Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Sex Education in Ontario: Beyond abstinence only curriculums

There is a new sex education curriculum in Ontario that is being strongly opposed by "family values" groups.

Some of the highlights are
Grade 1- taught to identify body parts by their proper names, including male and female genitalia
Grade 3- curriculum includes gender identity, sexual orientation, and same-sex marriage
Grade 5- identify reproductive organs and describe puberty changes
Grade 6- taught about masturbation, as well as definitions for terms like "vaginal lubrication"
Grade 7- STIs, AIDS, and unwanted pregnancy prevention, including information about oral and anal sex.
Grade 8- Taught about the importance of abstinence as a positive choice, but not as the only choice. They are also taught about pregnancy prevention and how to find support for issues relating to a healthy sexuality.

Dr. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, claimed that
"Little eight-year-olds, they're going to be taught they look one way on the outside but they may be the opposite on the inside... This is so confusing to an eight-year-old ... these are children in the strongest sense of the word -- they're innocent, they're clean, they're beautiful -- and to corrupt them by imparting a question of gender identity is beyond the pale."
Would talk of gender identity confuse an 8 year-old? Probably not, I think most third graders are more open to these ideas than many adults... and it might help a lot of children accept how they feel about their own bodies.

I am troubled by the perception that children are pure and innocent. Children are in need of protection and nurture from adults in order to survive. Adults are supposed to provide them with the necessities, like food and shelter. In western society, adults must also protect children from "secret" adult knowledge, such as sexual relations, money, violence, illness, death, as well as specific social relations and language. This is not always the case historically or in many other cultures, where children sleep in the same room as parents and it is not uncommon for them to see their parents having sex.

Children are constructed as pure, innocent and in need of protection from adult knowledge, when I believe that they are merely ignorant because of this so-called protection. I have heard it argued that this ignorance can make them more at risk because the concept of innocence can be arousing to abusers, it can stigmatize children who have figured out these secrets, and it makes them more vulnerable to abuse when they don’t have the words to describe what is happening or the knowledge to understand what is acceptable and what is not.

The importance of teaching youth about the dangers of sex is widely debated, but it is much less controversial than the concept of teaching them about the pleasures of sex- which is something that this curriculum does not quite get into, but is bordering on. In order to be successful in most aspects of life, children are taught to practice. They spend countless hours doing homework to practice for a test, training for a sport, or learning a musical instrument. What they are not taught is that sexual pleasure also takes practice; in fact, they are shamed into not practicing. The safest way to practice would be to masturbate, but instead of being encouraged to do so, they are made to feel guilt over autoeroticism and sexuality itself. The importance of having a healthy sex life in adulthood is rarely discussed in school curriculums.

Children, and especially teenagers, know that sex exists and trying to end premarital sex is an effort in futility. Rather than continuing to fight this losing battle, children should be 'protected' by being given complete and accurate information about sex. I hope that teachers get the training necessary to deliver this information to students in a way that does not shame them into avoiding questions and not getting the information that they need.

In a lecture on the problems with abstinence only education, a women's studies professor argued that everyone (even children) deserve to practice with as much information at their disposal as possible.

edited to add: Upon re-reading this, I thought I might end up with comments telling me that it is wrong to push sexuality onto children... Just to make it clear, I am not suggesting that we actively encourage young children to masturbate, or give them step by step instructions on how to do so... I am merely saying that we need to make sure they have all the information they need available to them so that when they do decide to experiment with their body in various ways, they are able to do so without being embarrassed or ashamed of themselves.


  1. Well it appears that the Ontario government has backed down from implementing these changes for next fall due to backlash from parents and religious groups. Personally I think they should just scrap the curriculum for the younger grades and start it in grade 5. Another change I would suggest is pushing the topic of anal sex from grade 7 to high school. According to a survey only 11% of US teens have tried anal sex, so learning it in grade 7 is not really necessary.

  2. I heard on the radio this morning that they are rethinking it... that's too bad, i was really hoping Ontario would have comprehensive sexual health in the curriculum.

    I personally do not see a problem with teaching kids about proper names for their genitals in grade 1 and I was really happy about the gender identity in grade 3. I knew what anal sex was in grade 7, but only through friends... what I didn't know is that it was an extremely high risk activity. Luckily, I was not sexually active in grade 7.

  3. I heard about this and I HOPE they will come up with a new sex ed curriculum that is only slightly changed from this one with certain things moved up a grade level or two. I've heard studies have found a majority of parents DO want their children learning sex-ed and would be okay with something more comprehensive than we have now so hopefully this is only a little too extreme for the majority. People are upset about what the kids will be learning in grade 1 but I think kids should learn that when they're being toilet trained.