Students reflect on the importance of sex education both before and during university

Growing up, I took a lot of art lessons. I remember one class our teacher brought out a rickety, old, wooden chair from the back room and put it on top of her desk. The chair would be the focus for this lesson, she explained, but we weren’t going to draw it.

We were going to draw everything around it — the desk it was standing on, the wall behind it and all the papers tacked to it, just not the chair.

Sex education is often defined in the same way: in terms of everything that it isn’t. This is especially true of sex education in schools. Long since a controversial topic, the debate around the content of sex education in schools often revolves around the negatives, that is, what shouldn’t be featured or what isn’t.

However, though the emphasis is typically put on sex education in schools, it is also worth noting that education doesn’t end in an institution. We’re also educated, implicitly or explicitly through our culture, our experiences, our families, the media we consume, our religion and many more places. Education happens everywhere.

It also happens in the negative space left behind and what we don’t say or do is just as important as what we do.

It also happens in the negative space left behind and what we don’t say or do is just as important as what we do.

“It's kind of like cultural conditioning. Whatever you're conditioned to do at home, you're going to do outside of the home as well. So if at home, you're taught to be embarrassed about menstruation, about sex, you're going to project that once you leave home as well. It's hard to unlearn things, especially when they've been culturally inherited because that's just all you've known,” said third-year student Japleen Thind.

“I come from a culture that doesn’t really value sex education. This is a very dangerous mindset . . . it caused me to have the wrong idea about sex education and it caused me a lot of trouble,” explained fourth-year student Shae-Ashleigh Owen.

In my conversation with students, there was a very clear distinction between their experiences and thoughts about sex education before and after coming to university.

Before University

Before coming to university, most students described sex education as something that happened almost exclusively in schools. For many students, it happened with male and female students having separate discussions, often in entirely different rooms. 

“When I think back to my experiences, I remember any time that boys and girls were together, it would be a lot of hushed giggles and a lot of people being embarrassed and not really wanting to talk. So having that divisiveness in all honestly was kind of effective. Like when the girls were learning about periods, we could ask questions, we could be open . . . That being said, there are repercussions. That is a very fundamental way that we install stigma around things like periods and other sexual education topics,” said Raisa Ahmed, a fifth-year student.

“That kind of separation throughout sex education was definitely very prevalent in my experience. We were split up into our groups, we’d go into separate rooms and we learned different things. And then it kind of felt like this secret, like, “I know all these things now that the boys don't know” and I feel like you don't think about that when you're younger, about how you're learning different things than they are. But then when you get older, you realize it's kind of important that everyone learns the same thing so that we're all equally knowledgeable about sexual health and anything relating to that,” said Micaela McNulty, a fourth-year student.

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It should be noted that while the Ontario public school sex education curriculum was revised most recently in 2019, students currently in university who attended Ontario public schools would have been taught using the 1998 curriculum. A smaller portion would have also been taught using the 2015 curriculum put forward by former Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne.

The 1998 curriculum was not as comprehensive as the 2015 one, as it did not address gender identity and sexual orientation. This lack of representation was something that many students felt strongly about, both at the time and looking back. They wished it had been discussed in more detail.

“[We] didn't cover queer and trans sex education, which for many queer trans students is super harmful. And it's hard for them because they don't get that knowledge from anywhere else, especially if they're not living in an environment or a home that may be conducive to having those conversations,” explained Christian Barborini, a fifth-year student.

“[We] didn't cover queer and trans sex education, which for many queer trans students is super harmful,” explained Christian Barborini, a fifth-year student.

Looking back, students noted they had a much better understanding of what they wished they had learned, while as children they didn’t quite grasp the gravity of the topics being discussed. Some suggested that this might have been because they hadn’t yet had any experience applying their education. 

At University

Experience tends to fill in the gaps of education, however, those experiences aren’t always positive.

“Truthfully, I feel like most of my sex ed learning has come from being sexually active and being in university. It's such a crazy environment. I feel like you're so young and you're going into these experiences and there's just so much I didn't know . . . I wish I knew about consent and stigma and UTIs and yeast infections and so much stuff that wasn't covered. And it sort of makes me angry a bit . . . I just had to learn by experience and that sucked,” said Mavis Lyons, a fourth-year student.

Some students also noted that negative experiences in particular can isolate students, making it difficult for them to feel connected to the community or leaving them vulnerable to further negative experiences.

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Overall, experience brought up questions or thoughts that students may not have even considered in the classroom education. This is why many students felt that sex education shouldn’t end in Grade 9, as it does in most Ontario public schools. Like all education, it is an ongoing process and it would be beneficial if the formal education system reflected that.

“Obviously, that doesn't mean that we shouldn't start early. But I think when we teach developing kids and young adults, it doesn't resonate as much until they're older and have actually experienced that stuff. You're not going to remember everything you learned in Grade 8 or Grade 9. So you need that constant education and to be constantly connecting those points as you go along, otherwise it's not really going to mean anything,” explained Ahmed.

Sex education —  or lack thereof — can have significant influences on students’ wellbeing and sense of community. But open conversation can go a long way to improving both of those issues.

Since coming to university, many students have gravitated towards spaces where there is the opportunity for such conversation, such as the Pride Community Centre, the Women and Gender Equity Network or clubs like Period at McMaster.

“I needed a space like the PCC when it came to university because I didn't have that before. So I think that that speaks to the importance of community and community organization, especially for marginalized communities when it comes to sexual health because we don't get that anywhere else. I know that for me understanding sexuality and my sexuality specifically was a journey that did affect my mental health at one point when I started university and, connecting it back to the PCC, that's the reason why I value the PCC and other queer organizations that I have worked for. Because they've offered me that space to explore my identity that I didn't get in elementary and high school,” said Barborini, who is also the coordinator at the PCC.

“It felt almost therapeutic just having a space to discuss what your experiences are, especially on a taboo topic. I think that can be really helpful . . . just having an open space to talk about your experiences has been really valuable,” explained Thind, who is a member of Period at McMaster.

Students felt that these spaces have been especially beneficial to their mental health and their overall sense of wellbeing. Their involvement in groups such as these has helped them better understand topics related to sex education and health.

“Now that I went to university, especially with [Period at McMaster], I found more people who have had experiences like mine and I don't find it embarrassing anymore . . . I feel super comfortable talking about it now,” explained Celia Arrecis, co-president of Period at McMaster.

These groups also provide a vital sense of community.

“I think just the sense of community in the sense of having like-minded people around me who care about the same things [has] been a pretty positive influence on my mental health,” added Ahmed, who is the founder and co-president of Period at McMaster.

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Conversation is essential to encouraging education and both are integral to fostering a sense of community. There is an increasing awareness about the importance of both, thanks in part to McMaster clubs and community organizations. Moving forward it’s important that we continue to have open conversations and educate ourselves so that we can bring sex education out of the negative space it’s occupied for so long.

Photos by Kyle West

By: Drew Simpson

The Division of Labour exhibit portrays sustainable ways of creating art while also looking at the difficulties of creating a sustainable art career. Housed in the Workers Arts and Heritage Centre’s main gallery space until April 20 and accompanied by a panel discussion, Division of Labour warns of the scarcity of resources, labour rights and living wages of artists.

Division of Labour also serves as an educational tool to communicate and start discourse around the issues regarding sustainability. The Socio-Economic Status of Artists in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area discussion, which was facilitated by Divisions of Labour curator, Suzanne Carte, and included panelists Sally Lee, Michael Maranda and Angela Orasch, encouraged artists to be vocal and seek action.

“People want to be around artists, but they really don’t. If they were living in the reality that a lot of artists are living in, it would not be favourable. What they want is the pseudo creative lifestyle. They want to be around beautiful things and smart people, but they don’t really want to be assisting with making sure artists are making a living wage and that artists are being supported financially,” explained Carte.

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For emerging artists, this exhibits presents a valuable learning experience as it informs them of community issues. This topic is particularly important since emerging artists are often asked to work for free, often under a pretense that the work will add to their portfolios or lead to exposure. However, Carte argues that asking artists to work for free devalues the work they do.  

“Because you are emerging, and because you’re new to the practice does not mean that any institution, organization or individual business, whatever it might be, can take advantage of you and use it as exposure… it’s not about gaining experience — I can gain experience on the job. I can gain experience while being compensated for what I do,” explained Carte.

While Carte encourages individuals to stand up for themselves, she understands that many artists may not be in a position to be able to reject sparse opportunities. She, alongside the panelists at the discussions, further discussed ways emerging and established artists can fight for their rights.

Lee gave an overview of organizations and advocacy groups that focus on bettering labour and housing situations and are making communities aware of gentrification and the living experiences of artists in Hamilton and Toronto.

Maranda added that lobbying for bigger grants or funding is not enough. The community also needs to be advocating for the improvement of artists’ economic status through establishing a basic or minimum hourly wage, affordable rent and transportation.

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Recently, Maranda was a quantitative researcher for the Waging Culture survey. The survey investigated home ownership in Hamilton compared to Toronto. Maranda concluded that Hamilton artists are less reliant on the private market and contribute more to the public art community.  

The survey also suggested an artist migration from Toronto to Hamilton due to Hamilton’s lower rent and higher artist home ownership. This leads to a domino effect as real estate agents and developers follow the migration and aid gentrification.

Orasch stated that real estate agents and developers have secretly attended similar panel discussions. The panelists speculated they do so to learn how to market housing to artists. However, the overall sentiment was that they crossed into an artist-designated space to further exploit artists.

“Developers are taking advantage of the language that we have been able to construct for ourselves, to be able to be attractive to other artists or other individuals who feel as though they want an “artsy” experience out of life,” explained Carte.

Lee emphasized how all these surveys and discussions need to reach key decision makers. The Division of Labour exhibit and the panelists at the discussion have repeatedly stressed that talk is merely educational, the true goal is action and change.  


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Photo by Kyle West

By: Nyakoar Wuol

The Black experience at McMaster University is not monolithic. I can and will only be speaking in regard to my experience as a Black woman at McMaster.

Being a political science student, I often find myself being the only Black woman or Black person in a tutorial or sometimes even an entire lecture hall.

Within the political science courses, discussions on race, intersectionality and different waves of feminism do not go as in-depth as I would expect them to. After listening to the opinions of white students in these tutorials and their views, it makes sense why these discussions are so limited.

Discussion on race can only go so far if individuals are not sure what to add to the discussion or do not know enough to engage. In tutorials, I feel that when certain topics arise that I find interesting or am knowledgeable of, my opinion is not understood in the way I want.

A perfect example of this would be in my recent tutorial. The tutorial was set up as a debate with around five of us sitting at the front table. We were meant to briefly discuss the key elements of our paper, then answer any questions or rebuttals. For the sake of context, my paper was speaking about the result of Apartheid and its impact on Black South Africans, namely their struggle to be financially independent.

The white man who made the rebuttal made statements along the lines of, “why can’t they pick themselves up by their bootstraps? why don’t they just buy land or a farm? you don’t need a post-secondary education to make money”. All the statements he made would have been answered had he listened to the points I initially made.

I responded by stating that there are systemic barriers in place which limits Black South Africans from attaining wealth or having any form of mobility in their social class. In the wise words of W. E. B. Du Bois, “a system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.”

And yet after stating that, he was still not satisfied with my answer. He responded in a condescending tone but before I could defend my position, the teaching assistant moved the conversation to the next topic.

What I found most astounding was that this student was willing to stand in his ignorance than to believe that there are systemic barriers in place against Black folks not only in South Africa, but around the globe.

Another thing I noticed mainly in my sociology class and at a workshop I attended was that whenever there was a presence of Black folks, there was an underlying element of censoring from the white students. It seemed like they would mainly stick to saying socially-acceptable answers.

I feel that in order for anyone to learn they should not hinder themselves. White students seem to have this fear that if they say something that is not “acceptable”, then they will be vilified and have their opinion disregarded.

But choosing to only say what one thinks is acceptable does not result in any form of growth. If you fear that your true opinion or view is problematic, then perhaps ask yourself why that is?

Essentially, I feel that as a Black woman at McMaster there is much more that is needed to be done within academic spaces. This is mainly in regards to the limited discussions on race, and the lack of representation within the institution.

I, and many other Black students reading this, may feel that we are given the unasked role of being an educator of all things Black to white people. They may very well have certain questions or are limited in their knowledge on the Black experience.  

However, it is not Black students’ job to inform and educate. As a great friend of mine said, “Google is free and it’s a great research tool.”


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Article contains mentions of suicide

Year after year, mental health is a consistent topic of discussion that sometimes gives a catalyst forward. The Student Mental Health and Well-Being Strategy, released back in 2015, is one example of this where the foundation of how the university approaches the subject radically changes.

The results came shortly afterwards as McMaster topped the list of Maclean’s magazine as the top ranked university in Canada for mental health services based on their Student Satisfaction Survey. There were a few problems with the survey itself, but it was a good sign.

Then nothing happened. The work was done. The Mental Illness Awareness Week continues to persist from before the strategy, you get a few sound bites from McMaster Student Union presidential hopefuls about what they would do to help improve our services and that is about it.

On June 26, a new bright yellow bench was introduced to the lobby of the Health Sciences Library. It was donated by the family and friends of Dr. Robert Chu, a graduate of our School of Medicine, after he committed suicide in 2016.

The Friendship Bench program was co-founded by Sam Fiorella in honour of his son, Lucas, who committed suicide in 2014. At the time of writing, there are 33 benches across Canadian secondary and post-secondary schools with 40 more in queue for fundraising. They are meant as a constant, visual reminder, to encourage peer-to-peer discussion and to connect students to available mental health resources. It works in collaboration with existing services.

It has put mental health back into the conversation that McMaster should always be having, and does it effectively with respect and purpose. My main concern is that the effort for the foreseeable future will stop there.

It is not that the inspiration does not seem to be there. As mentioned previously, presidential hopefuls bring it up all the time because it is, unfortunately, such as prominent issue. There are a few inhibiting factors that get in the way.

One of the things our original critique of Ehima Osazuwa’s platform during his campaign trail, later the 2015-16 MSU president, included was a point to his want to lobby for mandatory training for TAs in accommodating students with disabilities. The MSU vice-president (Education) at the time stated that he had resistance in implementing mental health-specific training for TAs, so it was arguable whether further training could be mandated for the entire university.

Despite this, the idea of training specifically related to mental health came up again in three different platforms in the campaign for the 2016-17 presidency including the victor’s, Justin Monaco-Barnes, and on two platforms in the 2017-18 presidency race.

Our current president, Chukky Ibe, had a platform that mentioned, “…providing funds for student groups who create independent programming in regards to the welcome week strategic themes,” including mental health, but it remains to be seen if he can follow through with that promise.

Let us hold those in charge more accountable for improving our services. While talking about it is important and the benefits of discussion guided by things such as The Friendship Bench and Mental Illness Awareness Week cannot be understated, we should continue to strive for more than empty promises or promises that cannot be followed through.

It should not take circumstances like this or a presidential campaign to start caring about the problem again.

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By: Rachel and Megan Goodland/ WGEN

We often hear that our society is becoming too “politically correct”, or “PC.” It is true, that it is not uncommon to see trigger warnings on potentially upsetting content, and in many communities we see the elimination of oppressive language from everyday conversation. This has inspired a confusing amount of rage from people that feel that we are becoming too “sensitive” or “weak” as a culture — especially us young folk. As two people who are trying to uphold this “PC-ness,” we would like to apologize to all of those reading who feel bothered by this new social standard of caring.

Actually, we’re not sorry at all.

Take a second to bear in mind that changing our language to be inclusive is not, in reality, difficult. Why is it that the second we ask people to check themselves when saying “gay” or  “whore” in a negative context, they look at us as if we have asked them to aspire to sainthood? If we can exchange one degrading word we use to make people around us feel more comfortable, then why wouldn’t we? And to be honest, if you don’t care about making the people around you feel at ease, then may we suggest you consider speaking less in general.

We know what you are thinking: “I have the right to free speech so I can say whatever.” Very good, that is a valid argument, and to that we will respond that free speech does not protect you from facing the consequences of the things you say.

Freedom of speech does not mean you can bypass the critical backlash you may encounter if your words are hateful. So if you say, “I have a right be offensive,” then we could respond in turn, “I have a right to be offended and make it known that I am offended.” You see the interesting cyclical pattern here? We do admit that considering your words more carefully may be slightly inconvenient, it may even involve reflective critical thought (a horrendous task). No one can change their language in a day — it involves making many mistakes along the way. But we promise you that it’s worth it.

We would like to present an example of one phrase in particular that is popular in Western vernacular. Have you ever heard someone refer to a woman as a “crazy bitch”? The answer is almost definitely a resounding yes. There are a few major issues with this phrase. When a woman is called a crazy bitch she is left to question the relevance or importance of her own words and feelings. In many cases, a man will call a woman crazy because he does not want to acknowledge that she is upset for a legitimate reason.

If you don’t care about making the people around you feel at ease, then may we suggest you consider speaking less in general.

Another issue with calling someone crazy? It involves the use of a word that calls into question mental stability, therefore making one feel that their opinions are less important as a result. There are words, such as “mad” or “crazy”, that are problematic. They are open for reclaiming by many communities — as delightfully demonstrated by the Hamilton Mad Students Collective — but using them in an insulting context to bring someone down perpetuates stereotypes about the mentally ill and is not a way to get a point across. We argue that this is nothing more than a thoughtless way to shut someone up and make them question the validity of their feelings, in lieu of taking the time to consider and address their concerns.

So here we are, in this new standard of “checking ourselves” before we speak. Does it involve effort? Just a bit. Are we being sensitive? Sure. But does it make a difference? More than you know. If your right to casually use oppressive words and phrases is something that is very important to you, perhaps the small shift in language is not the real problem here.

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Student and faculty groups in Ontario don’t like what the government has in store for the future of post-secondary education.

In response to a recent discussion paper by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU), several groups say they do not agree with Minister Glen Murray’s proposed reforms.

Key issues raised by student leaders include government intrusion in post-secondary education, tuition hikes, a rapid shift toward technology-based education and incentivization of entrepreneurial learning.

The Canadian Federation of Students - Ontario (CFS Ontario) and the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations (OCUFA) are among those concerned about a perceived ‘unprecedented intrusion’ of government in the post-secondary sector.

“People who are in the best position to determine what's best for students are students themselves, faculty members and university administrators,” said Graeme Stewart, communications manager at OCUFA. “We want to keep decision-making power with [those parties].”

The MTCU’s discussion paper, entitled “Strengthening Ontario’s Centres of Creativity, Innovation and Knowledge” was drafted this past summer. To the dismay of student leaders, the paper was written without student consultation and publicized in late August during the back-to-school rush.

The paper comes on the heels of a controversial leaked policy paper in February, tentatively entitled "3 Cubed." The leaked document suggested that universities should increase efficiency by offering more three-year degrees and allowing students to get more than half their credits online.

MTCU’s recent summer discussion paper acknowledges a rapidly changing post-secondary education sector and the need for Ontario institutions to respond.

Though the proposal outwardly rejects efficiency-focused strategies to curb costs, it also aligns itself with the trend of "high quality outcome-based credentials" becoming the norm.

The report says “cost reductions and the elimination of redundancies are essential parts of our government’s fiscal plan,” but these are not enough to meet the fiscal challenges.

In the long term, the Ministry sees “adopting innovation in the sector to drive productivity” as the other half of the equation.

One proposed reform, a simpler credit transfer system, has already been implemented in a recent partnership between seven universities and has generally been well received.

“Credit transfer, online learning, different experiential options - these are all good things. Our concern is that the government seems to be saying: we’re going to tell you what to do, when to use online learning, when to use learning technologies, when to do co-op,” said Stewart.

There are several shared concerns put forward by CFS Ontario and OCUFA, showing overlap between student and faculty reactions to the Ministry's proposal.


Underfunded Ontario PSE sector

Respondents pointed to the fact that Ontario’s post-secondary sector is the least funded in the nation. Per-student funding currently stands at $8,349, which is 34 per cent below the national average, according to a 2011 Statistics Canada report.

“The underfunding problem is decades old in Ontario,” said Stewart, who cited Ontario’s per-student funding as the primary reason for a higher student-faculty ratio.

By 2009, Ontario’s ratio of students to full-time faculty was nearly seven per cent higher than the national average, according to a separate report by Stats Canada. Today, there are roughly 27 students for every professor in Ontario.

“This means students can’t have the same face-to-face interaction, professors aren’t as available, students find themselves in larger classes and they have fewer course choices. It also means universities don’t have the money to restore their older buildings,” said Stewart.


Higher rate of tuition increase

“When the government allows per-student funding to decrease, that puts pressure on institutions to increase tuition fees because they have to replace that revenue,” said Stewart.

This year, tuition fees across the nation have risen at more than three times the rate of inflation. Student and faculty representatives argue that this would create a more elite system and diminish accessibility to higher education.

“I don’t think we can say that right now, or even a couple of years ago, tuition fees were at the right place and we should increase rates with inflation,” said Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of CFS Ontario.

“Tuition fees are beyond the point where we can simply freeze them and be happy with that," said King.

CFS Ontario has drafted two tuition fee proposals for the most recent provincial budget that would have tuition fees reduced immediately by 25 per cent.


Emphasis on performance-based funding and incentivization

CFS Ontario criticized the proposal’s emphasis on ‘entrepreneurial learning’ and the practice of subsidizing private sector research via the post-secondary education system.

In their response, CFS Ontario asserts that “promoting the creation of business incubators or incentivizing entrepreneurial education in the province’s public colleges and universities does not facilitate knowledge, innovation or creativity.”

OCUFA similarly criticized the provincial government’s ‘performance funding’ model, saying it “makes quality improvement impossible” and unfairly punishes students.

“I don’t think the minister has a totally clear idea of what he wants yet, but our concern is that the recommendations in the paper tend to push the [post-secondary education] system toward this kind of labour market focus,” said Stewart.


Using technology as a cost-saving measure

“Students are concerned that online courses are going to be implemented as a cost-saving measure, when we know that to actually produce a high-quality online education is quite expensive,” said King.

There have been no concrete proposals put forward yet mandating that three out of five courses be online, said King, referring to the contents of the leaked ‘3 Cubed’ ministry document earlier this year.

However, she said there is continued concern among students that the education sector is headed in this direction.


The ministry asked that formal responses to the discussion paper be sent in by Sept. 30. Respondents include CFS (national), COPE, COU and OPSEU.

King and Stewart said they don’t know of any definitive timeline for a response from the Ministry, but representatives continue to be open to discussions with the government while awaiting a follow-up.

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