What Young People Want and Need for their Sex-Ed

We know that young people want school-based sex-ed. Multiple studies have made that very clear. They’ve also made clear what young people think sex-ed should look like.

Beyond looking at international and national standards, a critical question that should guide the design of any sexuality education curriculum, program, and/or lesson is what young people themselves say they need and want to hear about. We strongly encourage governments and educators to meaningfully involve young people in the design of any policy and program impacting them.

We can also learn important and interesting insights from what surveys, innovative research studies, (some of them conducted by young people), investigative journalism, and experts tell us about the realities of teaching and learning sex-ed.

Are you a researcher? Email your latest findings and report on issues that can impact the development and delivery of sex-ed to [email protected].

Young people want to know about healthy relationships

“Young people want guidance on more than just “the birds and the bees” or how to put on a condom. They want to learn the skills to have initiate and nurture healthy, loving, satisfying, mutually respectful relationships.” (The Making Caring Common project, 2017).

The Making Caring Common Project is a multi-year research study out of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. We currently do not have studies of this kind in Canada but the results are still highly informative. Making Caring Common has surveyed over 3,000 young adults and high school students from many parts of the US and has gathered insights from scores of formal interviews and informal conversations. They have also talked with adults who are key to young people, including parents, teachers, sports coaches, and counselors. The findings should inform the direction of sexuality and sexual health education we offer young people. They found that:

  • Large numbers of teens and young adults are unprepared for caring, lasting romantic relationships and are anxious about developing them. Parents, educators, and other adults often provide young people with little or no guidance in developing these relationships
  • Misogyny and sexual harassment appear to be pervasive among young people and certain forms of gender-based violence may be increasing but a significant majority of parents are not talking to young people about it.
  • Research shows that sexual assault rates among young people are high. Most parents and educators aren’t talking to young people about consent.

Learning the skills to nurture healthy relationships, from friendship to romance to hook-ups, is key to truly fostering optimal health and well-being. Sex-ed is how we can achieve that.

Young people want LGBTQ+ specific content

Young people want sex-ed that is LGBTQ+ inclusive—this includes information on queer relationships, queer sex, and sexual health information relevant for trans students. Young people want more than discussion about respecting differences as if LGBTQ+ students were not in the classroom themselves. They want sex-ed that speaks to them in all their diversity and equips all of them, not just some of them, with what they need to take care of their own health.

Between 2006 and 2009, Planned Parenthood Toronto and other frontline health organizations based in Toronto partnered with York University researchers to gather insight on youth proficiency and competency regarding sexual health information.

Some of their key recommendations pertained to sexuality education and were to:

  • Provide sexual health education that is inclusive of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
  • Develop sexual health curricula and training for those who deliver it that addresses homophobia, transphobia, and other issues unique to LGBTQ youth.
  • Incorporate LGBTQ-positive information on healthy relationships, sexual orientation, gender identity, sexual pleasure, and communication into sexual health curricula.
  • Offer ongoing information and education about sexual health related issues in a broad range of classroom settings outside of the traditional physical and health education classes.

For LGBTQ youth to gain the same health benefits as their non-LGBTQ peers, sex-education programs must be LGBTQ-inclusive. Inclusive programs help young people understand gender identity and sexual orientation with age-appropriate and medically accurate information; incorporate positive examples of LGBTQ individuals, romantic relationships, and families; emphasize the need for protection during sex for people of all identities; and dispel common myths and stereotypes about behaviour and identity.

Youth Co, A British Columbia based organization run by and for youth, found similar results from their 2018 survey of 600 young people. The survey asked LGBTQ youth what they had learned and wanted to learn in their sex-ed classes, and what they heard over and over was: “Queer and trans youth need sex-ed that is applicable to our sex lives.”

Their survey report makes clear that too many young people in BC are not getting the sex-ed they need to make informed decisions. The verdict is consistent with what youth are saying in many contexts when asked about their sex-ed: that the sex-ed content they are receiving needs to be better, more relevant, more standardized, more affirming, and more fun. Young people who were surveyed insisted on the need for sex-ed content that includes information on the bodies and identities of all people, including LGBTQ+/2S youth. Lessons also have to acknowledge the variety of ways they can experience sexual pleasure and link them to the care they need around STIs, HIV, and sexual assault.

Young people also talk about how their teachers are not always familiar and comfortable with the different ways young people express their genders and sexualities. In many cases, the report describes how educators assume that all their students are cisgender and straight and how overall, they are uncomfortable and awkward.

This project demonstrates that youth are excited and keen to shape their sex-ed curriculum.

"Stuff is always changing, youth should be consulted at every point." – YouthCo Survey

Young people want fun and play-based interventions that break the ice and answer their questions about sex

In the fall of 2018, the Université du Québec à Montreal and the Fédération du Québec pour le Planning des Naissances launched their research report Promoting sex-ed programs that are positive, inclusive and emancipatory. The report is an analysis of multiple studies featuring interviews with over 6,000 young people about the sex-ed they get versus the sex-ed they want. Many of the key findings confirm what other studies say about what young people want and need. Here are a few highlights:

There is a clash between what adults who create sex-ed programs want and what young people being taught want. The adults want to protect young people against STIs, violence, cyber bullying, sexual assault, etc. Young people (who are often not consulted in the creation of programs) want to know how sex and relationships work. They want explicit knowledge about how to have sex. They want to talk about relationships. They want to know how to break up with someone, how to tell someone they like them, and how to give their partner pleasure. STI prevention messaging is important but if we don’t answer the questions young people have, or even make it seem like the two things are connected, the information doesn’t always get through to young people.

Most of the sex-ed young people get is focused on preventing negative things. Few educators talk about how sexuality can be positive, happy, comfortable, and empowering. Without a balance between the risks and the positives, we miss an opportunity to help shape a culture of consent and connect with curious and eager young people who want the important information they need to live healthy lives.

Two other important highlights from this report offer recommendations to teachers and educators:

  • Students need educators to break the ice to talk about sex and relationships. They need to feel connected to educators and their peers in that moment. One way to achieve that is through play and playfulness. Fun is too often missing from sex-ed classes and this means we miss the opportunity for more open and honest sharing of what young people have on their minds, want to know about, have experienced and need to unpack. Games, card games, ice breakers, moving around, jeopardy-type activities, multiple choice, silly approaches, joking around: that's our ticket.  
  • One of the most important steps to provide positive, empowering, and inclusive sex-ed is for educators to examine their own values and assumptions. Even if when an educator knows the content well, reflecting on values and experiences around sexuality is crucial. This is the only way to offer the material in a way that makes it possible for different people to connect to it. The key is to become able to promote reflection, empathy and critical thinking within ourselves and our students.

Young people want to hear about the good stuff too

Taking a balanced approach to sexual health beyond just the risks, instead favoring an approach that also includes the positive parts of sexuality and relationships—pleasure, intimacy, fun, and all the reasons people may want to be sexually active—helps young people form a complete picture of what a healthy sexuality is about.

Drawing on in-depth, long form, and repeated interviews with over 70 young women and a wide range of psychologists, academics, and experts, Peggy Orenstein published the book Girls and Sex, which explores the ways in which girls and women are impacted by how we talk about sex. New media (including porn and social media) mixed with persistent sexual myths (for example, that men are the pursuers of sex and women are the gatekeepers of it), and scripts around how sex plays out (guys initiate, women must please their men, etc.) profoundly impact young people’s sexuality. She found that the absence of authentic representation of female sexuality, agency, and pleasure plays a large role in fueling sexual violence. The way we talk about sex without ever talking about pleasure, especially female pleasure, has meant that young women expect sexual intercourse to be painful with little or no pleasure for them. This highlights the crucial importance of talking about the positive aspects of sexuality when we teach sex-ed.

Young people want up-to-date information that responds to what they are dealing with

The information young people need can change at the drop of a hat. For sex-ed to stay relevant, it needs to be responsive to those changes.

One example is how young people talk among themselves. It is important to keep up to date on what is important, meaningful, or concerning to youth. One way to do this is to consult young people to make sure content continues to make sense to them. 

That said, it’s not just about language. It’s also important to stay up to date on social trends. The 2018 study from Australia From Girls to Men: Social attitudes to gender equality in Australia found that millennial men (born between 1982 and 2000) have been leading a backlash against gender equality. This is important to know because it counters the common idea that sexism and misogyny lessen with each generation. The study highlights how millennial men are leaders in advancing the “men’s rights movement” which aggressively pushes back against gender equality. It also shows how the adoption of more traditional values around gender roles is linked to online male-dominated “alt-right” and white supremacist communities.

Misogynist and racist online subcultures have contributed to their combined rise and political influence. The gender inequality, rigid gender norms, gender-based violence, and gendered sexual scripts that these groups endorse have significant negative social and health outcomes—especially for women, people of colour, and LGBTQ+ people. This makes it even more important for sex-ed to include extensive teachings on sexism, misogyny, and power dynamics.

Young people want teachers who are thoughtful about accessibility

To be responsive to what students need and to make sure lessons are relevant, educators have to look at the different barriers that can stand in the way of learning.

For example, autistic students are not getting the same quality of sex-ed because of the way their lesson plans are organized. And many teachers schedule sex-ed lessons at the end of the school year, leaving very little time for extra hours to lead by example or answer lingering questions. These are just two of the many examples that can stand in the way of sex-ed. Other needs to consider include reaching LGBTQ+ students (even if we don’t know which ones may identify that way), students of colour, students with different physical disabilities, different religious backgrounds or cultural identities, etc. Our lessons should be reaching everyone equally.

Young people want teachers who are comfortable and confident

Young people need teachers who are equipped to teach sex-ed but many teachers feel nervous or unprepared to teach the subject. When they do, they feel afraid to talk about anything beyond the risks of sexual activity. That’s because of what they perceive to be their own lack of knowledge, skills, confidence, and comfort around sex-ed. This speaks to the lack of financial investment and practical supports for teachers who are tasked with educating young people about sexuality and sexual health.

Canadian research has found that although teachers may see the importance of teaching sex-ed, they feel less capable, less comfortable, and even less willing to teach a range of relevant topics. Even when teachers have successfully attended a relevant course, they do not feel adequately prepared and need more theoretical and practical training than what is currently offered.

Action Canada’s own consultation with educators found that they are particularly nervous about dealing with conflicting views in the classroom and raised potential concern about push-back from school administration or parents when they don’t have the necessary information and training. This is why Action Canada is also engaging with elected officials, not just about curriculum review but also about their strategy to ensure appropriate support and funding is dedicated to sex-ed.

Updated on 2019-07-23
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