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.