Sunday, March 1, 2015


I've heard talk of the "pearl-clutchers" who object to the sex-ed portion of the new Ontario Health and Physical Education curriculum, but I've never met any. My suspicion is that, apart from a handful of people belonging to fringe religious groups (such as the small group that gathered to protest at Queen's Park on last Tuesday), no one really objects to this update. Why? Maybe because contrary to what many of the media stories on the new curriculum would have us believe, this is an extremely tame sex-ed program. In fact it's not about sex at all.

As I tweeted on the day the curriculum was released:

It's not just orgasms that are MIA; pleasure in general gets short shrift, though at least the concept is mentioned—eight times in the 2015 release, up from five in the 2010 version. And, yes, there are those "shocking" references to wet dreams, vaginal lubrication and masturbation in Grade 6, but since these topics are mentioned (once each) in the optional teacher prompts, the likelihood of them making their way into actual classroom teaching or discussion is slim. By contrast, teaching about abstinence or delaying sexual activity (eleven mentions) is not optional: it is clearly a part of the curriculum that is expected to be taught—in fact, it is listed as one of the "key topics" for Grades 7 and 8. STIs are another key topic for these grades. There is a lot of information about STIs in this curriculum, as of course there should be, but as I said in my tweet, the balance between "scary" and "fun" topics may strike some as skewed.

Or rather it would be askew if this were a sex-ed curriculum: that is, a curriculum about sex and sexuality. It is not. The Human Development and Sexual Health portion of the Health and Physical Education curriculum is in fact a harm-prevention program whose aim is to educate kids about the possible dangers they may encounter as they grow into sexual beings. That is precisely how the government has framed the new curriculum in their parent guides and news conferences, and most of its "controversial" parts can be explained in light of this aim. Education minister Liz Sandals has pointed out, for instance, that young kids need to know the proper names of body parts so they can communicate with family members and police if they are being abused. Older kids need to be aware of anal and oral sex in the context of STIs, since rates of teen pregnancy in Ontario have dropped while STI rates have risen—the reason being, according to Sandals, that teens are engaging in pregnancy-avoidant sexual behaviour, unaware that alternative acts carry other risks. The new lessons about online behaviour and sexting are safety-focussed in obvious ways, as are the anti-bullying sections, the LGBTQ sections, and the new additions about consent.

All of these new emphases are welcome, and they all make sense given the government's explicit goal of keeping kids safe and healthy. One would be hard pressed to object to a program that furthers such a goal. Which is why, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, so few people oppose the new curriculum. Progressive parents and educators, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood support it, but so too do well-known conservative pundits and columnists, such as Margaret Wente and Michael Coren. (See also this thoughtful post by a Baptist pastor from Eganville, Ontario. )

I'm happy that there is wide support for this curriculum and that it will finally be implemented in September of 2015. Kids need sexual harm-prevention education. But they also need sex education. As I said in my post on the 2010 version of the curriculum,
The pornographic rival has not gone away. And progressive sex education for Ontario kids is still lacking.