Students reflect on the importance of sex education both before and during university

Growing up, I took a lot of art lessons. I remember one class our teacher brought out a rickety, old, wooden chair from the back room and put it on top of her desk. The chair would be the focus for this lesson, she explained, but we weren’t going to draw it.

We were going to draw everything around it — the desk it was standing on, the wall behind it and all the papers tacked to it, just not the chair.

Sex education is often defined in the same way: in terms of everything that it isn’t. This is especially true of sex education in schools. Long since a controversial topic, the debate around the content of sex education in schools often revolves around the negatives, that is, what shouldn’t be featured or what isn’t.

However, though the emphasis is typically put on sex education in schools, it is also worth noting that education doesn’t end in an institution. We’re also educated, implicitly or explicitly through our culture, our experiences, our families, the media we consume, our religion and many more places. Education happens everywhere.

It also happens in the negative space left behind and what we don’t say or do is just as important as what we do.

It also happens in the negative space left behind and what we don’t say or do is just as important as what we do.

“It’s kind of like cultural conditioning. Whatever you’re conditioned to do at home, you’re going to do outside of the home as well. So if at home, you’re taught to be embarrassed about menstruation, about sex, you’re going to project that once you leave home as well. It’s hard to unlearn things, especially when they’ve been culturally inherited because that’s just all you’ve known,” said third-year student Japleen Thind.

“I come from a culture that doesn’t really value sex education. This is a very dangerous mindset . . . it caused me to have the wrong idea about sex education and it caused me a lot of trouble,” explained fourth-year student Shae-Ashleigh Owen.

In my conversation with students, there was a very clear distinction between their experiences and thoughts about sex education before and after coming to university.

Before University

Before coming to university, most students described sex education as something that happened almost exclusively in schools. For many students, it happened with male and female students having separate discussions, often in entirely different rooms. 

“When I think back to my experiences, I remember any time that boys and girls were together, it would be a lot of hushed giggles and a lot of people being embarrassed and not really wanting to talk. So having that divisiveness in all honestly was kind of effective. Like when the girls were learning about periods, we could ask questions, we could be open . . . That being said, there are repercussions. That is a very fundamental way that we install stigma around things like periods and other sexual education topics,” said Raisa Ahmed, a fifth-year student.

“That kind of separation throughout sex education was definitely very prevalent in my experience. We were split up into our groups, we’d go into separate rooms and we learned different things. And then it kind of felt like this secret, like, “I know all these things now that the boys don’t know” and I feel like you don’t think about that when you’re younger, about how you’re learning different things than they are. But then when you get older, you realize it’s kind of important that everyone learns the same thing so that we’re all equally knowledgeable about sexual health and anything relating to that,” said Micaela McNulty, a fourth-year student.

It should be noted that while the Ontario public school sex education curriculum was revised most recently in 2019, students currently in university who attended Ontario public schools would have been taught using the 1998 curriculum. A smaller portion would have also been taught using the 2015 curriculum put forward by former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

The 1998 curriculum was not as comprehensive as the 2015 one, as it did not address gender identity and sexual orientation. This lack of representation was something that many students felt strongly about, both at the time and looking back. They wished it had been discussed in more detail.

“[We] didn’t cover queer and trans sex education, which for many queer trans students is super harmful. And it’s hard for them because they don’t get that knowledge from anywhere else, especially if they’re not living in an environment or a home that may be conducive to having those conversations,” explained Christian Barborini, a fifth-year student.

“[We] didn’t cover queer and trans sex education, which for many queer trans students is super harmful,” explained Christian Barborini, a fifth-year student.

Looking back, students noted they had a much better understanding of what they wished they had learned, while as children they didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the topics being discussed. Some suggested that this might have been because they hadn’t yet had any experience applying their education. 

At University

Experience tends to fill in the gaps of education, however, those experiences aren’t always positive.

“Truthfully, I feel like most of my sex ed learning has come from being sexually active and being in university. It’s such a crazy environment. I feel like you’re so young and you’re going into these experiences and there’s just so much I didn’t know . . . I wish I knew about consent and stigma and UTIs and yeast infections and so much stuff that wasn’t covered. And it sort of makes me angry a bit . . . I just had to learn by experience and that sucked,” said Mavis Lyons, a fourth-year student.

Some students also noted that negative experiences in particular can isolate students, making it difficult for them to feel connected to the community or leaving them vulnerable to further negative experiences.

Overall, experience brought up questions or thoughts that students may not have even considered in the classroom education. This is why many students felt that sex education shouldn’t end in Grade 9, as it does in most Ontario public schools. Like all education, it is an ongoing process and it would be beneficial if the formal education system reflected that.

“Obviously, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t start early. But I think when we teach developing kids and young adults, it doesn’t resonate as much until they’re older and have actually experienced that stuff. You’re not going to remember everything you learned in Grade 8 or Grade 9. So you need that constant education and to be constantly connecting those points as you go along, otherwise it’s not really going to mean anything,” explained Ahmed.

Sex education —  or lack thereof — can have significant influences on students’ wellbeing and sense of community. But open conversation can go a long way to improving both of those issues.

Since coming to university, many students have gravitated towards spaces where there is the opportunity for such conversation, such as the Pride Community Centre, the Women and Gender Equity Network or clubs like Period at McMaster.

“I needed a space like the PCC when it came to university because I didn’t have that before. So I think that that speaks to the importance of community and community organization, especially for marginalized communities when it comes to sexual health because we don’t get that anywhere else. I know that for me understanding sexuality and my sexuality specifically was a journey that did affect my mental health at one point when I started university and, connecting it back to the PCC, that’s the reason why I value the PCC and other queer organizations that I have worked for. Because they’ve offered me that space to explore my identity that I didn’t get in elementary and high school,” said Barborini, who is also the coordinator at the PCC.

“It felt almost therapeutic just having a space to discuss what your experiences are, especially on a taboo topic. I think that can be really helpful . . . just having an open space to talk about your experiences has been really valuable,” explained Thind, who is a member of Period at McMaster.

Students felt that these spaces have been especially beneficial to their mental health and their overall sense of wellbeing. Their involvement in groups such as these has helped them better understand topics related to sex education and health.

“Now that I went to university, especially with [Period at McMaster], I found more people who have had experiences like mine and I don’t find it embarrassing anymore . . . I feel super comfortable talking about it now,” explained Celia Arrecis, co-president of Period at McMaster.

These groups also provide a vital sense of community.

“I think just the sense of community in the sense of having like-minded people around me who care about the same things [has] been a pretty positive influence on my mental health,” added Ahmed, who is the founder and co-president of Period at McMaster.

Conversation is essential to encouraging education and both are integral to fostering a sense of community. There is an increasing awareness about the importance of both, thanks in part to McMaster clubs and community organizations. Moving forward it’s important that we continue to have open conversations and educate ourselves so that we can bring sex education out of the negative space it’s occupied for so long.

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