NSB Guest Blog | Ontario’s New Sex Education Curriculum

Sonya-JF-BanrettToday’s guest speaker blog comes from Sonya JF Barnett, a champion of women’s sexual rights, SlutWalkTO Co-Founder and one of More Magazine’s Top 50 Fiercest Women.

  NSB-Divider I learned about sex like most people: the hard way.  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{I’m a huge proponent of using ‘sexual health’ or ‘sexual health & relationships education’ as a replacement to the outdated term ‘sex ed’}.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. Despite a 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, 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. Until we have this type of frank education, we can make do with Ontarios updated H&PE curriculum. 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. 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’
  • Though there is constant mention of being considerate of different gender identities and sexual orientation, there is a curious amount of heterosexism running throughout the curriculum. 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’ 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.
  Better to teach kids how to be informed viewers and decision-makers, then to let them blindly accept what appears in front of them. 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.   NSB-Divider Learn more about Sonya on her NSB Speaker Profile.