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Jan Wong: Why aren’t schools teaching kids about the pleasures and perils of sex?

Body Politics

The answer is simple: our curriculum is shamefully outdated, and the Liberals are too scared to fix it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.