My husband never had sex education in school. He learned the facts of life at age 10 from Bobby Bishop. Bobby's father had explained that Bobby's female rabbit needed a male rabbit to have babies, and Bobby breathlessly shared the technicalities with his friends. "I was horrified," my husband recalls. "I was sure I'd never do anything like that."
I did have some rudimentary sex ed in school, imparted in a class then known as "hygiene." It was informative enough. But the class did not tell me what to do when a much older boy took me for a walk one night and gave me a kiss I wasn't sure I wanted. I was disturbed enough to tell my mom. "Did he do anything else?" she asked. I was shocked. It hadn't occurred to me that there was anything else a boy might do to me.
These stories seem positively quaint today, like top hats and hoop skirts. Now girls of 12 are enticed to flash their breasts and sext. Pornography is no longer a stack of Playboys in your dad's desk drawer; it's the most revolting images you can imagine – millions of them – available on demand, just a few clicks away.
Some parents imagine they can shelter their kids from this degrading deluge, but they can't. Kids grow up in a culture that glorifies hypersexuality (Miley Cyrus, anyone?) and makes innocence impossible. The things they know (or think they know) at a very early age would probably blow away their parents.
That is why it's more important than ever for kids to get a comprehensive grounding in sex education, although the term itself has become as inadequate as "hygiene" was in my day. Teaching them the technicalities is the easy part. Even the revelation that some kids have two mommies has become banal. The real challenge of modern sex ed is teaching kids how to safely negotiate their way through today's cultural and digital minefields. Even Bobby's dad would need help with that.
Diehard culture warriors will continue to object, of course. Ontario, which introduced its new sex-education curriculum Monday, is facing the usual deluge of complaints from folks who believe that the secular relativists in charge of our school system are determined to corrupt our kids. The Campaign Life Coalition (which describes Kathleen Wynne as the "gay-activist Premier of Ontario") calls the new curriculum "radical." A Catholic group, Parents As First Educators, says, "We do not believe that prepubescent children should be overloaded with explicit information about sex."
Public hysteria and political cowardice sank the last effort at curriculum reform five years ago. That's not going to happen this time. Despite the ritual howls of outrage, most people with a grip on reality will find the new proposals sensible. For example, seven-year-olds will learn the proper names for body parts. Same-sex families are introduced in Grade 3, puberty in Grade 6 and sexually transmitted diseases (along with the risks of sexting) in Grade 7. Online safety and the concept of respecting boundaries figure prominently throughout. (You can read the elementary and secondary curriculum guides for yourself here and here.)
I admit that some parts of the curriculum make me squeamish. Is it really necessary to explain oral sex to 12-year-olds? On reflection, the answer is probably yes. You can be sure that oceans of rumours and misinformation have swamped plenty of them already, and the best thing we can do for them is demystify the subject. Personally, I would rather not be the adult who has to do this. And I suspect that many parents of 12-year-olds feel the same way. So it's a good thing we have the schools to do it for us.
A lot of people fear that kids who learn about sex in school will be more inclined toward sexual experimentation. But this myth has been widely disproven. In fact, most kids today are fairly restrained in their sexual behaviour. What they really need is some grown-up wisdom to help them survive the social pressures, online onslaught and media messages that their parents and grandparents never had to face. As we all know, to our sorrow, learning these things the hard way can end in tragedy.