On occasion, when trying to console myself that things actually used to be worse in many ways, I reflect on the bad old days. I remember the boy in Grade 8 who spent most of his classroom time flicking my bra strap and making suave remarks about my body that he had memorized from the previous night’s episode of Three’s Company.
We were all in this bra-flicking dilemma together, the girls of Grade 8, and we either laughed in embarrassment or grimly bore it, plotting a path out of middle school and toward revenge. There was not a lot of talk about consent in those days. Our pedagogical guides to sex – the novels of Judith Krantz and Harold Robbins, the occasional stolen copy of Penthouse – prepared us for orgies and shopping, but failed to explain the basics of healthy romantic relationships.
How lucky the girls and boys in Ontario’s schools are, by contrast. They get taught about consent and boundaries, self-respect and respect for others. They’re given tools for emotional and mental resilience. Oh, wait: I should say how lucky they were, in the fleeting period between 2015 and 2018, when Ontario’s sex-education curriculum – one of the most outdated in the country – was updated and briefly allowed to enter the 21st century. Like a sex-positive Brigadoon, the health curriculum was here for a miraculous minute and then it vanished in a puff of paranoia and backward thinking.
Ontario’s new Progressive Conservative government announced this week it would instruct school boards to revert to the old curriculum, which dates from 1998. In doing so, it is both fulfilling a campaign promise and bowing to pressure from a vocal minority of parents who protested the changes introduced in 2015, sometimes withdrawing their children from school. Those parents are joyous at this retreat into the past; many of the rest of us are angry to see the curriculum, which was the product of consultation with parents, educators and students, hijacked in this way. In any case, all of our kids, who carry the sexual world on screens in their pockets but have no guidance on how to navigate it, will be the ones who lose.
The criticisms seemed to stem from a misreading of the curriculum (which, by the way, is 90 per cent about the best way to catch a ball, how to use a sleeve to catch a sneeze and other such dangerous information). Protesters worried that children were being taught about same-sex marriage – which is the law of the land – gender fluidity and various sexual practices. They worried that children would learn about these things too young, though the curriculum clearly states that students should be introduced “in age-appropriate ways to the knowledge and skills they will need to maintain healthy relationships throughout their lives.”
Anyway, too young is precisely when we need to start. Toddlers are swiping their iPads as they sit on their potties. We may not like it, but that genie is not going back in the bottle. I’d be willing to bet my life savings that most parents do not know the full reach of technology in their children’s lives, nor the content they access. I certainly don’t. Technology is encroaching on our lives in mind-bending ways; the best we can do is give young people the skills to cope with it.
You know what else isn’t going back into the bottle? Women’s right to exist in the world free from verbal or physical harassment. We are in the midst of a global reckoning caused by a lack of understanding about autonomy and consent; starting the conversation early is the best way to ensure that men and women are in a healthier, happier place in 10 or 20 years’ time.
How I would love to have heard a teacher in middle school say something along these lines (this is from the 2015 curriculum’s guidelines for teachers in Grade 7): “Inappropriate sexual behaviour, including things like touching someone’s body as they walk by in the hall, making sexual comments, or pulling pieces of clothing up or down, is sexual harassment. Texting someone constantly can also be harassment. What can you do to stop this kind of thing?”
I would have been dumbfounded to hear that in Grade 8. You mean I can do something about the incessant bra-snapping? This isn’t just the unchanging way of the world from time immemorial? The “my” part of “my body” actually means something?
And what if we had learned in elementary school that health wasn’t just physical – although, yes, probably eating that orange is preferable to a 10th Oreo – but also mental? That our feelings of anxiety and doubt and sadness were normal, and shared by others, and that they weren’t an end in themselves? “Everyone is vulnerable to emotional or mental stresses,” reads one of the teacher’s prompts for Grade 8 students in the new curriculum.“ What can you do to take care of your mental health?”
The 2015 curriculum concentrated on mental health in a way that the earlier one did not; with upwards of 20 per cent of Canadian teenagers suffering mental-health issues, should we not be talking about this more, rather than less? These are all things that are going to be lost if we try to roll back time.
We accept, as a society, something called “herd immunity.” That is, we vaccinate our children against the outbreak of disease, recognizing that if enough of them are immunized it gives protection to the herd as a whole, including the kids who can’t get vaccinated for health reasons. I’d argue the same principle is at work here: When enough kids are taught about respect and consent and healthy relationships, when they’re given good and useful information that does not originate from a meme or some dodgy website or playground gossip, they’ll all be better off in the end. Unfortunately, they have to survive adults’ ignorance first.