Twice this past year, I have found myself having to explain that the type of chicken eggs we eat aren’t able to actually hatch into chickens. Each of these conversations began with someone questioning why, as a vegetarian, do I still eat eggs, despite the fact that they are basically “unborn chickens.”
I explained that chicken eggs are not the same as chicken fetuses. Like in human females, some eggs become fertilized and some do not; only the ones that are fertilized become fetuses, and the ones that do not are expelled from the female’s system. This is the same process with chickens, only in the form of hard-shelled eggs.
What was striking was that, instead of clarifying things, this comparison made things more confusing. I discovered that many of the individuals I spoke to had not learned the basics of female anatomy, fertilization processes, and contraception.
Misunderstanding the basics about sex seems to be widespread. Sex education varies tremendously across jurisdictions, resulting in wide knowledge gaps.
For example, sex education is monitored locally in Canada, with programs and curricula varying from province to province and creating wildly different classroom expectations depending on the location.
[pullquote-features]These discrepancies are seen across the board, meaning that it is left up to parents to teach some of the more controversial lessons in sex education. If the parents lack either prior exposure to information or the willingness to have taboo conversations, the student inherits an information deficit.[/pullquote-features]
Students in Newfoundland and Labrador learn about sexual abuse in the second grade, while teachers in Manitoba are not mandated to even approach this topic. Even more surprisingly, Quebec doesn’t have an official sexual education program at all: rather, it embeds the lessons into other subjects.
These discrepancies are seen across the board, meaning that it is left up to parents to teach some of the more controversial lessons in sex education. If the parents lack either prior exposure to information or the willingness to have taboo conversations, the student inherits an information deficit.
This is not to mention that sexual education — or the lack thereof — inherently involves opinions and value judgements. Different families, religions, and cultures have different ideologies on when having sex for the first time is appropriate and on the moral issues related to contraception and abortion.
No matter the belief system, improper education leaves youth vulnerable to unsafe practices. This variance is further amplified given the sheer international diversity of sex ed perspectives: 20.6 per cent of Canada’s population was born abroad and 25 per cent of the student body at the University of Toronto is comprised of international students.
Clearly, a lack of knowledge about sex education is not without consequence. Sexually transmitted infections continue to be prevalent in Canada and around the world; learning about these risks is essential to mitigating them.
Yet, a lack of knowledge is not the only problem in the nation’s approach to promoting safe sex; the system that is in place does not provide easy enough access to contraception. While condoms are sporadically provided for free in universities across Canada (they are available at the Sexual Education Centre and Health Services at U of T, as well as in some dorms), they remain expensive for many. Cheaper and more accessible options for safer sex should be more widely explored.
Lauren Groskaufmanis, a student at Duke University School of Medicine, previously taught sex ed to adolescents in North Carolina high schools. She explains that she is not aware of any sex ed programs that do not teach abstinence as the only surefire way to prevent pregnancy and STIs, no matter how progressive the program.
“You can’t teach abstinence only because it’s not preventative,” Groskaufmanis says. “Providing teenagers access to condoms doesn’t raise the rate of sexual activity, neither does education.”
Instead, prevention of STIs and unplanned pregnancy is most effective when sex education is paired with access to contraception and other health resources. The American Academy of Pediatrics made guidelines in 2013 that recommended providing free condoms, finding that condom use increased when free access was provided by the school system.
[pullquote-features]Providing adequate resources and a solid educational basis provides protection to students, who can be vulnerable to the dangers of unsafe sex.[/pullquote-features]
At U of T, while students benefit from the free access to safer sex supplies offered at some locations, some students may be embarrassed and unwilling to take advantage of this option if they are to be seen doing so in public. This creates varying barriers for student access and, consequently, varying levels of safe sex.
Providing adequate resources and a solid educational basis provides protection to students, who can be vulnerable to the dangers of unsafe sex. It also accommodates for the impractical idea that all students come into university with thorough knowledge about sex.
Therefore, the University of Toronto should prioritize sexual education at the university level, by strengthening and expanding upon existing programming, and by improving access to contraception on campus.
As beneficial as the resources currently available may be, they are not sufficiently widespread to help all students. For instance, while the Sexual Education Centre provides contraception and resources and works hard to promote sex positivity on campus, some students are not comfortable reaching out to make use of these services. Making sexual education more prevalent on campus may encourage those students to reach out.
For students who invariably have different exposure to sexual education, providing access to contraception and education in university will reduce problems at university and further on in life. Free contraception and universal sexual education are the best ways for the university to reduce misunderstandings about sex and the inevitable problems that occur ― they would accommodate for the fact that students in university are inevitably having sex.
Sunniva Bean is a second-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Sociology and International Relations.