Sexuality. Puberty. Relationships. Each of these are normal parts of the human experience; so why are they so hard to talk about? 

Talking about sexuality has traditionally been a controversial conversation, full of misinformation and societal shame. However, the Calgary Centre for Sexuality Girls’ Program creates a safe space for young people to learn and grow, meanwhile providing sexual education that is completely free for participants.

“It feels more like a club that they’re a part of, rather than a classroom,” says Kelsey Ross, co-facilitator of the Girls’ Program.

The Girls’ Program is a year-long educational program for grades four to six. The Centre for Sexuality, formerly the Calgary Sexual Health Centre, is currently partnering with one Calgary Board of Education school and various schools in the Rocky View district.

Although named after young women, Ross describes the program’s goal, which is to provide young people of all gender identities with healthy decision-making tools and critical thinking skills. 

There are three core modules in the Girls’ Program: Self, Relationships to Others, and Our Communities. Each module prepares young people for the obstacles that come with puberty, both physical and emotional. 

ESTABLISHING A SAFE SPACE 

“I think one of the most important things around people being able to really delve into their sexuality and what that means to them comes with the building of a relationship,” Ross says.

Ross explains that this curriculum is designed to facilitate educating youth about sexuality by building healthy relationships based upon a fundamental respect for each other. 

The Centre for Sexuality offers free condoms, located at the front desk. The organization also offers free pregnancy and STI testing, counselling services, educational resources, and more. Photo: Lily Dupuis

“We’ve unpacked things around their personal identity, puberty, media literacy, gender stereotypes… I don’t think we would get to that level of how deep we go with the curriculum if I didn’t have the ability to build safety and rapport with those students.”

The relationships Ross and her co-facilitator, Medea Myers-Stewart, build with the participants are essential in creating trust and privacy boundaries within each group. She explains how they enforce a shame-free environment, values of consent, and the freedom to ask questions. 

“They said that they feel more comfortable in this space than any other. They were not sure if they would have asked [these questions] anywhere else.”

She says the feedback she receives from the students is the most valuable part of her job. Her connections with each participant is what makes working for the Centre for Sexuality so rewarding.

At the end of the program, the participants have created a deep bond with each other. Ross emphasizes that the best part of her job is when she gets to experience the feeling of young people rallying together to uplift and support one another. 

“Girls can be whatever they want to be or look however they want to look, and that should just be accepted and respected,” says Ross.

“They want to wear pads on their heads and walk around, so that they can make a difference in the world.”

ACCESSIBLE FOR ALL 

Unfortunately, the delivery of inclusive and positive sexual education is not always easy, especially for a non-profit organization. Allocating money can be an issue when the Girls’ Program is funded entirely through donations.

Kerry Coupland, the Centre for Sexuality’s Director of Research Evaluation and Innovation, believes that the Girls’ Program prepares young people for the inevitable challenges that come with puberty. .

“I would say the most difficult part is knowing that we don’t have the financial resources to give every school [the Girls’ Program] because I think that the impact is so visible,” she says. 

“We wish we could have it everywhere. We just can’t. It’s sort of heartbreaking.”

Coupland explains that there are very few instances where the government funds programs specifically for girls. The Girls’ Program has never received government funding. 

Despite the financial challenges, this non-profit organization believes in the outcomes of the work they are doing. The Centre for Sexuality emphasizes the importance of making all of its services, including the Girls’ Program, as barrier-free as possible. 

Coupland highlights that donations are an integral part of supporting non-profit organizations.

“There’s no charge to the participants or the schools,” Coupland says. “It just doesn’t align with our values to charge for it.”

Ross also stresses that even though there are various financial barriers for the Girls’ Program, they are still working hard to ensure the program evolves to remain relevant, intersectional, and educational. 

“Viva la vulva.” Knowing the proper term is important to the organization, which means not confusing vulva with vagina. Embroidered reproductive systems decorate the non-profit’s office spaces. Photo: Lily Dupuis

BODY POSITIVITY 

In recent years, talking about body image has been an essential part of teaching young people how to use critical thinking skills when navigating social media. 

The co-facilitator emphasizes that she has seen a huge change in how the participants talk about others’ bodies and their own. 

“They say things like ‘I’m very excited that my body can do this,’ rather than, ‘I want my body to look like this.’”

Ross and Myers-Stewart believe these skills are a vital part of building participants’ self-esteem.

UNPACKING SHAME

“The very baseline of our program is that we want people to come away without feeling shame about who they are, or the changes that are happening to their body,” Ross says. 

“Shame is essentially just society placing a certain pressure on us that we might not necessarily agree with.”

The colourful and gender-neutral bathroom keys at the Calgary Centre for Sexuality. The Centre for Sexuality is a safe space for all LGBTQIA+ folks. Photo: Lily Dupuis

Ross also explains that many of the participants’ parents likely grew up experiencing shame around their sexuality, so it can be awkward for them to discuss this with their children. Nonetheless, parents can unlearn these negative behaviours and become more open-minded towards sexuality. 

Because of this societal shame, the Girls’ Program developed natural support workshops specifically for important adults within a child’s life to teach them how to support their kids at home. 

 

“They are so excited about saying the word ‘vulva,’

or talking about their periods.” 

— Kelsey Ross

Erin Henriksen, Manager of Education for the Girls’ Program, and with a daughter of her own, attests to how the natural support workshops have benefitted her own relationship with her child. 

“It’s given me way better communication tools to use with my daughter. I can listen better. It’s been a gift,” Henriksen says.

Ross explains that she gets to witness the positive impact of this program every time she communicates with her pupils. She accredits the Girls’ Program with playing a vital role in the lives of these young people by making them feel included, supported, and accepted. 

It is important to Ross that the curriculum supports all young people, not just cisgender women. Both co-facilitators wish to empower participants as they go through puberty, removing the shame around periods and helping young people navigate menstruation. 

“They are so excited about saying the word ‘vulva,’ or talking about their periods,” Ross says.

Ross and her colleagues believe that the Girls’ Program has renewed outdated methods of sexual education. They are hopeful that this program will make young people everywhere feel empowered by inspiring an open and honest dialogue around sexuality and the expression of gender identity.

Introducing yourself with your pronouns is important, explain Erin Henriksen (left) and Kelsey Ross (right), two of the Girls’ Program staff members. “It leaves space for folks who maybe don’t identify as male or female to be able to say what they do identify as,” says Henriksen. Photo: Lily Dupuis