teen girlsCanada comes out as the least inhibited country when it comes to sex education, an international survey shows. But even there, the majority of adults think that the job belongs first and foremost to parents.

Two-thirds of Canadians (69 per cent) and Britons (67 per cent) as well as four-in-five Americans (81 per cent) believe the parents or guardians should be primarily responsible for teaching sex education to children and teens.

The online survey of adults conducted by Angus-Reid last month found that Americans focus more on family, Britons are dissatisfied with what they learned as children and teens, and Canadians want schools to begin teaching sex ed at an early age.

Canada is definitely different from the United States and Britain on the question of when to start sex education in school. While only 13 per cent of Americans and 17 per cent of Britons would begin these courses at age 9 or earlier, one-in-four Canadians (24%) believe this is the ideal age to begin. About a third of respondents in the three countries believe the best time to start teaching sex education at school is between the ages of 12 and 13.

Almost one-in-ten Americans (9%) believe that schools should not teach sex education to students—a view shared by only three per cent of Canadians and two per cent of Britons.

If it is to be taught in schools, there is considerable agreement over some topics. For instance, a large majority in all three countries favour the teaching of abstinence, with 89 per cent of Canadians (oddly enough) and Americans agreeing about that.

On other topics there is significant disagreement. For example:

– Non-penetrative sex: Canadians (82%) are more likely to favour this topic than Britons (74%) or Americans (66%).
– Homosexuality: Canadians (86%) more likely to favour this topic than Britons (76%) and Americans (63%).
– Sexual Pleasure: While a majority of Canadians (69%) and Britons (62%) would like to see this topic discussed, less than half of Americans (46%) concur.

Asked which sources of information they found most useful, the family came off rather poorly (somewhat better in America) while friends came first in all three countries and the media came second for Britons and Canadians.

The gender analysis provides an additional layer of study, with American men more likely to find conversations with family useful (59%, compared to 48% for Canadian men and 33% for British men), and only 50 per cent of American women finding the media useful (compared to 63% of Canadian women and 64% of British women).

To sum up:

By a large margin, Americans believe the main source of information for children and teens should be the family. The United States also holds the largest proportion of respondents who disagree with sex education at school. Practically three-in-five Americans say that the conversations they had with family were useful to learn about sex in their teenage years, far higher than in the other two countries. However, Americans were clearly restrained about discussing the topic of sexual pleasure in the classroom.

Britons appear largely disappointed with their sex education courses, with less than half believing that they were actually useful when they were teenagers. Britain also sees a particularly low level of discussions about sex with family, and the highest proportion of respondents who found the media useful to learn more about sex.

Canadians are unquestionably more open about discussing controversial topics in the classroom—such as pleasure and homosexuality—than Americans and Britons. In addition, Canadians are also more likely to call for sex education courses to begin at an earlier age.

Full Report, Detailed Tables and Methodology (PDF)

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet