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Most Parents Support the New Sex Ed Curriculum - With Good Reason

05/07/2015 06:12 EDT | Updated 05/07/2016 05:59 EDT
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The uproar over Ontario's updated sexual education curriculum has now gone way over the top, with some parents pulling their kids out of school in protest. I respect the right of these parents to make their views known and to pull their kids out of school when sexual health curriculum is discussed in class. I oppose the attempt to axe the whole curriculum so that my child and the children of most Ontario parents, who support the curriculum, can't benefit from it either.

The misinformation about the new curriculum rivals the inaccuracies kids get about sex from their friends and our culture. Some parents are convinced that their kids will be asked to touch themselves at school. The actual curriculum stresses respecting yourself and respecting others. If you oppose it, fine. At least know what you are opposing.

These concerned parents are well-meaning. They just want to protect their kids. Despite all the research evidence to the contrary, I heard some parents on the radio express fears that teaching their child the correct names for their genitalia will somehow encourage their kids to experiment sexually. I hate to break this to them, but kids' curiosity about genitalia predates sexual education curricula by thousands of years.

In Grades 1-3, Ontario kids will be taught the correct names for body parts, as opposed to "wee-wee" or "down there." They will be taught how to recognize inappropriate touching and what to do about it. I am a researcher who has done work in the area of child sexual abuse. I recognize this curriculum as based on research about what works to help kids avoid sexual abuse and to report abuse if it does happen. Most people who sexual abuse kids have a relationship with the child -- a family member, a family friend, or a person with authority over the child. It is very difficult for a small child not to believe a trusted adult who convinces them that sexual touching is okay and "our little secret." Ignorance does not protect children. Information does.

I have taken a parenting cue from an uncle who was a physician. He taught his daughters the correct names for genitalia and even about sex from an early age. Did they grow up to be teenage moms, as one parent I heard predicted? No. They both grew up to be doctors. The woman I heard on the radio who doesn't want her kids to learn the correct words will get a surprise when her kids come home with ruder names for these body parts from the playground.

In Grades 4 to 6, the time when some kids are now entering puberty, they will learn about the physical and emotional changes that accompany puberty. The curriculum includes getting cultural advice from elders as a way of managing stress, as well as taking care of yourself and making healthy choices. They learn that touching people without their permission or sharing explicit photos of someone is both inappropriate and illegal.

When kids are older, the curriculum is based on evidence about what delays teen sex, prevents pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease. I've heard parents mistakenly assume that if sex is discussed in school, kids will rush out to try it when in fact the research shows the opposite is true. Robbing kids of factual information does not prevent them from developing sexual feelings at puberty like everybody else. It does not prevent them from hearing about sex elsewhere, such as misinformation from friends and the internet. Not talking about sex except in the context of religious values and abstinence does not prevent premarital sex, as the existence of institutions for unwed mothers prior to the 1960s clearly show.

The United States has the least sex ed, the most abstinence-based sex ed programs and consequently the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world. Why? We live in a hyper-sexualized culture. Our kids see it through TV, movies, the Internet and other kids. They get all sorts of misinformation about sex, particularly through pornography, in which no one ever gets pregnant or picks up a disease. Even if you try to shield your kids from the culture around them, they will experience it through other people's kids. When young people learn in school that sex isn't just pleasure, it comes with responsibility, they tend to delay sexual activity and are better prepared to protect themselves when they do engage in it. The Netherlands has a very low rate of teen pregnancy, delayed sexual activity, and well-developed sex ed curricula in schools. Knowledge is not the enemy. Misinformation is.

The new Ontario curriculum specifically talks in Grade 7 about the benefits of delaying sexual activity and the risk of sexually-transmitted infection. Only in Grade 8 is contraception covered. You can see this in the full Health and Physical Education curriculum for Grades 1-8, which is where the updated sexual health information is embedded. Sexual education is not a stand-alone topic in Ontario schools. It is part of a holistic approach to understanding human physical and emotional development and healthy choices.

The updated curriculum is also based on evidence about what prevents bullying and suicide based on sexual orientation. In Ontario, it's against the law to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. In Grades 1-3 kids will learn that some kids have different abilities, come from different cultural backgrounds or might have two moms or two dads, and that we must respect everyone and not treat them badly because they may be different. Not until Grades 6-8 (ages 11-13) does the issue of sexual orientation come up in terms of self-concept. This is an important time to cover this issue. This is when bullying on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation ramps up in schools, victimization which is implicated in the higher suicide rates of LGBTQ youth.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says about LGBTQ youth, "Going to a school that creates a safe and supportive learning environment for all students and having caring and accepting parents are especially important." Unfortunately, some parents are not accepting, which is a factor in the higher risk of homelessness for LGBTQ youth. Some parents see this as a moral issue. So do I. Like most Ontarians, I think it is unconscionable to pretend LGBTQ youth don't exist, to make them feel sick, sinful or less than human, or to turn our backs while they are being bullied.

It is ridiculous to think that if we just don't talk about it, no teen will develop feelings for another person of the same sex. In some parts of the world, same-sex relationships are illegal and even subject to the death penalty, but that does not stop them from happening.

I strongly support the discussion about consent in Grade 8 (age 13), and the focus on treating ourselves and others respectfully. In our society, there is now a disconnect between many people's attitudes about sexual consent and what the law actually states. I still hear attitudes about women or girls "deserving it" because of what they wear, the hour they are out at night or because they went to a party. Our human rights are not suspended because of our clothing, the hour of day or our GPS location. Any girl or boy, man or woman has the right to say no to any kind of touching at any time, and that is what kids will learn at school. This will empower teens to say no, and get everyone on the same page to prevent sexual assault. Ignorance does not protect young women or young men.

I also strongly support the discussion in Grade 9 (age 14) about the dangers of sexting. What teenagers listen to their parents about technology? How many kids like Amanda Todd and Rehtaeh Parsons need to die before parents realize that ordinary kids can get into big trouble through coercion or the attitudes of the people around them? We all want to protect our kids, but as they grow up, this becomes more and more difficult. We can't keep our kids locked up in the basement until they become adults. Not only is this illegal, but they will have no idea how to function in this world. Knowledge is our kids' best defence. Ignorance cannot protect them.

Far from trying to supplant parents, the curriculum actually states: "Parents are the primary educators of their children with respect to learning about values, appropriate behaviour, and ethnocultural, spiritual, and personal beliefs and traditions, and they are their children's first role models." This leads me to the other argument I have heard -- that parents should be the only ones to teach their kids about sex, not schools. Suddenly, I am flashing back to the most awkward conversation I've ever had in my life, where my mother tried to tell me about sex when I was 11, only because I asked her. Many parents are not comfortable talking to their kids about sex, and do not cover the topic well or thoroughly. Many teens are afraid to ask questions because the parent may assume they are sexually active. Teens tend to talk to their friends about these topics, and what they learn in the locker room isn't what they would be learning from either their parents or the classroom.

Parents are entitled to pass on their religious or moral beliefs to their kids, but they are not entitled to pass on their religious or moral beliefs to my child. By trying to force the Ontario government to yank the evidence-based, updated portions of the health curriculum for all Ontario kids, they are trying to prevent the majority who support this initiative from benefiting from it. And that's wrong.

By all means, withdraw your kids from class during the sex ed sessions if that's what you want. But I want my daughter to be there learning.

This originally ran on Marika's blog.

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