Worrying trends in teen sexuality

OTTAWA, ON—Youth are increasingly likely to have multiple sexual partners, according to the Report on the State of Public Health in Canada released this fall. The report focuses on youth and young adults, and their transition to adulthood. In 2009, more than one in three teens (37 per cent) reported more than one sexual partner in the past year, compared to 29 per cent a decade earlier.

This report by the Chief Public Health Officer flags risky sexual behaviour and high rates of sexually transmitted infections as some of the "worrying trends" among youth and young adults in Canada.

The rate of sexually transmitted infections is growing among youth and young adults, according to the report. Chlamydia infections among women aged 20 to 24 years were more than seven times the national average for other age groups. Of all reported cases of gonorrhea, seven in 10 are among youth age 15 to 29 years. More than one-fifth (22 per cent) of all positive HIV tests in 2009 were among young adults 20 to 29 years.

The same month the Chief Public Health Officer released his report, the Canadian Medical Association Journal editorial sounded an alarm about antibiotic resistant gonorrhea. The October 4, 2011 editorial refers to the spread of gonorrhea as an epidemic, and notes that young people are its focus. "The spectre of widespread multi-resistant gonorrhea demands an urgent public health, community and individual response."

"One of the things I suspect influences risky sexual behaviour is that our society as a whole, media especially, encourages experimentation," says sociologist and young adult pastor Rachael Harder. "In the media, we do that by making it look like fun to take risks, to push the boundaries, to break the rules. That infiltrates the way we think about life."

The Chief Public Health Officer's report points to more school-based sexual education as the most effective response.

"Sex education tends to be the public policy default position," notes Peter Jon Mitchell, senior researcher at the Institute for Marriage and Family Canada. "School education, though, is the dull arrow in the quiver. It has some influence, but parents are more influential."

Harder says that in Alberta, many public educators encourage students to experiment with their sexuality.

"That boundary of what's acceptable is being pushed all the time," says Harder, a former teacher. "My own personal bias is that education has to begin in the home."

Mitchell points out that youth tend to follow their parents' example. He encourages parents to be pro-active. "It's not a one-time conversation; it's the ongoing conversations around the kitchen table that influence teens," says Mitchell. "Teens pick up their cues from their parents' behaviours and attitudes, lifestyle and worldview."

The report attributes the limited success of school-based sexual education to barriers that include "allotted time or teaching materials; some level of community resistance; and some teachers' reported uneasiness with the topic."

However there is debate on whether the current approach to sex education helps to limit risky sexual behaviour. Writing about sexual culture on university campuses in a recent National Post column, Catholic priest Raymond de Souza writes, "No generation has had more sex education. But…they know pitifully little about how to form good relationships, and how sex might influence that."

De Souza points to a deeper problem within sex education itself. He writes, "Having been taught that sex is principally the expression of the autonomous self, the students are pathetically incapable of acting in their own best interest."

The Chief Public Health Officer says the report is intended to inform Canadians and to stimulate dialogue. The 193-page report also identified health issues such as mental health, injury and substance abuse.

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