The trials of teaching sex ed

Changing attitudes and persistent issues

Marleah Meyer has taught more children about sex than the vast majority of Albertans ever could.

“My first experience was the ’69-’70 school year. I was in my mid-20s” says Meyer now retired and free from professional constraints to reminisce and discuss 40 years of sexual education.

Public school sex ed is mandated by the Alberta government in the School Act. Despite decades of changing social mores and attempts by schools to keep up many criticize the curriculum not for teaching children what adults don’t want them to know but for presenting only a vague patchwork of outcome guidelines for educators to follow.

Pam Krause is the executive director of the Calgary Sexual Health Clinic. She has long questioned governments’ unwillingness to develop clear thorough sexual education courses to the same standards as academic programs such as math.

“How it’s taught how many hours who teaches it all of that stuff is completely left open” says Krause. “There is no actual set curriculum for sexual health from essentially Grade 4 through Grade 12.”

This has long been the case. As a young English teacher surprised by the revelation sex ed was a unit in the high school English course she was about to teach Meyer took up the challenge ultimately teaching it at least 25 times over her 40-year career.

Myer thinks of herself as a sexual liberal. Born and raised in California in a family that discussed sex openly she was hit with a jolt of culture shock upon moving to Calgary in the 1960s. Her mini-skirt was frowned upon and so was her liberal attitude.

“We were really pretty relaxed back then. Love-ins were love-ins. You had to be there” she says.

The first sex ed classes she taught were strictly by the book ambiguous as that was.

“The book was about relationships and you spent a huge amount of time talking about how men were different than women” she says. “They approached it from a point of view that you’re going to get married…. We couldn’t call it ‘sex ed’ you never called it these things. You had to sneak up on these things you know. And we talked and talked and talked about how men are different from women.”

That didn’t mean the students were clueless. The infamous anonymous question box present in sex ed classes even then was stuffed with questions about flavoured condoms.

“We talked about anatomy and we talked about abstinence and we talked about birth control pills and condoms. Nothing was mentioned [in the book] about an IUD withdrawal foam none of that stuff was. I mentioned it anyway.”

Meyer laid down the rule early on that students could ask anything except about her own sex life. Value questions which she says are always rare since her students aren’t interested in their teachers’ opinions were answered by asking the student to contemplate their own values or at most by referring to those discussed in the approved course material.

In the 1980s sex changed fast. Meyer began to get questions she didn’t know how to answer. Previously obscure STIs surged HIV emerged sex in the media evolved quickly and new terminology tested her skills. As a result teachers and students alike had to consult a public sex information hotline and sex education had to change too.

“Kids were just not going to put up with this ‘let’s talk about how a man feels first and a women feels second and how they’re different.’ They just didn’t even want to hear it.” With that the “Family Life” unit also split from the English curriculum to join related issues in a bona fide health class but Myer continued to teach the classes.

By the early ’90s Meyer made a practice of inviting parents to the school for an evening of previewing the material to be used in health class. She says she was always confronted by parents who refused to allow their children to participate in sex ed for fear they would be “tantalized” by what they learned.

“One mother was berserk about masturbation. It was a sin you were going to die…. Her big concern was that [her son] would learn how to do this which I figure he probably already knew.” Children that were not permitted to study sex ed were sent to the library something she contends did more harm than good.

“The kids that were excluded would sit in the cafeteria with the kids who were not and say ‘What did you talk about? Tell me tell me!’ And the kids then are telling them what we talked about from their perspective which is really skewed.”

The only questions that made Meyer uncomfortable were those she was unequipped to answer.

“The girl who asked about PF [pussy fart] bothered me” she admits. “I had to call downtown and say ‘what’s a PF?’”

It wasn’t only new slang that slowed her down as unaddressed social issues also took their toll.

“There was one little boy who I will never forget him…. He said ‘Why was Mrs. Bobbitt so mean to Mr. Bobbitt?’ It was an excellent question. And we had to talk about sexual abuse even in marriage.” The students seemed not to understand what she was trying to explain because abuse was nowhere to be found in the school material. They concluded “Mrs. Bobbitt was very mean to cut Mr. Bobbitt’s penis off.”

“Now every single aspect is covered” she says referring to the current state of sex ed.

Meyer says by the time she taught her final sexual health course in 2008 no stone was left unturned. Today students sit down with a vast awareness of sex but still lack the ability to interpret it.

“They can turn on the computer and learn anything see anything anytime.” Student questions reflect that awareness and focus mainly on how to guard against STIs. Course material covers the anatomy the mechanics disease and protection as it has for some time. What’s new is an emphasis on building personal values.

The effect of the gamut of sexual choices on one’s self-esteem and on their partner takes up a significant chunk of the course. Where Myer once had difficulty articulating abuse there is now an entire unit. She says the remaining problems are in the unpredictability of what students get out of sex ed.

“Some teachers are so ‘the book says today we’re going to make genitals out of food products. Okay. Ew!’ It depends entirely on the teachers and the demographic they’re teaching…. The demographic has a tremendous influence on how you teach — not what you teach because you have a curriculum that you have to cover. But you can cover that curriculum from a very conservative point of view or you can just blow the doors off and cover it for whatever the kids need and whatever you think will help.”

She believes there is no value in depriving a student of sex ed because society is rampant with sexuality that even adults struggle to comprehend.

Krause agrees completely. She thinks the government’s failure to write a thorough sex ed curriculum combined with its bizarre decision in 2009 to enshrine in human rights law the parents’ pre-existing power to withdraw their children from any possible discussion of sex stems from fear of upsetting the status quo.

“[Politicians] just really haven’t had the courage to address it because they often say ‘well those rural people don’t like it.’” She says the problem with the status quo is it presumes children excluded from sex ed in school will be taught by their parents though that’s generally not the case.

In an attempt to counter the provincial government’s vague sex ed policy the Calgary Sexual Health Clinic has offered its own comprehensive sexual health course to high schools since the 1970s mirroring Meyer’s stress on esteem.

“The sex part is all really interesting but the real important stuff comes when we talk about sexuality” says Krause. “There’s no more important place to be confident and aware of yourself than in an intimate relationship.”