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Sex-ed programs shouldn’t be informed by left or right ideology

Debra Soh writes about the science of human sexuality and holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience from York University.

Last week, Alberta's Catholic school board announced it is seeking to have an alternative sex-education curriculum approved by the province. The proposed curriculum will emphasize faith-based instruction on topics such as same-sex relationships and contraception for their schools.

In response, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley firmly stated that public money will not be used to support sex-ed programs that "deny science [and] evidence." Jason Kenney, who won the leadership of the United Conservative Party on Saturday, countered last week that Ms. Notley shouldn't be dictating how the Catholic education system teaches its values.

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Without question, we should advocate for science to be the light that guides our children's education, particularly when teaching relates to human sexuality. Sex is a subject that remains taboo in our society and is, as a result, rife with misinformation. But we seem to be much more willing to point out hypocrisy and falsities when they are being thrown at us from one particular side of the political aisle.

Witness the public response to the alternative curriculum: Swift and uniform condemnation of the Catholic school system's plans. Indeed, studies have shown that evidence-based sex education leads young people to make better decisions around sex – they are more likely to delay when they start becoming sexually active, and to use contraception when they do. Compared with abstinence-only programs or a lack of sexual health education altogether, comprehensive sex ed actually lowers the risk of teen pregnancy.

Video: Parents discuss the various sex-ed lessons they want to teach their children (Globe and Mail Update)

I can understand why sex education makes some people uncomfortable; one might imagine that frank discussions about sexual activity would introduce otherwise inconceivable ideas into kids' heads. But the truth is, it's better that children receive fact-based answers to the questions they will inevitably have, than to learn about these things through their friends, pornography or the media.

Yet in our steadfast commitment to halting fallacious ideas from infecting school curriculum, the so-called progressive left has been given a free pass. We see this in currently accepted policies around gender identity and expression that purport to be based in scientific evidence when they most certainly aren't.

For example, there has been a movement to advance the trendy idea that sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression are disparate things. They are, in actuality, interrelated. Level of exposure to prenatal testosterone – a scientific phenomenon repeatedly denied by gender scholars – has been shown, time and again, to influence all three.

Exposure to higher levels of testosterone in the womb is associated with masculine behaviour, male gender identity and sexual attraction to women. Most men are exposed to higher levels, which leads them to be heterosexual.

Conversely, research suggests that men who are exposed to lower levels of prenatal androgens are more likely to be female-typical in their behaviour and sexually attracted to men. This also offers partial explanation as to why some people who are born male feel more in alignment with the female sex. The same can be said for sexual orientation and gender identity in women.

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The sweeping of this reality into the trash bin stems from unfounded beliefs that differences between men and women – and boys and girls – are socially constructed, and any differences we see pertaining to gendered behaviour are the result of socialization instead of biology. Following from this perspective is an increasing push to end sex-segregation entirely, treating girls and boys as one and the same.

It's unnerving to see cult-like ideas being repackaged to the public as "science." Without question, it is a positive thing to support kids in their interests and the ways in which they choose to express themselves, whether they are gender typical or otherwise. We should continue to make strides forward with the goal of eliminating discrimination, respecting individuals' dignity and ending bullying, especially against vulnerable and marginalized groups. But we can offer a supportive environment for children as they learn without disregarding scientific and biological facts.

In the end, sex education should be tailored with the goal of helping students make informed decisions so that they will lead fulfilling and productive lives. Most of us would agree that it's inappropriate to use children as pawns in order to fulfill adults' ideas of what the world should look like, both in the implementation of policy and criticism of it.

Sex education should not be rooted in ideology, whether it's being propagated by religion or identity politics. When it comes to shaping young minds in particular, we should praise science and call out distortions of truth on both sides.

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