Opponents of Ontario's proposed sex education reform have made a big fuss about a supposed lack of parental consultation. But there's been even less effort to consult the people who could actually get bullied, pregnant or syphilitic if we don't get this right.
In fact, students and parents did provide input prior to Dalton McGuinty's failed 2010 sex education update, according to Ophea, an advocacy group involved in preparing it. About 4000 parents were also surveyed before the Wynne government released the new curriculum this year. But students, at least those who don't get dragged to the protests at Queen's Park, have been mostly ignored in the ensuing media furor.
Kids at the anti-sex ed protests sometimes look more like props than demonstrators, so I talked to a bunch of Toronto middle schoolers on their own turf to find out what they think. It's true that students in the quinoa-eating parts of the city's downtown were characteristically liberal in their attitudes. And it's true that in the newcomer areas hardest hit by the parent-imposed student strike, kids were uncomfortable with parts of the new curriculum. But it turns out that a few of the government's most controversial proposals meet with reasonably wide seventh-grader approval.
First stop was the west end's trendy, mostly white Roncesvalles neighbourhood. The students I met at Fern Avenue Public School, home of the Fern Falcons, were surprised that parents elsewhere in Toronto were keeping their kids home. A board representative confirmed that the school had "no absences identified by parents as related to the strike."
Tenzin, an abnormally tall eighth-grader with long messy hair, doesn't get why the protesters are so upset.
"I think it's weird that people protest," he said. "We should know about this before we impregnate a girl by accident."
He thinks one of the more contentious parts of the reformed curriculum, touching on sexual orientation in grade three, is necessary so kids "don't say anything offensive and hurt their feelings."
His friend Garisan agreed, saying it would make everyone's "common sense bloom." He said there isn't a lot of bullying at their school, but that more education about different sexual orientations would make things even better.
"Some people are a little homophobic in our class," he said. "I think we should learn about gay people and homosexuality because then this stuff wouldn't really start."
Tenzin explains that even something like teachers explaining about masturbation is just recognizing reality. "I think it's pretty normal," he said. "I think everyone should be doing it, but not like 20 times a day 'cause then you're just wasting your time."
"That's nasty," his friend Ethan interjected, before stressing that they had to rush off on important business.
"Let's go hunt down whoever stole my scooter!" he shouted.
Kate, a seventh-grader typing away on a smashed-up pink iPhone, says that more information is always a good thing. "I think we're old enough," she said. "When you're little you just want to know, and it can't hurt knowing."
Just like Tenzin, Kate strongly supports putting more emphasis on sexual orientation and gender identity, since it would help kids who are questioning their own sexuality.
"If you're hearing about it, then it might not be as weird," she said, "so you can be yourself in school."
In virtually every demographic category, Thorncliffe Park is the polar opposite of Roncesvalles. While the strike barely touched Fern Hill, more than 90 percent of students at the elementary school here in Thorncliffe stayed home. Just down the road, 590 of the 950 students at the Valley Park Middle School didn't show up for class.
The first thing I noticed about the Valley Park kids is that they were super eager to talk. Hardly any of them declined to be interviewed, and crowds of their friends gathered around asking to talk next. Most thought their parents' protest actions weren't going to work. One ninth-grader from the high school across the street thought that everything was too much about the parents, and that the kids didn't really matter. Nonetheless, a lot of them were still proud of their parents for voicing what the community wanted, and at least trying to force the government to listen.
Rayhan, a seventh-grader, didn't strike, but went home on the third day since he was one of the only kids who showed up. His parents generally support the protesters, but Rayhan has mixed feelings. He thought some of the subjects proposed in the new curriculum, like talking about oral and anal sex in grade seven, should be left until later. But he explained that he was more open to talking about homosexuality in grade three, and gender identity in grade six, so long as teachers don't mention the actual sex acts. He said they should just talk about how some people "like people like that." (The new curriculum instructs teachers to discuss how "invisible differences make each person unique" and mention that some families have two moms or two dads.)
Even if he wasn't against all the reforms, Rayhan didn't think they'll do much to address the bullying that takes place at the school. It might even make things worse.
"Maybe the gay people would expose themselves thinking it's going to be better for them," he said. "In the bully's mind it's not going to change anything."
He said that would just give the bullies "new victims" to pick on.
Zeinab, also in grade seven, thought that grade one students were too immature to learn the proper names for their body parts.
I asked Zeinab what she would teach if she was in charge of the curriculum.
"Like, the gender identity stuff and not making fun of gay people," she said. "Show them that they're people too and that there's nothing different about them really."
Yusara, a seventh-grader, disagreed with her schoolmates. She admitted that talking about sexual orientation might do some good in discouraging bullying, but thought it could easily slide into promoting homosexuality.
"If people want to be like that they can be like that," she said, "but they don't need to bring people into it."
Despite Yusara's dissension, the kids at Valley Park seemed a lot more open than the strike might indicate. All of them were in favour of talking about consent, how to make good decisions, and how to stay safe. That's a lot more level-headed than some prominent adult sex-ed opponents, one of whom argued that talking to minors about consent amounts to teaching "little children how to give permission for that child to engage in sex."
As eighth-grader Darcy from back at Fern Avenue reminded me, every school is different, each one with its own unique problems. The one constant, she said, is that students everywhere are getting more "prone, interested, even pressured" to have sex at an early age.
"If the government, and parents, want to know how to effectively change the curriculum," she said, "they should probably ask the students."
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