youth and so are in a unique position to provide sex ed. Basic, school-based sex education gives students the opportunity to acquire unambiguous, factually correct information about these topics. The Public Health Agency of Canada acknowledges that a broad-based, inclusive curriculum helps prevent negative sexual health outcomes and enhances healthy living and that's why they've developed the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education. The Sex Information and Education Council of Canada examined Canadian studies which consistently show that more than 85 per cent of parents and 92 per cent of students actually want school-based sex ed.

Rates of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis have been rising in Canada for over a decade. Unintended pregnancies still represent about half of all pregnancies. Therapists' offices are filled to the brim with sexually unsatisfied clients clinging to unrealistic beliefs about what a normal sex life is like. Mr. Goldstein has been lucky (so far). The rest of us need more sex ed, not less.