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Ontario's updated Sexual Health curriculum: Hits & Misses

I learned about sex like most people: the hard way. From my father’s Penthouse and Playboys, discovering how to please myself {I don’t know what kids use today since beds don’t seem to have posts anymore; damn that Scandinavian design sensibility}, and partnered sex as a teen. All my education was self-directed.

The only thing I remember about sex education in my Catholic primary school was some 16mm film about… what? I literally don’t recall. My most vivid memory during that time was how I thought I was going to go to Hell if I kept touching myself. Oh, and old Father Gerusi dragging on his cigarette at the back of the church as I sat directly in front of him {kids apparently didn’t fall within the sanctity of privacy} confessing not to self abuse, but to swearing at my brother. I had to make up something.

My parents were even less helpful. All I got was grounded and then kicked out of the house when my sexual and relationship experimenting became too much for my parents to handle {with zero discussion}. But I can’t blame them completely. They likely learned it all on their own as well. They had to: my mother was 17 when they married.

I desperately needed guidance, no one would listen, and there was no internet. I did a lot of experimenting. And after all the grief I was given about it, I vowed that I would never let any kid of mine wander aimlessly without proper knowledge about sex.

So while the newly released Ontario Health & Physical Education curriculum has been 16 years in the making {the last update was in 1999, way before online porn, Snapchat, and Masters of Sex}, I’ve been waiting for this for over 30 years.

Thankfully, it’s finally here. And it ain’t too bad.

What used to be called Growth & Development within the H&PE curriculum is now Human Development & Sexual Health {I’m a huge proponent of using ‘sexual health’ or ‘sexual health & relationships education’ as a replacement to the outdated term ‘sex ed’. Sex is about more than just mechanics. That the word ‘sexual’ is included at all is a bold move. The Ministry of Education is pulling no punches, despite some parents clutching their pearls over anything that includes those three letters. I sat in on a ward council meeting earlier this year and saw this first hand.

The 2015 revision takes much from the 2010 revision that was shelved by then premiere, Dalton McGuinty, thanks to his bowing to pressure from the Christian Right. This is likely a reason the 2015 version was so quickly announced and released – they already had much of the work done. That, coupled with wanting to avoid too many months of opponents protesting in front of Queen’s Park, carrying signs about bestiality.

Though Wynne and Education Minister Liz Sandals like to tout that “school council chairs at all 4,000 schools across the province were consulted”, this is actually untrue. My son’s school had no clue about any survey that was allegedly sent by the Ministry, and a few parents in the ward council meeting said their schools were also excluded. Repeated emails and phone calls to the Ministry yielded no reply. The Ministry wasn’t going to listen to any queries about the curriculum, in order to avoid a repeat of the 2010 backlash.

Despite the less than perfect community relationship with parents, the Ministry has released a pretty good curriculum {You can read the whole thing here. If you want to skim through it, just read the content under Human Development & Sexual Health}.

What features noticeably in the update for grades 1-8 is the proper naming of body parts and experiences {clitoris! penis! wet dreams! vaginal lubrication!}, multiple mentions of gender identity and sexual orientation, pleasure, masturbating, sexting, consent.

Anal and oral sex are mentioned in conjunction with vaginal sex; use of ‘partner’ as an option other than ‘wife’ or ‘husband’ is a nice addition, as is the mention of transgender, two-spirited, and intersex.

Mental health is also discussed in depth, as well as how to build healthy relationships, challenging stereotypes, and {briefly} that having sex can be an enjoyable experience. Remaining from the 1999 version are the lessons that abstinence from sexual intercourse is the best way to avoid pregnancy or AIDS, so parents can ease up on worrying that more sex ed will persuade their kids to have sex earlier. Studies show that more education in sexual health actually decreases incidences of STI transmission and unplanned pregnancy, and raises the age of first sexual encounters. Go figure.

While I greatly commend the Ministry in making this much needed change, and the new text will move Ontario forward, I feel they could have taken a bit more time to consider the content.

The curriculum still places sexual experiences with a consequence-based framework. Though pleasure from such acts is mentioned briefly, the text places these experiences next to substance abuse {which factors largely in the curriculum, right from grade 1}. Yes, there can be serious consequences from unsafe sexual practices, but since the act of sex itself is chiefly for pleasure {contrary to what some on the Christian Right think, sex is actually done more often for pleasure than for procreation}, there should be more focus on the advantages of healthy sexual relationships, rather than on the ramifications of unhealthy ones.

Until we have this type of frank education, we can make do with Ontario’s updated H&PE curriculum

Stigma and suicide aren’t mentioned until secondary school {also revised}, the former mostly within a mental health structure, and the latter without any specifics. I can’t help but think discussions around sexual stigmatization and suicide could be discussed more in relation to sexuality. If the reason for the rise of SlutWalks and stories like Rehteah Parsons’ and Leelah Alcorn’s tell us anything, it’s that robust lessons on stigma and suicide need to happen, and at earlier stages of our kids’ development.

Despite constant mention of being considerate of different gender identities and sexual orientation, there is a curious amount of heterosexism running throughout the curriculum. Every mention of sexual intercourse is paired with the necessity of using a condom. This assumes all sexual intercourse is penis/vagina sex, or that all oral sex recipients are those with penises. There is no obvious mention that sex can happen between between people with nary a penis in sight, or that dental dams are the equivalent to condoms in these cases {there is one quick mention of dental dams in grade 9}.

Though it can be said that these issues or omissions can be integrated into lesson plans, especially on a class-by-class basis, there are some other topics that the curriculum ignores, to students’ detriment. Abortion, the morning-after pill, and pornography are glaringly absent. Whether or not parents & guardians don’t want to believe that kids of a certain age need to know about these topics, the fact of the matter is that they do know something. If it’s accurate is a better question and a serious issue.

Unplanned pregnancy will continue to happen {especially as it will take some time for this curriculum to reveal true results}, and pornography is almost a staple of the media that kids consume, whether as a google search or a random pop-up on gaming or streaming sites {Pornography is actually mentioned once in grade 9, but under Personal Safety and Prevention, and only as “harmful or undesirable entertainment”}. I recently surveyed four grade 8 classes, and all had seen it online. Unless parents and guardians want to lock up TVs, computers and phones, porn is unavoidable. Better to teach kids how to be informed viewers and decision-makers, then to let them blindly accept what appears in front of them.

If we want to be really progressive, the curriculum would mention sexwork, but some parents would likely run out into the streets and self immolate, so we’ll let this one slide for now and kids can continue to learn about this topic through Law & Order: SVU and malicious jokes. Baby steps.

While I won’t accept the Ministry’s opaque dealings with parents and lies about school consultations, I will commend the brute force strategy of just laying it on us. Much opposition has come from parents saying it’s their responsibility teach kids about sex, not the school’s. That would all be fine and dandy if, 1, parents knew what the hell they were talking about {it’s truly parents that make these discussions uncomfortable}, and 2, they actually tried to do it. Most parents turn a blind eye, and kids wind up googling “if you have sex while pregnant, can you can pregnant again?”, and finding lots of pics when googling “what’s bukkake?”

Sweden has had mandatory sexual health education since 1956, starting in Kindergarten {if you search for some Swedish teaching tools on this subject, your jaw will drop, it’s that progressive}, the WHO supports comprehensive sexual health education under the UN's Rights of the Child, as do multitudes of sexual health educators and organizations. Like Wynne implied in Parliament, decisions about education should be left up to those trained in it. Sexual health should be treated no differently than math or science.

Teachers can be leaders in where they want to focus these particular lessons, and further finessing can happen over time. Due to the exponential changes that society now deals with, ongoing discussion and regular intermittent revisions can and should occur, now that we have a strong foundation. In a world where almost everything is a quick update of x.2.2, curricula should be just as updatable.

This is a very good step forward in pulling Ontario up from the rear, and it’s unfortunate that parents can opt their kids out of these lessons. Where it had been the most outdated curriculum in the country, it now sets us up to be leaders, not only in Canada, but globally.

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