Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The New K-8 Ontario Sex Ed Curriculum: Too Far or Not Far Enough?

Last month the Toronto District School Board suspended a middle school teacher for displaying a sexually explicit safe-sex poster in his Grade 7 and 8 classroom. The board has since overturned the suspension, but the media interest in this case, and others like it, would lead one to believe that Toronto public school children are exposed to too much sexual information in the classroom, too soon. If my experience is any indication, nothing could be further from the truth. During their four years of school-based sex ed, my twin daughters–now in Grade 8–learned too little, too late.

Part of the reason for this is that their teachers have been working from what many professionals in the field of sex ed—including members of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea)–consider to be a flawed and obsolete curriculum. In 2010 the McGuinty government, in consultation with parents, students and experts in children's physical and mental health, overhauled the health and physical education curriculum. But the sex ed portion was shelved after conservative religious groups–most vocally, Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College–protested against its explicitness and its frankness about LGBT issues. Currently, the curriculum in effect throughout the province is the "interim" 2010 document, which is the new physical and health education curriculum with the sex ed portion cut out and replaced with the 1998 version.

The problem with this older sex ed program is that it is . . . well, old. It was conceived before widespread Internet access, thus before Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, texting, sexting, cyber-bullying and online porn. But socio-technological outdatedness is not its major shortcoming in my view. The 1998 curriculum, written in the politically and culturally conservative Mike Harris era, is a document of its time in more fundamental ways, as well. Consider, for example, that it does not mention puberty or menstruation until grade 5 (by which time a growing proportion of girls will have started their periods), that it steers almost entirely clear of LGBT issues, despite the fact that, as my daughters have attested, "gay" starts being used as schoolyard slur as early as Grade 1. When it broaches sex and sexuality in middle school it does so primarily in relation to STI prevention and abstinence. In Grade 7, the learning expectations in the Growth and Development strand are as follows:

– identify the methods of transmission and the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and ways to prevent them;
– use effective communication skills (e.g., refusal skills, active listening) to deal with various relationships and situations;
– explain the term abstinence as it applies to healthy sexuality;
In the Grade 8, students are introduced to sex and contraception, but again the emphasis is on abstinence, with students expected to "explain the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents" as well as "apply living skills (e.g., decision-making, assertiveness, and refusal skills) in making informed decisions, and analyse the consequences of engaging in sexual activities and using drugs."

One can debate the merits of "abstinence-is-best" as advice for pre-teens and teens, as well as the wisdom of equating sexual activity with using drugs, but it would be difficult to argue that this approach to the subject of sex in middle school is strictly educational. In fact, the abstinence message has little to do with the realities of adolescent sexuality; rather, it is a moral interpretation of human sexuality derived from specific interpretations of Judeo-Christian teachings on marriage and family life.

But although abstinence-is-best is a moral message, its presence in the 1998 curriculum is primarily political. At the time, the Christian right was in ascendance in the US both politically and culturally. In 1996, federal funds to the tune of 50 million dollars a year were made available to states teaching abstinence-only sex education programs. (George Bush more than doubled the spending on these programs in his 2003 budget.) Culturally, it was the era of teenage purity balls, chastity rings and abstinence pledges. In Ontario, the Harris conservatives represented the watered-down Canadian version of this cultural zeitgeist. And so the term "abstinence," which was not a part of my own sex ed vocabulary, wended its way into the Ontario sex ed curriculum.

Between 1998 and 2010, a  lot changed in Canadian culture. Gay marriage was legalized in 2005. Access to the Internet grew steadily in the naughts, reaching approximately 80 percent of Canadian households by the end of the decade. It was clear to educators as well as legislators in the liberal McGuinty government that sex education in the province's schools was in dire need of an overhaul. And the 2010 Physical and Health Education curriculum is quite the overhaul. Undertaken while current premier Kathleen Wynn was education minister, the 2010 curriculum* is, at 211 pages, five times longer than the 1998 version it was meant to replace. It is also considerably more complex, covering a wider range of topics, with a greater emphasis on mental health, specifically on cultivating "resilience" in adolescents as they bumble towards adulthood. On balance, it appears to be a stronger, more relevant curriculum for elementary kids living in the 21st century. Unlike its predecessor, for example, it addresses the intersection of technology and sexuality head on, beginning in Grade 7, with discussions of online bullying, sexting, sharing photos online, etc.

It is its relevance in other areas that triggered the religiously-inflected criticisms that resulted in the new sex ed strand being shelved before it could be implemented. The purported problems begin in Grade 1, with kids being introduced to proper names of their body parts, including vagina and penis. From the teacher and student prompts (a new feature in this curriculum) :
Teacher prompt: “We have talked about the body parts that everyone has. What body
parts do only boys have and what body parts do only girls have?”
Student: “Boys have a penis. Girls have a vagina.”
Teacher: “We talk about these body parts, like all body parts, with respect.”
One wonders what critics of this section think children should call the body parts between their legs that they are aware of possessing from toddler hood. ("Wee wee", "down there"?) After all, other body parts are studied and referred to by their scientific names in early grades; to my knowledge there have been no objections registered against the naming of the uvula.

But of course, in our culture not all body parts are equal; some are designated "private." Vaginas, penises and breasts are only allowed to enter the public realm in controlled, mostly sexualized ways, most often packaged for consumption (think pornography). The ordinary functions and processes of these parts, such as vaginal lubrication, wet dreams and erections, all of which are covered in the new sex ed curriculum in Grade 6, are not to be mentioned publicly or discussed matter-of-factly–at least not according to McVety et al. If we don't name certain experiences, the argument seems to go, we can pretend they don't exist; we can pretend that children don't, for instance, already possess bodies and budding sexualities, and that they won't one day (sooner rather than later, perhaps) be sexually active persons. It seems superfluous to point to the ample evidence suggesting that comprehensive sex education leads to later initiation of sexual activity and safer sex when initiation occurs. Critics of sex ed in general, and Ontario's new curriculum in particular, seem determined to believe the opposite. It's difficult not to suspect that the real objection is to sex education, full stop–an objection to bringing the private and familial into the public (educational) sphere where its meaning becomes unfixed and up for negotiation.

In a similar vein and for similar reasons, religious groups objected to the LGBT content of the 2010 revised curriculum, specifically the teaching in Grade 3 about "visible and invisible" differences such as sexual orientation. In later grades, the curriculum lays out for kids the distinction between sexual orientation and gender identity. The expectation for Grade 8 is that students will:
demonstrate an understanding of gender identity (e.g., male, female, two-spirited, transgendered, transsexual, intersex) and sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual), and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop a positive selfconcept [six].
Not surprisingly, this section riled the McVetys of the province with its suggestion that human sexuality is a more complex and fluid phenomenon than the version of it on display in other parts of the culture, in mainstream movies and TV shows, for example–and in evangelical churches.

That's not to say this portion of the curriculum is beyond critique. The careful, culturally-sensitive language is potentially problematic not because it is symptomatic of a "radical sex ed" agenda, but because such language runs the risk of dating the document and restricting kids' understanding of sexuality. There is, after all, no scientific or even cultural consensus as to the number and nature of human gender identities. Meanings and definitions of sexuality are continually being contested, which is as it should be. The sex ed classroom is as good a place as any for robust, open debate about the complicated interrelationships between sex, gender and sexual orientation. Nonetheless, with homophobic bullying and cyberbullying showing no signs of easing up in middle and high schools, any curriculum that gets kids thinking critically about such issues is a good start and long overdue.

The true flaws of the new sex ed program lie elsewhere, in my opinion. Its controversial LGBT content notwithstanding, the 2010 curriculum strikes me as still too timid a document in key areas. Certain problems seem to have been carried over from the 1998 curriculum. For instance, although sex ed now starts in Grade 4, one year earlier than in the 1998 program, menstruation and spermatogenesis are still not taught until Grade 5, which is far too late given the age at which many kids now reach puberty. And, in the 2010 version, as in its predecessor, contraception is not taught until Grade 8.

When it comes to sex itself, echoes of the old abstinence-is-best-agenda remain. For instance, in Grade 7 you find this expectation:
explain the importance of having a common understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity until one is older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from having oral-genital contact). . . .
And in the next paragraph, the term abstinence is explained in a "teacher prompt":
The term abstinence can mean different things to different people.
People can also have different understandings of what is meant by having or not having sex. . . .  Having sex can be an enjoyable experience and can be an important part of a
close relationship when you are older. But having sex has risks too, including physical risks like sexually transmitted infections . . . and getting pregnant when you don’t want to.
The ideal student responds (in the accompanying "student prompt") as follows:
“It’s best to wait until you are older to have sex because you need to be emotionally ready, which includes being able to talk with your partner about how you feel, being prepared to talk about and use protection against STIs or pregnancy. . . . 
Abstinence rears its head yet again–albeit in attenuated form–in Grade 8, when students are expected to:
develop their understanding about sexual health (e.g., about issues such as abstinence; the choice to delay first intercourse; setting sexual limits; safer sex and pleasure; use of contraception, including condoms, for pregnancy and STI prevention), using knowledge of self and of safe-sex practices and contraception (including condom use), seeking additional information and support as needed, and practising (e.g., through role play) the communication, assertiveness, and refusal skills that may be needed for decision making in real-life contexts.
There is, buried within the long parenthesis, a mention of pleasure, and to be fair, the pleasures of intimacy are discussed in other parts of the Grade 8 expectations, especially in a section outlining the pros and cons of being in an intimate relationship. On balance, however, when it comes to sex, the pro side is given short shrift. There is very little detail about sexual pleasure, masturbation or orgasms, and quite a bit of information about scary STIs, unwanted pregnancies and the negative social consequences of being in a relationship (alienation from friends, for example).

It is true that this is an elementary curriculum, and a more "sex-positive" element may emerge in the new high school curriculum, which I have not seen. Still, it is fair to ask whether it is appropriate or necessary for children's introduction to sex ed to contain so much implicit moralizing, so many preachy and condescending warnings against sex. It seems that in an (obviously futile) effort to appease its potential critics, the writers of the curriculum have lost sight of what a truly progressive sex ed program might look like. I do not pretend to know what the details of such a program would be, but I don't believe it would be quite so fear-based. Instead of emphasizing abstinence, it might focus on consent, a concept conspicuous by its absence in the 2010 curriculum, despite the welcome inclusion in the Grade 8 expectations of a discussion of gender-based violence.

I think, too, that a progressive sex education would engage kids, and nothing is less engaging or easier to dismiss than sermons about the dangers of sex. This is especially true given that we live in a culture in which there exists, for adults and kids alike, a parallel, free and nearly universally available alternative to sex ed: namely, pornography. A progressive sex education must be at least as interesting as its pornographic rival. Unlike its rival, school-based sex education need not–and ideally, would not–have anything to sell or promote beyond knowledge of and interest in a vital component of human experience.

* Public access to the 2010 version of the curriculum is no longer available. Link now directs to the further revised 2015 version that was implemented in 2015.


  1. You wrote: "nothing is less engaging or easier to dismiss than sermons about the dangers of sex" -- and to that I'd add that this kind of sex-negative curriculum damages its own credibility in the same way that anti-drug sermonizing teaches kids that adults aren't to be trusted about drugs.

    It's also alienating! Good luck getting kids engaged in discussions about consent, contraception, STIs, and healthy sexual relationships when you've already established that they're being judged for making their own choices about their own sexuality. I can't even imagine how to address something like slut-shaming after teaching kids that having sex is irresponsible and bad.

    1. Agreed...how do we even begin to address suicides as a result from slut-shaming and bullying in a rape-culture?

  2. Fabulous post!

    I'd like to comment that children's access to more sexually explicit and violent video games has also changed dramatically in the last decade. My son is in grade 6 (age 12) and he tells me about some of his friends playing/having access to Grand Theft Auto...a rated M (mature) video game for its sexual content and violence. I had the privilege of attending two critical media literacy conferences at the Faculty of Education at Western University in 2010 and 2011. It was there that I saw for the first time & experienced first hand, in Grand Theft Auto, a character pay for a prostitute, have simulated sex in the back seat, pop her off when he was through and take back his money. What kind of message is that sending to adults? More importantly, what is that message saying to children and what is the impact?

    Our children are exposed to sexual imagery and messages at a very early age through pop culture & role models (actors, sports) music lyrics (Pitbull's Hotel Room, Britney Spears' If You Seek Amy aka FUCK me) and videos, TV, toys (Bratz Dolls - age compression) commercials, movies, video games, not to mention the internet, social media and so forth.

    We owe it to our children to educate them truthfully about sexuality, unbiasedly, with respect and tolerance, without prejudice, without fear. We are all a product of sex; we wouldn't exist without it. Even the McVetys of the Province. And I wholeheartedly agree with you, sexuality is one of the most basic, natural and vital components of the human experience. It's time for everyone, especially Ontario's sex ed curriculum to embrace this and start working together. Because I think it's time we really dedicated ourselves to helping kids critically wade through the often confusing plethora of sexual content they see on a daily basis and commit to promoting healthy sexual attitudes and practices.

    Just my two cents worth, thanks again for this much needed dialogue!


    1. Tracy -- Thanks for your comment. I hadn't really thought about video games (probably because my girls don't play them), but you're right, that's another way kids are being "educated" about sex and gender relations. Obviously, there are many good, educational (or simply fun) games out there too, but I think the point is that it's becoming increasingly difficult for parents to control which games kids have access to, just as it's almost impossible to monitor everything they are doing online. I think that rather than trying to police kids, we need to present them with alternatives and, as you say, help them critically wade through the content they have access to, be it online, in games, in advertising, etc. A good sex ed curriculum could help with this process, but I'm not convinced the revised Ontario curriculum, in its current form, is up to the task.

  3. Hi Sylvan! Thanks for commenting. You make a great point about the negative repercussions of a sex-negative curriculum, though I'd argue that the 2010 curriculum is mixed -- it's trying to please everyone, I think. I believe it's especially true that it's difficult to address an issue like "slut-shaming" in a constructive manner, when there is an (implicit) element of "sex-shaming" in the curriculum itself. One hopes, though, that some of these issues can be addressed during the second revamp of this curriculum.

  4. I love how they want to teach the kids assertiveness and "refusal skills" -- at the same time that they're obviously trying to tell them what to do and what to think.

    Sex seems like one area where schools' emphasis on obedience and on compliance with "expectations" is very likely to backfire. Even if they did try to teach kids to think for themselves in this one area (which they aren't), it would be too little, too late.

    I agree that the schools shouldn't preach at the kids about sex or try to indoctrinate them into a particular set of values, but I think it would be great if schools could go beyond just presenting factual information and help students develop their own thinking about how to act and how to treat other people -- without pushing them toward preconceived "right" answers. I doubt schools are capable of doing that, though.

    There is a layer of dishonesty under so much sex ed and other "guidance" programs. The elementary program here is designed to scare kids into not drinking, smoking, or doing drugs, for example, and the sex ed program is heavy on abstinence. But are the teachers all teetotalers? Have none of them ever smoked a cigarette, or a joint? Were none of them sexually active as young people? If they were, do they necessarily regret all of it? This implicit dishonesty doesn't seem to bother anyone -- god forbid they should be candid -- but I think the kids know it's there.

    The lack of candor, the desire to indoctrinate, and the unwillingness to allow kids to think for themselves are all a kind of disrespect that none of us, as adults, would respond well to. Why do we think kids will respond well to them?

    1. Chris -- I agree that the emphasis on "refusal skills" when it comes to sex and drugs (which the curriculum implicitly equates) is not only too little too late, but in direct contradiction to the not-so-hidden curriculum of obedience and compliance. I also agree that kids probably get turned off sex ed because they pick up on the dishonesty (or hypocrisy?) underlying so many of these programs. A related problem is that in the Ontario program (and in most others, I suspect) the material is presented in a way that is almost guaranteed to bore kids to tears. I don't see why this has to be the case. After all, there's nothing inherently boring about sex. I remember you once saying (in a comment on another post) that your ideal sex ed program would be a mix of science, history, and literature. I don't see why schools couldn't in fact design their sex ed programs that way. Present the factual, scientific stuff, but follow that with a history of sexuality, and an examination of the ways in which sexuality, including adolescent sexuality, is explored through literature, movies, etc. (It surprises a lot of kids to learn how young Romeo and Juliet are supposed to be, for instance.) I think setting up the course this way would avoid the problem of preaching or indoctrinating. The emphasis, ideally, would be on discussion and debate.

      Of course, true debate is probably not the goal of most sex ed curricula. But one can dream, right?

  5. For me, the sex ed curriculum is a victim of the politicization of education. We have culturally shifted from politicians being leaders, showing us the way forward, to followers who represent their constituents to government. As long as politicians feel they are beholding to their constituents, and education is part of the political agenda, it's going to be difficult for Ontario's education system to be progressive in any area, sex ed included. As soon as any area of education moves forward the most conservative elements start to bleat and politicians back off because they feel they no longer have public support.

    Another wrinkle is that, of course, this is the area of the curriculum where religious views are most commonly expressed. How can there be a curriculum that adequately meets the needs of sexually active 13 year olds and students who are very conservatively religious? How can we address the needs of students who are beginning to explore their gender identity alongside students who have been told for 10+ years that such things are evil and vile? It's impossible.

    This kind of chill extends beyond the policy/curriculum level and right to the grass roots. Educators are increasingly nervous about teaching these topics in any way because some parents are increasingly uncomfortable. I've had parents of grade 7 students demand that their children be removed from health classes because they didn't want their daughters taught health by a male teacher. I have parents withdraw their children on religious grounds. And so on.

    The MOE has tried to address the diversity of opinion on this by making the curriculum vague and non-specific. Instead this has left teacher exposed on this controversial and crucial issue and unsure what exactly they have support to do. Teachers who go beyond the curriculum to meet the needs of their students are exposed legally, so they stick to the letter of the curriculum.

    I can see why it took you a while to write this. It's a mess!!

  6. Andrew is right that it’s hard to imagine a sex ed curriculum that could satisfy both progressives and religious conservatives. I prefer the more progressive approaches, but Andrew’s point – that politicians should be leaders, showing the way forward, rather than representing their constituents’ views – triggers some resistance in me. If leadership means “any successful imposition of one’s own policy preferences onto a community, regardless of the community’s own preferences,” then the religious conservative who abolishes sex ed is just as much of a leader as the progressive who imposes a progressive program. In other words, I don’t see how encouraging politicians to disregard their constituents’ values can improve the situation, since it is just as likely to thwart progressive values as conservative ones.

    I’d be more inclined to define a “leader” as someone who helps create a consensus (or at least a majority) among members of the public, rather than someone who imposes a solution regardless of what the public wants. If Andrew just means to criticize politicians who make no efforts (and take no risks) to do that, then I agree with him.

    Both Andrew and I may think that the more progressive approach better “meets the needs” of students, but that’s exactly what the conservatives disagree with us on. Should it just be a winner-take-all battle for a political majority? Maybe it should. But if it is, there will be a lot of places where progressives won’t win.

    I don’t know what the solution is. As long as people want schools to dictate the “correct” facts and opinions, the system will break down whenever there is no consensus about what’s right and true. I wish people saw schools more as centers of inquiry than as purveyors of truth, but of course that, too, is a value judgment that lacks any consensus.

  7. I agree with a lot of what you say, Andrew, but I don't know how in a democracy you can avoid politicians being beholden to their constituents. We wouldn't want them to get elected and just do whatever they want, in education or any other area, would we? I do agree, though, that they could show more leadership in the sense of not caving in, as the McGuinty Liberals did in 2010, to minority groups trying to insert their religious values into our secular education system.

    I also appreciate that the problems on the ground -- the ground in this case being the classroom -- are more complex and intractable than they might seem to me, looking at the issue through a theoretical lens, or even just as a parent who wants her kids to have the benefit of a progressive, non-doctrinaire sex education.

    Like Chris, I don't know what the solution is. I think the idea of structuring the non-scientific parts of the sex ed program as debate or inquiry is a good one. But what are the chances of that happening on a regular basis? Does the new Ontario curriculum allow for that to happen?

    It seems to me that a lot depends on how a teacher chooses to handle sex ed. This year, for the first time, I feel as though my daughters' teacher is taking it seriously. (On the first day of the unit, she told the class: "Le sexe peut être fantastique!" which was the first positive thing they'd heard said about the subject in a sex ed class.) But I think even she could benefit from a less preachy, more engaging, and more up-to-date curriculum.

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  11. This is an interesting post. Truly, with the advent of social media, most sex education policies are rendered obsolete. Currently, I think we have less and less control over the content our kids are exposed to over the internet and over their actions as well. At the end of the day, I think a better choice, besides sex education in schools, is to engage with the topic at home. We must open our lines with our children regarding these sensitive topics in order for them to feel honest and comfortable with us. With an open communication, we might be able to guide them better into making informed choices. Let us let the schools handle the scientific and biological aspects of sex ed, but we must focus ourselves on the decision-making aspect of making an informed choice.
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  12. I wrote out my reply several times, and just deleted it to start over. Chris (above) said it really well, "I don’t see how encouraging politicians to disregard their constituents’ values can improve the situation, since it is just as likely to thwart progressive values as conservative ones."
    Sexual education like any other discipline should be free of moral judgments on either side. It should be a dialogue that allows for a diversity of opinions supported by the family who is responsible for raising them. For better or worse, that is the job of the parents.
    When I teach history at the secondary level, I am not permitted to teach morality. Consider the implications of the following scenario: teaching about European contact in my school board (which happens to have a large Aboriginal population). If I imply that contact was good, I have isolated half of my class. If I say it was bad, I isolate the large portion of my class who are descendents early settlers).

    On a different note, I honestly don't understand your objection to the discussion of abstinence. There are psychological and physical reasons to delay sexual intercourse, and that's not a statement of morality. It doesn't imply that you are wrong not to wait. Dialogue about when one is ready to have sex is not taking a moral stance. I just absolutely disagree with you on that one. Are you honestly reading those as "shaming" ? That's absurd to me.

  13. Thanks for your comment. I agree that dialogue about when one is ready to have sex has a place in a sex-ed curriculum, and that such a dialogue does not necessarily have to be normative or moralistic. But in the passages I cite in my post, there is a decided slant in favour of delaying sex, and I don't think a secular curriculum should take a position on that issue. I also object to the use of the word "abstinence" because of its religious-political connotations south of the border and increasingly in Canada as well. I think fruitful discussions about decision-making regarding when to engage in sexual activity can be had without reference to such a culturally freighted term.

  14. I just wanted to add a viewpoint that you may have missed.

    Part of the opposition to the new sexual education curriculum in the Catholic board rises from the introduction of incompatible teaching about gender roles as you have mentioned. (As an aside, since you didn't distinguish in your post, the Catholic teaching is that the act is sinful but the tendency is not. Most evangelical churches, such as the ones you probably heard about, don't make that distinction.)

    The other factor which you might have missed is the introduction of discussion on masturbation and anal intercourse, both of which are considered morally sinful. While discussion about these topics absolutely needs to take place as you pointed out, the proposed timeline (gr 7) is far too early when theology education is taken into account.

    The Catholic teaching on Theology of the Body (written by Pope John Paul II) is not something so simple that a 12 year old who is still developing their basic theology would be ready absorb. More so for a 8 year old when discussing gender roles (Theology of the Body covers both).

    I think that if the public board wishes to use the new sexual education curriculum, they are free to do so (although, having learned a bit about Theology of the Body, I don't think it's a good idea). Forcing the Catholic education system to adopt the same curriculum though becomes an issue of teaching Catholic children concepts which may damage their spiritual development. More troubling from a legalistic point of view, I think it may even border on impeding religious freedoms.

  15. Sex education is very important... With the improvement with technology we have to care about this..
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