Social media. Same-sex marriage. Smartphones. None of these things existed when Ontario's current Health and Phys Ed. curriculum -- which includes sexuality education -- was written back in 1998. On Monday, a long-overdue curriculum update (that will be taught in public schools starting this September) was released to the public.
As a sex educator, I believe emphatically that sexuality is a fundamental part of our humanity. I believe that parents and caregivers have not only a right, but a responsibility to help children understand their sexual development and all it entails. As a member of a diverse society, I feel strongly that all people have the right to inclusion and respectful treatment, regardless of whether or not their personal choices or expressions match my own. As a parent, I'm grateful that the schools finally have a program to address these issues and supplement the lessons I teach my child at home.
I've been very public about my support for this new curriculum. Some folks have accused me of having an occupational bias. They're right. I've been an educator for nearly a decade. I've spoken to literally thousands of people -- most of them parents, teachers and teens -- about sexuality. It's definitely influenced the way I feel about this new curriculum.
I've taught basic anatomy, puberty and safer sex to kids who couldn't learn those things from their parents because they were part of the foster system, because their mother was too busy working multiple jobs to have these discussions, or their father was sexually abusing them.
I've had to reassure anxious nine-year-olds going through early puberty that the changes in their bodies were normal and nothing to be afraid of.
I've met high schoolers who believed they couldn't get pregnant if they hadn't had a period or that sexually transmitted infections couldn't be passed along through oral sex.
I've listened to gender and sexually diverse youth talk to me about feeling isolated, invisible or threatened on a daily basis because of who they were. Some of these kids were terribly depressed. Some so much so that they considered ending their lives.
I know that the rates of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea are going up amongst youth ages 15-26. Thirty-six per cent of grade 9 boys and 46 per cent of grade nine girls in Ontario report having been sexually harassed. Fifty-eight per cent of sexual assault victims in Canada are under 18 years old, according to the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres.
Sexual violence, sexually-transmitted infections, unintended pregnancy, mental health, relationship quality and communication skills -- research tells us that all of that all of these issues improve when youth have access to comprehensive sex education.
Research also tells us that teaching youth about sex over time is more effective than hitting them with a glut of information all at once and that youth are more likely to practice safer sex and use contraception, if they're given the information before they become sexually active.
I'm very glad that Ontario is laying the basic foundation early. I read the entire curriculum on Monday. It starts in first grade. Students will be taught to "identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology; demonstrate the ability to recognize caring behaviours (listening with respect, giving positive reinforcement, being helpful); and exploitive behaviours (e.g., inappropriate touching, verbal or physical abuse, bullying)." Essentially, learn the difference between nice and mean. Know your body. Acknowledge that some kinds of touches hurt or feel bad. Simple lessons that I taught my child when he was a preschooler.
The grade three curriculum teaches "how visible differences and invisible differences make each person unique" and encourages students to "identify ways of showing respect for differences in others." Again this is basic stuff. Not everyone in an Ontario classroom is a healthy, able-bodied kid that comes from a middle-income family with cisgender, heterosexual married parents. Kids are basically just learning that their are different types of people and we should treat all of them well.
In 6th grade, students will expand on these earlier lessons when they assess the effects of stereotypes, including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations. Is sixth grade too early to be talking about this stuff? The trans kids and the kids with same sex parents probably think it is too late.
Also late, in my opinion (though better late than never) is puberty which is taught in grade 5. The average onset age of puberty in North America is just over 10 years old and there are definitely early bloomers starting at 8 and 9 years old..
Media literacy, including the use of social media and new technology is covered in the Ontario Language curriculum. I'm glad to see it's also addressed as part of Grade 7 sex ed and that students are expected to "describe benefits and dangers, for themselves and others, associated with the use of computers and other technologies." When I was in 7th grade and couldn't get answers about sex stuff from my parents or school, I looked it up in the encyclopedia. Today, kids have Google. The Internet has some valuable sex ed resources...but that's not always where kids wind up. One more reason I'm glad our schools are doing their part to ensure that tweens have solid facts about sexuality.
I'm also happy to see consent is a an ongoing topic. It starts with general lessons about playing nicely, being aware during physical games (like tag) and respecting each other's space. In later grades, the curriculum address consent in the context of romantic and sexual relationships, delving into things communication strategies and respect for one's partner.
There's even information about abstinence; the benefits and why it's important for youth to be clear with their partners about exactly what abstinence means for them.
As a parent, I'm really pleased that the approach to sex ed in school will complement the ongoing conversations we've started at home. As an educator, I'm glad that youth who aren't being taught at home, now have access to the accurate, evidenced-based information they need to make healthy choices about their sexuality.
Well done, Ontario! It's about time.
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