When the Ontario government unveiled – or, rather, reunveiled – its new sex education curriculum in February, a poll showed that almost half the population supported it, while 34 per cent were opposed. Two months and a new poll later, only 42 per cent still support the curriculum, while 40 per cent are opposed. This week, 35,000 Toronto-area elementary students were kept home by their parents as a protest against the curriculum, while thousands more were absent from schools in the surrounding suburbs.
Clearly, Ontario has a sex problem. Opposition to the curriculum is growing, and the people behind it smell blood. They protested so noisily against the new curriculum when it was originally released in 2010 that the former premier, Dalton McGuinty, backed off and put it into a state of political cryostasis. The same groups hope to pull off a similar coup now that the new Premier, Kathleen Wynne, has revived the curriculum and intends to have it start being taught this fall.
We hope Ms. Wynne has a sturdier backbone than Mr. McGuinty and sticks with the plan. The curriculum is sound, and the update it provides is much needed. It is not "radical," as opponents contend. In fact, it's mind-numbingly banal. Many of the criticisms of the new curriculum have been torqued by deliberate distortions. It doesn't encourage anal sex or masturbation, absurd assertions made by too many parents who have let themselves be captive to misinformation. Its lessons are not age-inappropriate. And it is not a plot to "groom" children for later exploitation by pedophiles, as more than one group has sickeningly and maliciously suggested.
The curriculum is in fact a wordy 240-page document with the straightforward title The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education. Students learn about fire safety, nutrition, wearing a helmet on a bike, nut allergies, why they shouldn't open the medicine cabinet and swallow pills like candy, how to catch a ball and that it's bad for you to sit inside all day watching television. When they get older, they learn about the impending changes brought on by puberty. The biggest demons in the document are sugary soda pop, cigarettes and sexually transmitted diseases.
On the subject of sex, the curriculum is a reflection of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It promotes the diversity and inclusiveness protected by our laws. Children are taught that, while they might have a mother and a father, some of their classmates might have two mothers, or just a dad, or maybe they are raised by a grandparent. They are introduced slowly to the issues of sexual orientation and gender identity, but this is done in the most neutral of terms. Both issues are listed as some of the visible and invisible differences in people, differences that also include body size, clothing, learning ability, family background and eye colour.
It is this neutralizing of sexual orientation and gender identity that so infuriates critics. Listing such polarizing issues as simply one more of the qualities that make up a person, on a par with eye colour and family background, contradicts the tenets of their faiths. As one group puts it, the lessons "show no respect nor tolerance for traditionally-principled families."
But that is where the critics make their big mistake. The values reflected in the new curriculum are not family values – they are society's values.
We live in a society in which equality and tolerance are enshrined as fundamental priorities. We want children to be armed against abuse, to be able to flourish on their own terms and under their own identity, and to appreciate the differences in others. We want young men and women to grow up with a clear understanding of consent in sexual relations. These are the lessons that a public school system should teach, as long as it is done with care and the lessons are based on sound educational principles. The Ontario curriculum, which is conventional when compared with curriculums in other provinces and countries, meets that standard.
The most inappropriate outcome would be to fail to implement the new curriculum. It is an update on one from 1998, which in today's accelerated world is eons ago. Sexting, cyberbullying and Internet porn are modern phenomena that make children's and parents' lives that much more complicated. The government's effort to address these issues is needed and welcome.
We will give this to its critics, though: The curriculum has a bizarre omission that baffles even the most open-minded and modern parent. When discussing sex, it never once mentions marriage or love. This is absurd.
Proponents of the new curriculum say its critics need to wake up and face reality, that this isn't your grandfather's world any more. Okay. And yet these same self-avowed realists look out the window and don't see marriage, or love, going on around them?
No, marriage is not a basic societal value any more. But it has value to society, and it is a fundamental part of many of the religions in Canada, and is also an important civil ceremony. It seems like a bit of a provocation not to acknowledge the role of marriage, traditional or otherwise, in our world. If children can learn over time about the different sorts of parents that exist in their world, then they can also learn that some parents are married and why that is important to them and irrelevant to others. At the very least, the government should acknowledge its existence in the curriculum.
As for love, when did that word become unmentionable? The curriculum refers to sex as a way of showing "affection." That's too beige. Children know what love is. They give and take it unconditionally. Don't take love out of their education.