The saga of Saskatchewan sex ed

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A yellowed stone statue of a child with curly hair holds its finger to its lips in a hushing motion.
What you don’t know absolutely can fucking hurt you. ivanm113 via Pixabay

Policies that pander to bigots hurt everyone (yes, even the bigots) 

Almost exactly two years ago I was putting the finishing touches to an article for Sask Dispatch called “Saskatchewan’s shameful sex ed.” I interviewed several sexual health educators in Regina and Saskatoon to get their perspective on the province’s curriculum and the health outcomes people in the province experience.  

Sexual health outcomes in our province have been abysmal for years, and with the provincial government’s new policy of Parental Inclusion and Consent, there is no doubt those numbers will worsen at more dramatic rates. For those of you who keep up with things like STI rates in Saskatchewan you’ll know why that’s concerning, but for those of you who haven’t, let’s go over some numbers.  

At the time I wrote the Sask Dispatch article, the most recent data in large part was coming from 2019. The national average for HIV infections at that time was 6.9 people per 100,000, which Saskatchewan doubled with an average of 14.9. The Public Health Agency of Canada has since published more recent information through their HIV in Canada: 2021 Surveillance Highlights report which shows the national average for HIV has actually gone down from 6.9 to 3.8 – great news!  

Unfortunately, Saskatchewan didn’t follow that trend, and instead by 2021 HIV rates were sitting at 20.3 people per every 100,000, the highest in the country. For reference points, the runner up in this report was Manitoba with a rate of 10.5, while the lowest was Atlantic provinces with 1.5 per 100,000.  

To quickly skim over a few other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) of note we’ll breeze through some data from the Public Health Agency’s Report on sexually transmitted infection surveillance in Canada, 2019 which compares 2010 statistics with 2019. Infectious syphilis was reported in 33.7 of every 100,000 Saskatchewanians yet only 24.6 of every 100,000 Canadians. Saskatchewan reported 155.4 of each 100,000 tested positive for gonorrhea – the second-highest rate across all provinces – where the national average is 94.3. Another second-place rank comes with chlamydia, where the province sits at 512.6 compared to the national average of 370.8 per 100,000. 

The sexual health curriculum Saskatchewan has at present has not been updated since 2010, and promotes abstinence-based approaches which Natalya Mason of Saskatoon Sexual Health critiqued heavily in the Sask Dispatch coverage. “If you look at the research, abstinence-only approaches have actually never proven to be effective – there has never been a research study that confirmed that they were successful in delaying sexual debut, which is the first time someone has sex, or lowering the risk of things like pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.”  

“So just across the board,” Mason continued, “we’re pretty aware of the fact that they don’t do what they claim to do, and that they straight up don’t work.” Judging by our sexual health outcomes compared to national outcomes – or even without the comparison – the existing sexual health curriculum is setting people up for failure, and has been since 2010.  

In addition to the woefully inadequate abstinence-only approach, the province’s sexual health curriculum does not include information about consent at any grade level. I don’t believe it’s any sort of coincidence that, given that gap in education, Saskatchewan has the second-highest rate of sexual assaults across provinces. Obviously, if that’s our reality, the abstinence approach isn’t taking.   

Adequate, comprehensive sexual health education that actually reflects the reality of youth and adults’ lives is what is needed in this province, not giving parents the ability to decide their children don’t need the education whatsoever. Minister of Education Dustin Duncan has spoken at length about how the Parental Inclusion and Consent policy is meant to respect parental rights and allow them the opportunity to be more involved in their children’s education. I worry that the actual outcome will be more and more parents deciding to avoid the topic in their household altogether, and we will see Saskatchewan’s already climbing negative health outcomes skyrocket.  

What’s actually needed is an updated curriculum that reflects the real needs of the people it’s offered to, that outlines how to be safe in sexual interactions as well as how to go about having interactions you want and enjoy. What’s needed is sexual health education that goes beyond ‘reproductive health’ or ‘family planning’ and talks about sex as exactly what it is – an intimate act between people that, when done right, brings connection, joy, and pleasure. What’s actually needed is a deep-dive into consent, and clear and blunt discussions on how to receive rejection.  

Sexual harassment, gawks, and gropes aside, I’ve been sexually assaulted here in Saskatchewan six times in my life and I’m not even three decades old. I believe some of those occurred because the people who assaulted me were never properly taught how to accept when someone says “no,” they were never taught about consent. They were taught instead that people who present as women will always say no, at least at first, and that if they keep pushing they can wear a person down until they’re coerced into the sexual interaction. To be blunt, others had no interest in having sex with me, they just wanted something (yes, thing) to fuck, and I was convenient.  

Want to know the part I’m actually the most angry about here? I am the most angry about all of those interactions because not only was I violated, not only did someone see me as an object or resource to be used as a tool for their benefit, but it wasn’t even really for their benefit.  

I’m the most angry because really, truly, people who sexually assault are robbing themselves of some of the most beautiful moments of connection you can have with another person. They are robbing themself of the chance at intimacy, of true mutual excitement and passion and pleasure, and because our sexual health education comes from a place that stigmatizes the perspective that sex is for pleasure, most people don’t get the chance to realize that.  

I am angry because people like Duncan who could actually be pushing for policies that would better sexual health outcomes in our province and reduce sexual assaults – something damaging for everyone involved, even those assaulting – are instead caving to right-wing pressure imported from south of the border and are pandering for votes when they could be pushing for change.  

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