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Opinion Let’s make sure Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum is here to stay

Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist at York University.

In a continued trend of changing his mind, Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown has now promised that if elected, he won't be overturning Premier Kathleen Wynne's recent changes to Ontario's sexual-education curriculum. Despite not having a problem with the new curriculum earlier this year, last week, Mr. Brown pledged his own update, vowing to incorporate feedback from concerned parents. We should all be hopeful the new curriculum is here to stay.

I completed Ontario's sex-ed curriculum in the early '90s. All I remember from those classes was being shown a video of what sperm looked like as it fertilized an egg, and our teacher unrolling a condom while describing various sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in full bloom. Needless to say, the former curriculum was a tad clinical and felt detached from real-life, but I saw with my very own preadolescent eyes how it helped to shape those of us, who were listening, in our future decisions around sex.

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Contrary to what parents against the new curriculum believe, sex education does not sexualize children. As opposed to earlier sexual experimentation or higher rates of STIs, science-based sex ed actually leads young people to choose to delay having sex, and to use condoms and other forms of contraception when they do become sexually active. In fact, comprehensive sex-ed programs have been shown to lower the risk of teen pregnancy, when compared to abstinence-only programs or a lack of sex education altogether.

In the absence of sex ed, children use pornography as a learning tool, and at increasingly younger ages. In one study from the London School of Economics, 21 per cent of 9-to-11-year-olds reported having been exposed to online porn. By the time children are learning about the notoriously "controversial" topics of masturbation and anal sex in the new curriculum, they will likely already be familiar with them due to what they've seen depicted in pornography.

As a result, we are experiencing an epidemic of kids whose expectations around sex have been warped from being raised on porn and a concurrent lack of discussion about safe sex practices, consent, and what a healthy relationship – sexual or otherwise – should look like.

Navigating sex and relationships certainly doesn't get easier by virtue of age alone. I have witnessed firsthand how the assumption that someone will just "figure it out" when the time comes doesn't do anyone any favours. In my elementary school cohort, I saw friends whose parents permitted them to skip sex-ed class, later using Plan B as a form of birth control. A few others had to withdraw from high school because they had gotten pregnant by the time we turned 14.

As a sex researcher, I now interview many sex-ed-naive young adults who take part in my studies. They are sexually active without ever having undergone any sort of sexual health testing, not realizing that many STIs, including HIV, can be asymptomatic.

The new changes are an absolute improvement upon the "dangerously out of date" curriculums of the past. For example, I don't doubt it would have benefited my gay friends to be told, during those formative years, that people like them existed. Boundary-setting would have helped those of my female friends who didn't feel they could advocate for using condoms once they were successfully on the pill. And over all, having candid discussions about how sex is really about pleasure will encourage a more healthy and positive view of one's sexuality in adulthood.

The Ministry of Education has given Ontario parents the final say on the matter, with the option of opting their kids out, if they so choose. In this case, we should hope that the curriculum is being replaced at home with some other form of evidence-based sex education.

As tempting as it is to cover our ears and stick our heads in the ground, this inevitably won't help the issue to resolve on its own. Avoiding uncomfortable conversations about sex imparts shame and embarrassment on children, instead of the lifelong ability to make better-informed decisions about their health and their bodies.

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