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The Globe and Mail

Message for Ontario’s sex ed naysayers: Ignorance is far from bliss

Aparita Bhandari is a journalist living in Toronto.

I was around seven years old when I was told I was impure. It was at a family get-together in India that involved a religious ceremony. My mother had her period at the time, and had been segregated to a cold, dark room. I had no idea what was wrong with her, only that I never wanted to have what she had. I was impure by association. I was told I needed to take a purifying bath if I wanted to sit with my cousins. Eager to please, I splashed cold water on my shivering body. But I couldn't wash away the sense of shame.

As a teenager in New Delhi, I hated taking public transit. Men would press their erections into my backside or try to cop a feel as I squeezed my way off the bus. But I did not know how to talk about it to my mother or anyone else. What words could I use? So I kept quiet, and avoided using public transit.

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But it's hard to stay quiet now when many parents in Ontario are removing their children from classrooms to protest the revised sex ed curriculum introduced by Kathleen Wynne's Liberal government. They cite cultural concerns and family values but, as far as I'm concerned, a culture of shame and silence is more dangerous. And given the possibility that many of these parents aren't going to talk to their kids about sex, it's even more important that their children receive sex education that's well researched and takes into account the access young people have to sexual information (and misinformation) today and includes topics such as sexual consent.

Since I attended a public school in Australia from Grades 5 to 8, I happened to learn about menstruation, puberty and my developing body through a mixture of books, sex ed classes and educational films that I caught on TV. But I never learned about sex from an authorized source. Back in New Delhi, there were exactly two pages devoted to reproduction in my Grade 9 biology class, which our Science teacher more or less skipped over. The main take-away was that we should know how to draw anatomical diagrams of male and female sex organs for our annual school examination. Any practical education came from romance novels and whispered conversations with friends.

I never had "the talk" with my parents, but I was repeatedly told by the women in my family that I had to watch what I wore, how I acted. I was warned, "Rape bhi ho sakta hai (You can get raped)." Nobody even told me what rape was, although Bollywood movies at the time had frequent scenes that suggested men sexually assaulting women.

I was lucky that my first boyfriend, whom I dated on the sly in Grade 12, did not pressure me to have sex; he was actually concerned for my physical and mental well-being. The men I went on a date or two afterwards weren't so thoughtful. I wasn't sexually assaulted, but sexual consent wasn't even a consideration, leaving me with skewed ideas about sex. It wasn't until much later, reflecting back on sticky situations I'd been in, that I figured out times when I was actually trying to say "No."

Which is why, even before I became a parent, I knew I was going to have frank talks with my children about sex. Research and personal experience told me that it needs to start early. So my five-year-old daughter and almost-three-year-old son know they have a vagina and a penis. Their questions of "Where do babies come from?" have been answered with age-appropriate and somewhat scientific information. I am gearing up for conversations around inappropriate touching, periods and puberty. I need my daughter and son to have the language to talk about these things, and know they can come to me if they have any questions. For me, the revised sex ed curriculum addresses my concerns as a parent, and especially as a woman who grew up in a culture where sex is a taboo topic. It's refreshing to have school resources available to help me address topics such as oral and anal intercourse and gender identity.

Avoiding talking about sex or instilling fear in kids about sex will not prevent them from having it. Giving them information about safe sexual practice will not make them any more curious than they normally would be. Keeping sex under wraps, on the other hand, can have far more dangerous consequences.

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