Controversial changes to curriculum about the birds and the bees has parents in Ontario buzzing. I interviewed Dr. Jess O'Reilly, a sexologist from Toronto, on the topic.
The controversy began with the updating of curriculum from 1998 in recognition of the fact that sexuality changes, the science of sex changes, and young people interact with sexual information differently over time; porn is more available; communication and dating customs have changed; cyber-bullying was absent from the old curriculum.
Many people who are upset haven't actually reviewed the changes (outlined here on Dr. Jess's blog). Among the many changes, inclusivity is most important. Curriculum is not exclusively speaking from heterosexual viewpoint. Conversations about safer sex acknowledge the wide range of sexual acts people engage in regardless of gender identity.
There is a lot of emphasis on consent and teaching the same material to children regardless of gender identity. This recognizes boys and girls both need to learn to ask for and give consent, that all people require these skills. Teaching consent in grade one is not about sex but about body autonomy, like needing to ask for a hug and having the right to decline one. "Consent" at that age is instruction that if someone wants to touch your body, they have to ask. Menstruation is also a topic covered in teaching children, regardless of gender.
Dr. Jess says it is important to understand that comprehensive sex education doesn't hasten sexual experimentation. Comprehensive sex education focuses on abstinence but is sex positive. The average age of first sexual experience is 17, with millennials having fewer sex partners on average. While sexual language may be stronger, research shows hookup culture to be a myth, or at least more often referring to sexually monogamous friends with benefits situations.
Some have complained that references to anal sex supports the "gay agenda." These references are restricted to grade seven or eight and focus on safer sex practices. Dr. Jess notes that this criticism is unfounded because anal sex is not restricted to gay people and some gay people do not engage in the practice at all. She is concerned that some of the backlash about these changes is rooted in homophobia and transphobia.
More than anything, these changes are about safety and empowerment.
Destigmatizing bodies increases children's comfort level in seeking medical treatment. Body positivity allows boys to seek out medical attention for symptoms of testicular cancer, something that can affect people at a young age. Removing shame from body parts facilitates healthy conversations with medical professionals and saves lives.
Dr. Jess explains that it's not just students who need sex education. Only 15.5 per cent of teacher college programs in Canada provide mandatory sex education components. She believes it is so important to support teachers by giving them the tools, resources, and skills to address these topics. Training teachers to improve knowledge on topics of interest to youth was part of Dr. Jess' work when she conducted her research at the University of Toronto.
While these updates are important, further updates will be needed. The revised curriculum was written in 2010 but does not address newer phenomena, like Tinder and Instagram. She would love to see more information about making good decisions on how you represent yourself online as well as gender biases in terms of having conversations about what is expected of women and men.
One of the goals of sexual education is practicing behavioral skills in a low pressure environment (i.e. the classroom) to improve positive outcomes and safety in a more high pressure environment (e.g. at parties where alcohol may be available). This can be done through role-playing and provides transferable skills. Negotiating boundaries and relationship rules are life skills children can draw on in a variety of situations and gives them the confidence they need to make good choices.
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