Sex & Relationships

6 Canadian Women on Sex Ed: "When I First Learned About Sex, It Terrified Me"

You may have cringed at the time, but sexual education is a crucial component to how we think about sex

A photo of Olivia Bowden smiling at the camera

Writer Olivia Bowden (Photo: Chloe Sobel)

In grade eight, after a sex education lesson held in the school gym, I remember hurriedly gathering with my pre-teen classmates for a much-needed debrief. We had just learned happened when you lose your virginity—and it had terrified all of us. Sex seemed like it was unbelievably painful and filled with blood and gore for all women.

“Well I’m never having sex,” one girl said. We all nodded in agreement. The pain depicted seem to be the equivalent to childbirth, or something much worse.

Of course, none of that was true, but that fear stuck with me through my teenage years. The class made sex seem like something no girl would want. That day was a missed opportunity to talk about important aspects of sex, like how it can be enjoyable or that it doesn’t always have to involve the penetration.

If you’ve been following Ontario politics, you’ll know that the debate about sexual health education is (once again) on the agenda. The province’s new Progressive Conservative leader Doug Ford is promising to repeal and review the 2015 changes to Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum, which introduce the concept of gender identity by third grade and discuss sexting and contraception in middle school, along with consent and anal sex. The changes were the first update to the curriculum since 1998.

Ontario isn’t the only province that has seen debate over changes to sex education. In 2016, Alberta’s provincial government began a six-year process to overhaul its curriculum in every subject, including sex education. Sexual orientation, gender identity and consent will be included in the new teachings. It was met with strict opposition from organizations like the Council of Catholic Superintendents of Alberta, who responded with a statement saying that according to the Catholic religion, same-sex relationships are “not part of God’s natural order.”

Both the changes to the Ontario and Alberta curriculums were created to educate children against a swath of misinformation that they will learn about sex from friends, or more likely, on their phones. Despite the missed opportunities in the classroom, my sex education involved trusted family members and a school curriculum that catered to me, as a cis-gendered female…which meant it covered most of the basics. But for many Canadian women, this isn’t the case. And that’s a problem, because what we are taught (or not taught) about sex can impact our experiences as adults.

With that in mind, I reached out to six women across the country to ask if they “got the talk” and what they wished they learned back then.

“I was taught that if you lose your virginity, you’ll never go back to that ‘perfect shape’”

Payal Majithia, 23, Kingston, Ont.

A photo of Payal Majithia, greyscale and she's smiling and turned to an angle with sunlight on her face

(Courtesy of Payal Majithia)

Payal Majithia was 10 when she heard her friends at school talking about a word she didn’t understand—so she brought it up at her family’s dinner table. She mentioned sex, looking for a definition. Her parents were mortified.

“My mom was like, ‘That’s not something you should be talking about,’” says Majithia. “She mentioned to me that we could talk about it when I was a little older.” But Majithia, a grad student in gender and sexuality studies at Queen’s University, doesn’t remember actually getting ‘the talk’ so she eventually figured out what sex was on her own.

“There was a lot of misinformation around virginity. In terms of, if you lose your virginity, you’ll never go back to that ‘perfect shape’” she says. “Or if you’re a virgin, that you’re going to bleed the first time, which was such a f-cking lie. It was so frustrating.”

Those teachings lingered in her mind for a long time.

“It was always framed in terms of, ‘It’s something we do when we love someone,’ but it was also framed in a sense of, ‘It’s an obligation to men we date, and we’re not supposed to like it,’” she says. A focus on the male orgasm, rather than female pleasure, permeated what she learned. “I feel like discussions of sex and consent were really contorted in terms of framing it around men and their desires.”

Majithia says that, based on what her 12-year-old sister has learned in her Ontario public school, the curriculum has improved—but it could still be better. “I know they are incorporating queerness, a bigger topic in terms of talking about sex that isn’t completely heteronormative, but I’ve read a lot of her stuff and it’s still trash,” she says, citing, for instance, that the lessons don’t discuss different sexualities in depth.

One thing that Majithia would like to see more of is education around gender and race. As one of the only South Asian women in her middle school sex ed class, she remembers feeling self-doubt due to her perception of beauty—and she wants things to be better for her sister. Discussions about how attractiveness is portrayed in the media, and challenging those standards, could help.

“Particularly in terms of young girls of colour, it’s hard to navigate through these understandings,” she says. “I just assumed desirability was tied into whiteness, and that really impacted me in terms of how I viewed sex as well.”

“[My teacher] was really amazing, she was a huge part of my experience”

Reina Thurmer, 22, Whitehorse 

A photo of Reina, wearing a splash jacket with bright colours on it and smiling at the camera with mountains in the background

(Photo credit: Hannah Turner)

A dedicated high school teacher and an understanding mom helped Reina Thurmer learn about sex in a positive way.

“[My teacher] was really amazing. She was a huge part of my experience. She was really open,” she says. Thurmer grew up in Whitehorse, and remembers fairly positive sex-education classes. However, looking back, she wishes she had received more information about sexual preferences, and how to take care of your sexual health.

Thurmer says that more education needs to be focused on sexual transmitted infection (STIs), protection and how to get tested. “I have guy friends who didn’t know condoms expired,” she says. Since she has proactively learned how to protect herself, Thurmer often finds herself explaining to others, especially male friends, how to get tested and what to expect.

“One of my old boyfriends asked me what the process was to get tested. He’s 23 years old and he didn’t know where to go,” she says, adding that the onus is often on women to be safe, to get tested and be the ones to mention protection. “We’re given so much more responsibility to check… it’s not their priority.”

A few months ago, Thurmer had a sexual partner who didn’t want to use a condom, so she asked when he had last been tested. He was very put off by the question. Boys and girls should be taught more equally about getting tested and each others bodies, she says.

As an Indigenous woman, Thurmer also recognizes the need for working with Indigenous youth to provide them with better sex-education. She’s worked for diversion programs in Whitehorse that aim to keep Indigenous youth out of the justice system. She notes that Indigenous youth in small communities do not have the same education and support as she did in the capital city, and that more outreach initiatives are needed.

“When I learned about sex…there was nothing that was useful for actual sex”

Chevi Rabbit, 32, Edmonton

A photo of Chevi Rabbitt, wearing a wide shouldered red dress and looking off camera

(Photo by: Soko Fotohaus)

“When I learned about sex, it had nothing to do with LGTBQ, so that was left out. There was nothing about sexting and there was nothing that was useful for actual sex,” said Chevi Rabbit, an activist and advocate in Edmonton. Rabbit was selected last year for the Top 40 Under 40 in Avenue Edmonton annual list, and is the first transgender and two-spirited person to be on that list.

She remembers learning about sex right when social media was taking off, and she wasn’t prepared for things like naked photos or strangers slipping into her DMs.

“We learned nothing about consent or online safety, nothing that could really help for modern life,” she says. “I wasn’t prepared and it impacted me personally.” Facebook and other social media took off when she was heading to college, and she says she wasn’t prepared to navigate those practices. She also didn’t know how to discuss her transgender identity with men she might date.

She says Alberta’s new curriculum looks much more useful now. It explores modern notions of gender that aren’t fixed, same-sex relationships and contraception.

“It makes me feel hopeful because it prepares the new generation for this era, and it’s going to set them up for success, for safe sex and sexual health. They won’t make those mistakes,” she said, adding that risky behaviour like not getting tested, or sending nude pictures to those they may not trust, can lead to consequences.

Making information on how to protect against STIs more accessible would also combat high rates in Indigenous communities. A 2012 report by the National Collaborating Centre for Aboriginal Health noted that Indigenous youth are impacted disproportionately by STIs.

In addition, Indigenous youth on reserves need to be better educated on how to stay safe online, says Rabbit, noting that sex education on reserves in Alberta is scarce. “First Nations have their own system within the reserve system, so there needs to be an overhaul there as well, and a proper sex education on the idea of consent,” she says, something that’s particularly important “because of the amount of missing and murdered women.”

Colonial practices at the time of settlement bred homophobia and lack of awareness of two-spirited people, explains Rabbit. Part of her work involves speaking at multiple Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities about gender identity.

Overall the worst thing a curriculum can do is having kids look for answers to their questions from other places, she said. The importance of having gay-straight alliances in schools as spaces for individuals to come out, especially transgender women, is the next big step, she says.

“When I was in school, there were no gay-straight alliances,” she says. “I have really advocated for [them] because it gives students the opportunity to get to know other people… and have a safe place.”

“As a queer person, it never really addressed what I actually needed to learn”

Kate Gaffney, 19, Kingston, Ont.

A photo of Kate Gaffney smiling while sitting in a field with a sunset behind her

(Courtesy of Kate Gaffney)

Growing up in Toronto, Kate Gaffney had supportive parents and a large group of helpful adults and teachers to guide her through her sex education.

“I started sex ed in grade five and the last sex ed class I had was in grade nine,” she says. “I think having it continue through high school is important because that’s really when you start encountering situations where it has value.”

She found her middle school classes to be helpful, progressive and open, but the lessons didn’t include all the information she wanted. “As a queer person, it never really addressed what I actually needed to learn,” she says.

Discussions around homosexuality weren’t entirely left out, but she says that these topics weren’t explored in depth. She remembers a true-or-false question on a test that stated: Some people start having strong feelings towards people of the same sex. The answer was “true” but it only addressed mutual feelings in the context of strong relationships between friends. The question wasn’t homophobic or had any ill-intent, but it left her wanting more information.

But missing discussions didn’t leave her unsure of herself.

“It didn’t impact me as much as it could have because of my family, the open discussions I’ve been able to have with my parents, adults in my life and peers,” Gaffney says.

“It’s not lost on me how lucky I was”

Anne T. Donahue, 32, Toronto

A photo of Anne T. Donahue wearing red lipstick and a black high-neck sweater, she's looking at the camera and has a faint smile

(Courtesy of Anne T. Donahue)

“Basically, anytime I heard anybody talk about something I didn’t understand, I asked my mom,” Donahue said via email.  “She was very matter-of-fact, and didn’t lie or sugarcoat. It’s not lost on me how lucky I was.”

A writer based in Toronto, Donahue entered sex-ed class in the early ’90, when she was eight. She says she already knew the answers to a lot of her questions at the time because she had learned from TV, movies, friends or her mom. Learning about sex felt grown up.

“Because we were still so young, we couldn’t wrap our minds around what we were learning and how it applied to real life,” she says. “A lot of it seemed impossible, and I remember specifically not looking at my crush.”

Going to a Catholic school, Donahue says that the curriculum only covered one type of sexual relationship—and discriminated against others. “My mom is Catholic, but she was very quick to remind me that male/female-sexual relationships weren’t the only kind,” Donahue says.

By high school, sex ed became clinical, and technical. It was all about parts and how they functioned, she says, but the lessons left out some critical components. “We didn’t learn anything about consent or about rape culture. We didn’t talk about being pressured or coerced.”

In high school, Donahue realized rape culture was a part of what was considered normal, the “status quo.” She recalls boys earning praise for hook-ups while girls were shamed for earning a ‘reputation.’

“None of us talked about it… those ideologies were ingrained,” she says. “I don’t think you can talk responsibly about sex without talking about consent.”

Avoiding a discussion around rape culture and consent left Donahue to figure out what was and was not a healthy relationship on her own.

“I can’t count how many times I can cite certain situations in high school where, had I known that I was being preyed on, I would’ve removed myself. But instead, I’d sit quietly on some drunk guy’s lap with his hand on my thigh, thinking something was wrong with me because I didn’t like it,” she says.

“I was told that I didn’t need sexual health education”

AnaLori Smith, 31, Ottawa

A photo of AnaLori wearing a striped black and white jacket and looking over her shoulder with a tree in the background

(Photo by: elizabeth&jane)

“I took health class until grade eight and then after that I didn’t learn any more because of the fact that I had a disability,” said AnaLori Smith, disability and sexuality community developer at Planned Parenthood in Ottawa. Smith has cerebral palsy and educates others, including teens, about how sexuality and disability are not separate and distinct.

But Smith didn’t always feel as knowledgeable as she does today. In high school, she was excused from health classes to give her extra time to finish work. “I was told that I didn’t need sexual health education and that I should make additional time in my schedule to excel at the subjects that matter,” she says.

At the time, Smith wasn’t upset that she was excluded because as a young teen, but only because she didn’t understand what she was missing. “But now, as a sex educator, [I realize that it was] a terrible thing to happen to someone with a disability who’s only 13 years old,” she says. That experience caused Smith to internalize the false concept that as someone with a disability, sex would be irrelevant to her life.

“It’s quite discouraging that I had to go and become a sex educator to learn about basic birth control,” she said. What Smith did learn in health class before high school, was focused on penetrative sex between able-bodied people. It wasn’t until university that she discovered what sex meant for a disabled person—and that was through her own experiences, not an educator.

“Now when I do talk to people with disabilities, I like to expand the idea of sex because I think sex is more than just penetration. For lots of people with disabilities, maybe penetration isn’t possible,” she says. Through her workshops in Ottawa schools, she is trying to show people that sex exists in various forms and is important for everyone, not just those who are able-bodied. She adds that students aren’t the only ones who need to learn to expand their views of sex. “We need to educate the educators on this,” she says.

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