Debra Soh holds a PhD in sexual neuroscience research from York University and writes about the science and politics of sex.
Last week, Ontario’s Education Minister, Lisa Thompson, announced that the province will revert to a previous version of its sex-education curriculum when students return to school in the fall. The older curriculum, last updated in 1998, will remain in effect until the government completes parental consultations for feedback. The decision follows promises made by Premier Doug Ford during his leadership campaign earlier this year.
Based on the resulting public backlash, you would think we were facing an apocalypse. Indeed, both versions of the curriculum could afford to be improved. Kathleen Wynne’s controversial program, first introduced in 2015, had the goal of keeping kids safe in an age when the Internet exposes them to all kinds of information in a terrifyingly unfiltered way.
According to Ms. Wynne, about 4,000 parents, in addition to psychologists, psychiatrists, and the police, were consulted when formulating her curriculum. This was hardly a representative sample, working out to only one selected parent for each publicly funded elementary school.
I, too, was once a vocal supporter of the updated sex-ed curriculum, but watching how its unscientific claims about gender identity have spread so prevalently has dampened my enthusiasm. The curriculum promotes the idea that there are more than two genders and that gender identity is socially constructed.
The fact that few people have pointed out how these teachings aren’t based in science should raise a red flag in parents’ minds.
According to one survey, less than 1 per cent of people in the United States identify as transgender. That means for over 99 per cent of us, our biological sex is our gender.
A curriculum that teaches gender fluidity is misleading and will impair a child’s ability to have an accurate understanding of the world.
The 1998 curriculum has its downfalls, too. Many parents welcoming a return to it have voiced misguided fears that the updated curriculum was not age-appropriate. But science-based sex education has been shown to be effective, leading young people to delay becoming sexually active and increasing the likelihood that they will engage in safer sex practices when they do.
The sexual landscape has changed immensely over the past 20 years and the curriculum needs to reflect that. For those who remember 1998, it predated social media and marriage equality. Sex-ed from that era failed to address complex, modern issues such as cyberbullying, sexting and consent. I was taught Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum around that time and, even then, it felt clinical and out-of-date.
But the level of outrage in response to Ms. Thompson’s announcement is not commensurate to the decision made. As a former academic sex researcher, I can tell you that Canadians – as open-minded and reasonable as we are – could still afford to be more sex-positive. I have a hard time believing that families are really that distraught over the fact that their children’s sex-ed lesson plans are going to be less intensive. Ontario’s government is not doing away with sex-ed altogether.
The backlash is emblematic of a disdain for those who lean right politically, and a desire to rally against Mr. Ford for the sake of political divisiveness. This is evident in the number of media outlets and individuals on social media, angrily pointing the finger at social conservatives.
It brings us to the question of who gets to dictate how a child is raised – should it be the responsibility of the parent or the state? Sexual education cannot be blindly outsourced to the education system. As uncomfortable as it may be, parents must be savvy about the issues their kids are contending with in 2018.
Even if an ideal, fact-based, comprehensive sex-ed curriculum was being implemented, whether intentionally or not, parents still shape a child’s views. When children are able to have open conversations about sex with their parents, this leads them to make better decisions regarding their sexual health. It also sends a wider, crucial message that talking about human sexuality is both acceptable and necessary for our well-being.