Young Canadians are largely unhappy with the sex-ed they’ve received in school, with two out of three Canadian youth reporting that sex-ed did not make them feel prepared for sex, according to a new report.
The report, which surveyed 1,090 Canadian youth aged 18-24, found that while our sex-ed programs usually contain a lot of information on sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, there’s a dearth of practical information to help youth navigate their sexual journey, with youth stressing they wanted more concrete advice and more inclusive curriculums which include information on LGBTQ2S+ experiences.
More than a third of youth surveyed also stated that the sex-ed they received mostly focused on abstinence.
“The omnipresence of social media, emerging online behaviours, and the tide of disinformation only add layers of complexity to this issue,” Shamin Mohamed Jr., founder and president of Toronto-based think tank LetsStopAIDS, said in an introduction to the report. “We need a sex-positive & comprehensive approach to Sex-Ed.”
As education is the purview of individual provinces and territories, the tone and content of sex-ed varies across the nation. But according to this report, there are gaps that youth are reporting from coast to coast—and it’s having an impact on risky sexual behaviour.
The report found that consistent condom use among youth has dropped drastically. The percentage of youth who reported wearing condoms “all the time” during sex was 53 per cent in 2020—in the 2023 survey, this fell to only 23 per cent.
One third of Canadian youth who were sexually active reported that they had never utilized a condom during sex in the last six months.
SEX-ED CLASSES LEAVING TEENS ILL-EQUIPPED
There’s a disconnect between what is covered in sex-ed right now and what young Canadians think would be helpful, the report found.
Respondents stated that while sex-ed classes contained a lot of scientific information on topics such as anatomy, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, they found that the curriculum lacked practical information that would help youth as they began to engage in sexual experiences.
While 68 per cent of youth remembered learning about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV prevention, only a small proportion said they learned terms such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) and the phrase “undetectable = untransmittable” (U=U).
These are all key tools in HIV prevention. PrEP is a drug which can reduce the chance of HIV transmission if taken prior to a potential exposure, while PEP is a course of medication that can be started 72 hours after a possible exposure to HIV to help prevent infection. U=U refers to the fact that a person who is HIV-positive cannot transmit the virus if their viral load is undetectable due to antiretroviral drugs—a breakthrough in HIV treatment which has allowed HIV positive people to live without fear of passing the virus onto partners.
While all of these drugs and terms have been a part of HIV prevention in Canada for years, more than half of youth surveyed said they didn’t know there were ways to prevent HIV other than condoms. Only one in 20 remembered learning all three of those terms in sex-ed.
When it came to sexually transmitted diseases, students say they rarely received information connected to explanations of safe practices to avoid sexually transmitted diseases, according to the report’s findings. For instance, students were often not told that non-barrier forms of contraception, such as the birth control pill, don’t protect against sexually transmitted diseases. Some students stated that they weren’t educated on different sizes of condoms, contributing to a desire to not wear them.
The report found that 80 per cent of young Canadians had not engaged in regular STI and HIV testing in the last six months, with 44 per cent stating they did not feel the need to, nine per cent stating they felt embarrassed to get tested and 14 per cent saying that they didn’t know where to go to receive testing.
The idea of a sex-ed class that does little except for stressing abstinence may sound like a relic of the past, but it’s still something being brought to youth in Canada, the report revealed. Four out of ten youth surveyed stated that the sex-ed they received “mainly pushed abstinence.”
Around 23 per cent of young Canadians reported that the way sex-ed was conducted at their schools made them feel ashamed about their sexual desires, while 63 per cent said that sex-ed did not make them feel prepared for sex.
LGBTQ2S+ EXPERIENCES AND OTHER TOPICS SEX-ED IS LEAVING OUT
Although a 2018 Statistics Canada report found that around 300,000 youth aged 15-24 were part of the LGBTQ2S+ community, with this age group making up the largest percentage of LGBT2S+ people in Canada compared to other groups, sex-ed for youth often still leaves out sexualities other than heterosexual, the LetsStopAIDS report found.
Around 70 per cent of respondents said that the sex-ed they received only taught them about heterosexual relationships and sex, while 61 per cent and 81 per cent of respondents said they couldn’t recall learning about sexuality and gender identity respectively.
The report stated that a desire for more inclusive sex-ed in terms of LGBTQ2S+ content was “the most prominent theme” of their findings, with a third of youth stating that they wished sex-ed had covered the topic of gender and sexual identity.
This comes at a time when LGBTQ2S+ inclusivity is increasingly coming under fire in Canadian schools, with bills or policies barring trans students from using different pronouns at school without parental permission having been passed in Saskatchewan and New Brunswick.
This fall, protests demanding an end to LGBTQ2S+ inclusive education and sex-ed policies have been seen in numerous provinces, met each time with counter-protests in support of the LGBTQ2S+ community, with the most recent face-off playing out in Winnipeg this weekend.
In terms of other topics that youth surveyed by LetsStopAIDS wanted covered in sex-ed, around 20 per cent said that they wished consent and relationships had been discussed in sex-ed, while 16 per cent said they wished pleasure was talked about in sex-ed.
The report also recommended that covering topics such as masturbation would help lessen the shame that youth might feel surrounding the idea of pleasure and sex.
When youth don’t find answers in their sex-ed classes at school, the report found they turn to, in order, internet search engines, friends or a family doctor.
Around 19 per cent and 15 per cent of youth reported going to TikTok and Instagram respectively for information on sexual health.
The World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics have stated that comprehensive sex-ed is a necessary part of education to ensure better health for youth.
A 2020 review which looked at 80 studies spanning three decades of research found strong support for comprehensive sex-ed taught in schools, concluding that positive, affirming, inclusive approaches to human sexuality were associated with a range of positive outcomes for youth, including the development of healthy relationships and the prevention of child sex abuse.
The online survey was conducted by LetsStopAIDS among a representative sample of 1,090 Canadians 18-24 years of age who are members of the Angus Reid Forum. The sample was balanced and weighted on gender and region and the survey was conducted in English and French.
For comparison purposes only, a randomized sample of n=1,090 would yield a margin of error of +/- 1.31 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. All sample surveys and polls may be subject to other sources of error, including, but not limited to coverage error, and measurement error.