Ontario and the War over Comprehensive Sex Education

Sexual education is one of my personal crusades. The debates over American abstinence-only education during the Bush era drew me in and reflections on my own lack of sex ed opened my eyes to see how disastrously and ineptly handled the topic is in Canada. My ideals surrounding sexual education are tied up with my beliefs concerning issues such as feminism, human rights and diverse sexualities. Hence why when Ontario announced that it had revamped its sexual education curriculum for public schools and the changes were good, I wanted to weep for joy! A Canadian government doing something progressive and concrete? Such incidents have been in a sorry lack of supply in my country lately.

When first announced, the media pounced on the issue. The Globe and Mail had over five articles on the story within 24 hours. The first article that I stumbled across was this: “Ontario to introduce more explicit sex education in schools”. When I initially read it, I was ecstatic. Could it be that a provincial government was taking initiative in this area and not merely killing the programme due to controversy and lack of funds? Where we about to see a shift towards valuing the rights of children and their need for accurate knowledge? Hallelujah Ontario! The biggest and most powerful province in Canada was challenging the status quo!

Of course this initial delight wore off quickly when I realised that I should be fact-checking and perusing the comment section and the inevitable flood of editorials that would hit the papers the next day. Secondly, the Globe’s reporting on the issue did exactly was generally causes me to tear out my hair and scream in frustration when it comes to modern journalism; it used inaccurate and inflammatory language and it played loose and fast with its facts. For example, the word “explicit” in the article title has a lot of negative connotations attached to it that could have been avoided by saying something equally as accurate. For example, “evidence-based” would have been a good choice in this case or “comprehensive”. Furthermore, later in the article, the author states:

The revision, outlined in 208 pages that were quietly posted on the Ministry of Education’s website in January, will for the first time teach Grade 3 pupils about such topics as sexual identity and orientation, and introduce terms like “anal intercourse” and “vaginal lubrication” to children in Grades 6 and 7. The new curriculum begins in Grade 1 with lessons about the proper names of body parts.”

Throw the words “anal intercourse” and “grade school” into a sentence together and you are bound to have a plethora of people frothing at the mouth, convinced that their twelve year old is about to receive a homework assignment on rectal experimentations with a cucumber. And this, unfortunately, is exactly what happened. Parents, conservatives and religious communities reacted immediately, protesting what they seen as an infringement on their parental rights and lamenting the inevitable destruction of the very moral fabric our society is weaved from.

Now, I have learned that when one reads a news report that is attempting to summarize either law, court cases, policy papers or really anything, one should really just go to the source. So I went searching for this new, innovative and scary curriculum that had Canada in an uproar. After a lot of poking around on Ontario’s Ministry of Education website (because the article was right about the fact that it was buried), I uncovered the PDF file. So I opened it up and started reading. Let me take you on a journey of my discoveries!

First of all, one of the major concerns of those protesting against this change was that children would be too young to understand the idea of homosexuality and attempts to explain such a complex idea would merely confuse and scare them. This assumes that all children are sexless and have no inklings about their own personal sexuality at all until they hit the magical age of eighteen. This also assumes that children never meet anyone who deviates from the standard heteronormative binary. Unless a family keeps their child from accessing the internet, TV, radio, talking to friends, leaving the house, or having any external contact with people who have not been specifically vetted by their parents, then the chances that a child is not going to notice that people tend to be different for a variety of reasons is pretty damn slim. As a parent and as a society, it is our job to teach our children what difference is and why it is not bad, scary or something to mock or judge. It is very hard to accomplish such a goal if one is working from the viewpoint that your child has the observational skills of a rock. Furthermore, the new curriculum was introducing the concept in the third grade. It would be continually expanded upon all throughout a child’s time in school. The very first mention of the idea would be to explain to children that people can be different even if that difference cannot necessarily be seen with one’s eyes. Most importantly, all differences need to be treated with respect. Direct from Ontario’s curriculum guide itself is this description for the third grade:

C3.3 describe how visible differences (e.g., skin, hair, and eye colour, facial features, body size and shape, physical aids or different physical abilities, clothing, possessions) and invisible differences (e.g., learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, family background, personal preferences, allergies and sensitivities) make each person unique, and identify ways of showing respect for differences in others.

Teacher prompt: “Sometimes we are different in ways you can see. Sometimes we are different in ways you cannot see – such as how we learn, what we think, and what we are able to do. Give me some examples of things that make each person unique.”

Student: “We all come from different families. Some students live with two parents. Some live with one parent. Some have two mothers or two fathers. Some live with grandparents or with caregivers. We may come from different cultures. We also have different talents and abilities and different things that we find difficult to do.”

Teacher: “How can you be a role model and show respect for differences in other people?”

Student: ‘I can include others in what I am doing, invite them to join a group, be willing to be a partner with anyone for an activity, and be willing to learn about others.’”

Not only is this section trying to introduce the idea of different sexualities, family structures and genders to children in an age-appropriate and very basic way, it is also helping to educate children about disability issues. It opens up space for discussing the fact that people can be different because they are differently abled in ways that may not require a wheel chair. I cannot see why any of this is harmful, confusing or dangerous for young children, however, I can see how starting a conversation like this in a child’s life will help to demystify vague concepts that no one has bothered to explain to them. At eight years old, my peers were asking me if I was a virgin and were discussing condoms. I had no idea what they were talking about and I lived in a mid-sized city in the suburbs fifteen years ago. Children are always listening and learning and they pick up on things that can harm them and harm our society as a whole. This type of educational programme is working to prevent intolerance and hate, so why is this supposedly a bad policy decision?

However, as fraught with tension as the “OMG my child might find out gay people exist and think that’s okay!” debate was, the really angry and terrified responses came from the idea of introducing the concepts of anal and oral sex to youth. This particular bombshell of an idea was to be undertaken for the first time during the seventh grade. Responses were, of course, very unhappy for the most part. People decried the idea of destroying the innocence of Canadian children and encouraging them to engage in immoral, unhealthy and plain old bad and weird sexual exercises.

First of all, the idea that children are sexless is, again, a very bad lapse in logic. Children are people and people have sexual desires and curiosities. Should we encourage our twelve year olds to have anal sex, or really any sex at all? No. However, all people should be well-informed about all types of sex and the risks they can entail. Since children are people and children are most likely already privy to distorted ideas about sex anyways, I do not see how giving them proper information is going to bring about the imminent implosion of society. Do people honestly think the Ontario government was encouraging teachers to get up on their desks and shout to the sky their love for anal sex? Well, I did stumble across quite a few commentators online who were worried about such a possibility and all I could do was shake my head. So let’s look at what the curriculum actually said in order to dispel these delightful myths.

C1.3 explain the importance of having a common understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity until one is older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from having oral-genital contact), the reasons for not engaging in sexual activity, and the need to communicate clearly with each other when making decisions about sexual activity in the relationship

Teacher prompt: “The term abstinence can mean different things to different people. People can also have different understandings of what is meant by having or not having sex. Be clear in your own mind about what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with. Being able to talk about this with a partner is an important part of sexual health. Having sex can be an enjoyable experience and can be an important part of a close relationship when you are older. But having sex has risks too, including physical risks like sexually transmitted infections – which are common and which can hurt you – and getting pregnant when you don’t want to. What are some of the emotional considerations to think about?”

Student: ‘It’s best to wait until you are older to have sex because you need to be emotionally ready, which includes being able to talk with your partner about how you feel, being prepared to talk about and use protection against STIs or pregnancy, and being prepared to handle the emotional ups and downs of a relationship, including the ending of a relationship, which can hurt a lot. Personal values, family values, and religious beliefs can influence how you think about sexuality and sexual activity. A person should not have sex if their partner is not ready, if they are feeling pressured, if they are unsure, or if they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.’”

According to this new guide, children are to be told about vaginal, anal and oral sex in the context of being able to say no and with an introduction to the risks involved in all three. Furthermore, the emphasis of the lesson is on abstaining until they are older, emotionally stable, and in a loving relationship. Again, someone needs to explain to my poor enfeebled liberal brain how this is so wrong. Children are becoming sexual at younger ages (See this page for some Canadian stats). Well, at the very least, society likes publishing articles and studies meant to incite moral terror about the fact that youth are increasingly sexually active. Couple this concern with the fact that there is a vast amount of terrible misinformation available that is leading youth to think that blow jobs and anal sex aren’t sex and are totally safe from pregnancy and STI concerns and you get a potentially explosive public health issue. This, obviously, is not good. I would rather be truthful and honest about sex than have a twelve year old with an STI. I would rather make parents uncomfortable than allow unrealistic ideas about sex to be held by youth who are in a formative stage concerning their attitudes towards sexual health. Information does not kill. When we tell children about guns, they do not automatically run out to find one and try it out. When we tell children about drugs, they do not find the nearest dealer at recess so that they can see what marijuana feels like. Consequently, if the words anal and oral sex enter their vocabulary within the context of an appropriate sexual health discussion, I doubt there will be a club of students trying out their lessons in real life after class. Society needs to give our children more credit. They are not stupid; they simply are not born with all of the information the world holds. It is our job to make sure that they have access to educational opportunities as they grow, so that they can thrive and mature.

A child is a small person. They are fully fledged human beings regardless of their level of development. We safeguard some of their rights for them depending on developmental factors, and we even outright deny them some rights for the same reasons. However, they should have access to the widest range of rights that will not harm them. The idea that parents should control a child’s access to information and education forgets this fact. Children have rights that are separate from their parents. A parent can teach and raise a child using certain perspectives, but that child deserves and has a right to know about other options. All children have the right to decide that they do not believe in the same ideals as their parents. However, they need the opportunity to come to these decisions on their own and they will have difficulties with that if they are not offered unbiased, basic information about the world in which they live. Not all parents are willing or capable of offering such information, however, our teachers are trained to fulfill this need.

If it were merely commentators and critics who were yelling, why am I so distressed? Within forty-eight hours of the media explosion, the Ontario government reneged on their own programme and decided that it needed further study and consideration. The provincial government completely ignored all of the planning and preparation put into this plan because of the voices of a probable electoral support group. Somehow the thousands of voices screaming about the incoming HST or the problems with healthcare are not loud enough to cause the government to pause and reflect upon their place as delegates of the people, but when a small group of primarily religious right activists feel distressed by a new programme, it is halted. Remind me what democracy stands for again? Admittedly, this was a controversial programme, despite all of the reasons that I laid out as to why it should not be. However, a government’s job is to educate, not simply to be crushed under the weight of public opinion. Given the attention span of people and the media, the issue would have calmed substantially in a few days if the Minister of Education had come forth and explained the new guidelines more thoroughly. However, even though the government was willing to spend thousands, if not millions, on a promotional campaign for the HST implementation, a policy effecting the lives and safety of the province’s children was not important enough to save.

Children are people and as such they deserve the same rights as an adult. They deserve to be treated with respect in regards to their intelligence, their decision making capabilities, and their right to personal autonomy. We are their guardians, but not their keepers. Sexual education has nothing to do with parental rights. It is a child’s right. For anyone reading this in Ontario, please write your MPP and oppose this hiatus in recognition of human rights for children.

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