sex education the canadian way
(part two): head & hands

Canada’s only-French speaking province is bucking another trend, and this time it’s one that’s going to affect a lot of teens. Quebec is the first Canadian province to cut sex education from its school curriculum.

This is a pretty dramatic move in a country where the government explicitly supports the teaching of comprehensive sex education in schools.

As a result of this cut, students are denied crucial, lifesaving information and already strained community organizations are forced to pick up the slack. Sound familiar? If you live in the States it should. This is exactly what has happened all across America.

One of these organizations is the Montreal based Head & Hands (À Deux Mains, in French). Head & Hands has been working with youth since 1970, providing everything from health services to legal aid, help for young parents, and of course, sex education.

Christina Foisy, a Funding Researcher and Project Coordinator at Head & Hands answered a few questions about her organization and the challenges they face in light of the current climate towards sex education

When did the sex education situation change in Quebec?
Before 2005, sexual health education was part of Moral Education curriculum…Moral Education explored the social dynamics of sexual activity (i.e. dating, drugs etc). Again, there were holes in its curriculum regarding anti-oppression, homophobia, gender dynamics, etc. but at least sexual health had an official place inside schools (beyond biology and gym class).

Now, sex ed is a free floating item, without any measurable learning objectives or accessible learning materials. It is left up to individual teachers to (on their own volition) incorporate sex ed into their curriculum. Not all teachers have the time or skills to do so.

You work with peer educators.  How do they get involved with you? What’s the difference between adults teaching sex ed and youth doing so?
Peer Education is based in a philosophy of youth empowerment and leadership where peers exchange sexual health information in an informal way (mostly outside of classroom settings)…They receive 30 hours of intensive training with Head & Hands staff (as well as other community partners well versed in anti-oppression, youth referral and sexual health). Topics covered during training include: gender identity and trans awareness, anti-oppression and sexual health, body image, activism and media arts training.   

Peer Educators are NOT responsible for leading sex ed workshops, instead they informally increase sexual health awareness in their schools by leading creative projects like film screenings, distributing sexual health materials during lunch hour or answering questions during drop-in sessions. Peer educators are partnered with a “mentor.” [That’s] an adult health [educator] trained by Head & Hands staff, and they are expected to work with teachers and guidance counselors to support / lead ongoing sexual health initiatives in their schools.

The difference between in-class sex ed and peer education is that youth have more control over the delivery, content and dissemination of the sexual health information. The other huge difference is comfort. Youth are more at ease with talking to someone their own age in confidence about these issues.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing your organization?
1) The cultivation of sustainable funding to do this type of work: [The peer education program] does not receive government funds to function in schools. Although our budget is diverse, we do not have core funding at this stage…

2) The negotiation of Head & Hands’ youth empowerment / sex-positive values within traditional school environments: We have received complaints about condom distribution (seen as promoting promiscuity by some school administrators) as well as pro-masturbation cartoons in our resource guide (seen as pornography by some parents). We tend to see these challenges as opportunities to discuss safe sex with concerned parents and teachers. It’s a great way to allow them to voice their anxieties surrounding youth and sexuality and to learn more about harm reduction and Head & Hands approach to sex ed. However, sometimes they are not open to dialog, which is extremely challenging.

Of course it’s not all about the classroom for Head & Hands. Another way they get their message out is through parties, most recently one called, The Anti-Hallmark Valentine’s Day Love Brigade Dance: Sex Ed is Not a Drag! This event was aimed at youth and billed as a celebration of safe sex, youth empowerment, gender bending and holistic health services during times of severe cutbacks.”

If there’s a sex education organization in your area you think I should know about feel free to tell me about it in the comments.

Posted in: Health, Sex & Relationships, The State of Sex Ed
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  • marie-helene

    It would be broad generalisation to say that everybody is having sex at 14. A few people were, but at that age, they are the minority. However, it is true that where I live, teenagers are not completely clueless about sex, even at a young age, and are able to get more information than "don't do it" from their parents, school nurse, CLSC, popular sex ed books, etc. I would love to see sex ed being taught again, but we have lost over the time any class that could be practical teaching, so I don't have much hope.

  • Catherine

    It was probably cut from the curriculum because everyone is sexually active at 14 over there and everyone that I know in Québec is open about it with their parents…
    I think it's wrong that it is cut for the few who are clueless but that's what the internet is for and I've never seen a sex-ed webbie that didn't start with the word condom.