Having last been updated at the height of the Backstreet Boys' powers, Ontario revealed its revamped sex ed curriculum today, with lessons on outrageous, wildly radical subjects such as sexting, homosexuality and the proper names for your private parts. But some sex educators are concerned that the update, 17 years in the making, still won't be enough information, and that these lessons need to come earlier than the ages they're currently scheduled.
Certified sexual health and relationships educator Sonya JF Barnett says the curriculam needed to include the nitty-gritty information on a dozen-plus different contraceptive methods, masturbation, erections, vaginal lubrication, and wet dreams. On those counts, it seems to have succeeded.
But Barnett also stresses that the curriculum doesn't really address one of the central facts about sex—that it can be awesome and not just an activity that might result in pregnancy, disease, death, and despair.
Essentially, this curriculum will mirror much of what was proposed in the never-enacted 2010 update. (All the gays! Butt sex! One-way tickets to blazing Hades!) Proper names for body parts will be taught in grade one, grade three students will be taught about the concept of same-sex relationships, grade four students will learn about puberty and online safety, grade six students will be taught about masturbation, healthy relationships and consent, and grade seven students will be warned of the perils of the dreaded "sexting," as well as about STIs, and anal and oral sex. Education Minister Liz Sandals says now that the material has been released, THERE'S NO GOING BACK.
The Ministry of Education kept the new material secret until Monday. Barnett was asking the ministry to give her more information over the past few months, but the department didn't seem to want to comment on its own material. I also reached out to the ministry but I didn't get a response, either.
Teachers will have the spring and summer to learn the new material, and it will be taught beginning in the fall, in both Ontario's public and Catholic schools.
Toronto-based Barnett, who is also a parent, says that currently, lessons on sex are shrouded in negativity. She says the plan to teach about consent and sexting is a positive, but worries the lessons may not be as clear as they should be.
"I wouldn't say a focus on sexting is wrong, but I hope that the curriculum will address why sexting happens, and not just how to avoid doing it," she said. "If the promise of consent and respect being included in the curriculum is fulfilled, then kids will be armed with proper decision-making tools if they do, indeed, decide to sext. The concept of 'safer sex' should be extended to online communication."
She says teaching kids not to sext or engage in other sexual activity "just isn't a sensible or sustainable method of teaching this topic."
And as for consent, it will take work to clear up years of misunderstandings there, too. So many people think of consent as just being about sex, and socially conservative critics say teaching it will greenlight sexual activity. Barnett says it needs to be taught at an even earlier age, and address things like respecting other people's personal space.
"It's as much about learning respect for another person as it is about getting permission to be intimate."
Barnett worries the teachings won't be as in-depth as they need to be, and stresses that the all-important subject of consent merits more than just a few passing minutes.
Also, she says, many of the lessons included in the new curriculum are not occurring early enough.
"If a kid is young enough to ask a question," she says, "they're old enough to know the answer."
Her own son, for example, asked her how gay dudes have sex when he was all of five years old, so she simply came out and told him. "The whole idea that kids shouldn't know these things until a certain age is bullshit. They should know, especially, the proper names for their body parts at the same time they're told it's called a knee, and a nose, and an ear, and a foot."
Because sex is cast in such a negative light in society, many aspects of it remain taboo. Kids aren't learning how to love their bodies or connect with their partners, let alone how to have safe anal sex, or which times of the month are their most fertile. (This enforced confusion can and does create whole gaggles of awkward adult sexual experiences).
Regardless of some of the potential kinks with the new subject matters, Barnett is happy the changes are being made, and says the current trajectory is a good start. As far as she believes, all that is being taught in schools right now is the idea of abstinence and the risk of STIs, and "not much else." Children, she says, are taught about sex as a cautionary tale, and not that it's a pleasurable, natural, and healthy activity. Barnett says the fact that sex is fun should be taught alongside the fearmongering about pregnancy and STIs, but she worries the negative vibes will continue to dominate the discussion despite the changes.
Obviously, religious fanatics and crusty pearl-clutchers argue that the new curriculum is too radical. The Campaign Life Coalition protests the "graphic" nature of lessons teaching six-year-olds how to name their body parts with words like "testicles" and "vulva." Conservative MPP Monte McNaughton questions whether the material is "age appropriate." And the president of the Canadian Christian College, Charles McVety, has been fighting against these updates since 2010. He played a big part in scrapping the province's collective syllabus when the last curriculum change was suggested, and he's trying to do so again.
In response to the suggested curriculum changes, McVety said, "It's very sad for children to have to face such contrary sex at such young ages."
Though Barnett might not agree with arguments from the religious right, she's not out to dismiss their beliefs. She says teaching those religious people's children that sex is a thing that exists, and preparing them for when it inevitably happens to them, does not violate a family's religious or moral code.
"If you have taught your kid your family's moral and religious values, that is going to trickle down into the decisions that they make about sexual activity," she said. Simply preparing kids for what is probably inevitable will not undo years of Catholic indoctrination on the sins of sluttiness. Schools, she says, should be teaching the practicalities about something, families should teach family values, and kids will be in the middle with the tools to make a balanced decision that's right for them.
I asked Barnett if she thinks schools might be getting any closer to having experts like herself teach students how to have at least somewhat pleasing and safe sexual encounters. (Admittedly, this is a difficult feat for many otherwise fully functioning adults. But I digress.)
Barnett says some schools bring in sex experts on occasion, but it's done on an individual basis, and there are no plans to bring in outside educators as a regular teaching tool.
In the curriculum now, there's "no indication that sexuality is a positive," she says. Unless kids are taught about pleasure they can find on their own, and within a relationship, they're always going to associate sex with consequences.
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