Jan Wong: Why aren’t schools teaching kids about the pleasures and perils of sex?
The answer is simple: our curriculum is shamefully outdated, and the Liberals are too scared to fix it
Adam and Eve nibble an apple from the Tree of Knowledge and suddenly realize they’re both naked. Unfortunately, sex ed isn’t part of God’s plan, and He evicts them from the Garden of Eden. These days, some folks in Toronto are acting quite God-like themselves, insisting that the next generation live in innocence and ignorance. Heaven forbid our youth get to know themselves in the Biblical sense.
Our public schools are under attack by an evangelical Christian organization called the Institute for Canadian Values, whose leaders believe, as a basic ideological tenet, that teaching up-to-date sex education in schools will corrupt and confuse our children. The institute is run by a man named Charles McVety, who is quite skilled at getting media attention. Shamefully, most journalists have checked their brains at the door, blandly covering the institute’s actions and claims without questioning their legitimacy or standing up against the influence of the church on the state.
While some parents feel it is solely their responsibility to educate their kids about sex, most of us—more than 85 per cent, according to the educational organization SIECCAN (the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada)—want schools to play a supporting role. This silent majority notwithstanding, our leaders are caving to splinter groups. In 2010, Premier Dalton McGuinty nervously shelved a newly revised sex ed curriculum after McVety launched an attack campaign in which he claimed to be speaking on behalf of Ontario parents.
The proposed new sex ed curriculum, three years in the making, was created by a team of health experts and educators. At 219 pages, it was meant to replace a 40-page curriculum from the 1990s—when Mike Harris was premier and a ninth-grader named Mark Zuckerberg had not yet imagined a gold mine called Facebook. Under the revised curriculum, Grade 1 students would learn the names of male and female genitalia, compared with previously learning only “the major parts of the body.” The old curriculum presumed heterosexuality. In the new one, Grade 3 students would learn about gender identity and sexual orientation through class discussion. The teaching guide mentions a scenario in which kids might say: “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.” Pretty innocuous stuff, so far.
The old Grade 5 curriculum focused mainly on the physical changes at puberty. The new one focuses on emotional and social changes, too. “You can show that you like someone by being extra nice to them.…[Ways] that are inappropriate include touching them without their permission [or] spreading rumours about them to others or online.” Under the old curriculum, Grade 6 students studied “the changes at puberty to the reproductive organs and their functions.” The new one would inform them they weren’t the only ones masturbating, or having wet dreams, or experiencing vaginal lubrication. By Grade 7, students would learn about the importance of emotional readiness before having sex and the risks of contracting sexually transmitted infections through oral sex, anal sex or vaginal intercourse. You think age 13 is too young for such graphic stuff? A 2006–2007 Statistics Canada study of 13-year-olds with a girlfriend or boyfriend found that 6.5 per cent had already had sex. By age 14 and 15, the number jumps to 16.5 per cent.
Last fall, during the closely fought provincial election, McVety raised the morality issue anew. He bought full-page ads in the National Post and the Toronto Sun, featuring a girl, about eight years old, with eyes downcast. “Please! Don’t confuse me. I’m a girl,” the ad copy read. “Don’t teach me to question if I’m a boy, transsexual, transgendered, intersexed or two-spirited.”
A week later, PC candidates began distributing flyers in English and Punjabi (authorized by the CFO of the Ontario PC party, according to the fine print) headlined: “Actual Parts of the 2011 K–12 Curriculum.” Over a photo of a boy writing on a blackboard, the flyers blared: “Cross-dressing for six-year-olds, pg. 19” and “Reclaim Valentine’s Day and celebrate sexual diversity with a kissing booth, pg. 143.”
None of this was from the sex ed curriculum, old or new. The “kissing booth” concept came from a diversity guide for teachers—not students—called “Challenging Homophobia and Heterosexism,” which referenced a school where students had set up an information kiosk on Valentine’s Day. In exchange for completing a questionnaire on inclusivity, participants received a stamped kiss on the cheek and—brace yourself—a handful of chocolate kisses. There isn’t a single mention of cross-dressing for six-year-olds in the entire 219-page document.
No one in the PC party would admit to having created the flyers. This was a cynical and calculated misinformation campaign designed primarily to rile conservative immigrant voters. Chris Bolton, the chair of the TDSB, waited until the election was over to demand an apology from Hudak. “We didn’t want to get involved in a political tangle,” he says. So far, Bolton hasn’t heard back.
Hudak didn’t return my calls or emails seeking comment for this column either. McGuinty also ignored multiple interview requests. Though he once dubbed himself the Education Premier, he appears unwilling to resurrect the new curriculum. A spokesman for the Ministry of Education told me they were “committed to additional consultations with parents,” but he couldn’t say when this process might be finished.
Sex education has been a part of Canadian curricula since the 1960s, when it was introduced in response to the sexual revolution and an increase in teen pregnancies. It worked. The teen pregnancy rate has been declining for the last 25 years. According to Alex McKay, a research coordinator at SIECCAN, advances in gender equality have empowered today’s youth, even very young women, to protect themselves. Condom use is up. So while more kids may be engaging in early sexual activity today than 30 years ago, they’re doing it in a more informed and responsible way.
Parents should educate their offspring, of course. But not all will and not all will get it right. Some may shy away from, say, explaining cunnilingus. (I know I did.) Then there are the parents in the anti–sex ed camp, who believe ignorance equals abstinence, a head-in-the-sand approach that ignores the pervasiveness of the Internet. A recent study of 200 teens out of the Children’s Hospital of Western Ontario revealed that nearly 40 per cent find the Internet more useful than parents in providing information about sex. Nearly 25 per cent rated the Internet higher than high school sex ed classes—as compelling a reason as any for providing a sex ed curriculum that is respectful, factual and relevant.
Instead, we consult and consult. By the time Toronto’s public schools finally get a revised curriculum—if they do at all—it will probably be due for another revision.
Meanwhile, our children are being deprived of the right to important information about their sexual health and about the pleasures and perils of sex. It’s time for the silent majority to speak up.