Plans to update the sex education curriculum in both Ontario and Quebec are sparking backlashes and making headlines.
But while Doug Ford and François Legault are both newly elected premiers, and ones with socially conservative proclivities at that, the response of their respective governments to the caterwauling of a prudish minority has been markedly different.
In Ontario, Mr. Ford has vowed to scrap the 2015 curriculum and return to the 1958 – oh, sorry, 1998 – edition, a move that has sparked lawsuits by teachers and parents alike.
Meanwhile, in Quebec, Catholic clergy and parents have threatened to boycott classes, but Mr. Legault has dismissed their complaints out-of-hand: “Sex education,” he said, "is mandatory for everyone.”
The divergence in their responses is especially notable because the sex-ed curriculum in Ontario and Quebec are quite similar. Kids still get the basic lectures about the body’s plumbing, but there has been a welcome attempt to do away with euphemisms as scare tactics and teach about sexuality in a more straightforward, scientific manner.
Even more importantly, in the modernized sex-ed teachings, issues such as consent and pleasure are getting almost as much attention as pregnancy and puberty.
In Grade 1, according to the updated curriculum, children learn the “dictionary names” for body parts, including the vagina and the penis. In Grade 3, they are introduced to the basics of reproduction and relationships, including same-sex relationships. In Grade 4, children learn about the changes they can expect in puberty such as menstruation, and they begin to learn about online safety. In Grade 6, there is discussion of masturbation and consent. In Grade 7, sexting, oral and anal sex, and sexually-transmitted infections are on the curriculum. In Grade 8, contraception and gender fluidity; in Grade 9, pleasure and pornography.
This is pretty basic stuff. So what is it that has some parents concerned?
The fundamental complaint of those who oppose modernizing sex-ed seems to be that it will “give kids ideas” – in other words, that teaching about sexuality will lead to sexual experimentation.
A book written for Catholic parents as an alternative to the Quebec sex-ed curriculum, for example, claims that children are “naturally modest” and “sexually asleep,” and teaching them about sex before puberty is equivalent to an assault.
This is pretty egregious stuff coming from abstinent priests whose employer continues to be rocked by massive abuse scandals. One of the key lessons from the sordid tales of exploitation of children by clergy is that pedophilia and sexual assault thrive in ignorance and shame; one of the most important aspects of sex education is teaching children they have agency over their bodies.
The authors of the Catholic sex-ed book argue instead that sex education is the sole purview of parents and children should be withdrawn from sex-ed classes. (On a side note: When will religious folk learn that pulling out is not effective?)
Similar arguments are being made in Ontario, where parents – again, largely religious parents – argue that the curriculum is age-inappropriate and culturally insensitive. In essence, they don’t want their children learning about things they object to, such as premarital sex, same-sex relationships, gender equality, gender affirmation, contraception, abortion and so on.
Parents absolutely have a right to inculcate values on their offspring. But that does not extend to imposing ignorance on others. That is especially true because we know that unawareness and naïveté do not prevent young people from having sex – it simply makes them more likely to make poor choices.
Given the extensive media coverage afforded this issue, you can sometimes get the impression that teachers spend their days talking to children about little else but sex. But sex-ed is barely a blip in the overall curriculum. Kids get about five hours a year of this “filth” in primary school, and 15 hours annually come high school.
That’s roughly 10 per cent of the time dedicated to physical and sex education. If anything, given the importance sex and relationships will play in our lives, it is far too little.
Teaching the ins and outs of sex doesn’t take any time at all; most children are way ahead of the curriculum on that score.
What schools can and should do is contextualize information to which young people are continually exposed. Effective sex education is not principally about sex but about making informed choices, promoting equitable relationships, managing emotions, and emphasizing responsibility and respect.
Of course, parents should be teaching these concepts but many don’t. As much as anything, this debate should remind us just how essential the work of teachers is in shaping young minds. As Quebec Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said: “Sex education: essential learning.”