Welcome to the culture wars, Ontario-style.
With another round of protests on Wednesday against a new sex-education curriculum, Canada's largest province is just the latest battleground in a continuing global tug-of-war between parents and the state over who should teach kids about the birds and the bees.
It's a century-old struggle with deep political undercurrents. Soviet Marxists once taught students that masturbation was counterrevolutionary, which perhaps explains why communism was doomed to fail. For a long time, European sex-ed focused on teaching kids how not to get pregnant. Now, in slow-growth Denmark, the focus includes encouraging them to repopulate once they finish school.
In this light, Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum should probably be considered among the least controversial in the world. There's not much in there that would shock your average 12-year-old and plenty that can help them debunk old wives' tales and misinformation about their bodies, gender, sexually-transmitted infections and other consequences of sexual activity.
Every society has an abiding interest in ensuring its youngest citizens develop healthy attitudes toward sex and have access to the facts to make informed decisions about their own behaviour. Beyond the public-health imperatives, sex-ed aims to prepare kids to get along in a more diverse world where, like it or not, the definitions of gender and family are evolving.
Opponents of Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum would like to roll back the clock on that reality, sheltering their kids from what they consider a hidden agenda by Premier Kathleen Wynne's government to "normalize" behaviours they deem sick. But Ms. Wynne and her educrats would be abrogating their duty if they failed to update a sex-ed curriculum that hasn't changed since long before sexting and Caitlyn Jenner went mainstream. Ms. Wynne should ignore the zealots.
Unfortunately, her government's decision to launch a multilingual television ad campaign promoting the new curriculum, at an undisclosed cost, appears partly aimed at provoking them. The more the zealots act up, you see, the more it hurts newly minted Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown's image among mainstream voters.
You can't say Mr. Brown didn't ask for it. He started this culture war.
The former Conservative MP, who is seeking a seat in the provincial legislature in a Thursday by-election, actively courted social conservatives during his leadership bid. Party insiders largely attribute his victory to his ability to sign up 40,000 new members among anti-abortion activists, evangelical Christians and immigrants opposed to gay rights. During the race, he also spoke at or sent messages of support to anti-sex-ed rallies, making his bed (so to speak) with extremists.
One of the main organizers of anti-sex-ed rallies is the Campaign Life Coalition, a radical anti-abortion group whose takedown of the new curriculum is laced with hateful anti-gay innuendo. The new curriculum prepares Grade 7 teachers to broach the issue of anal intercourse – mainly to ensure that students are aware that, though it can't lead to pregnancy, it can lead to STIs. This is important, because, while teen pregnancies are down, STI rates among teens are up.
The CLC casts it all as a sinister plot by the gay mafia. "Was the goal in this sneaky introduction of graphic sex acts to avoid the accusation that the Premier was promoting a gay agenda, seeking to normalize gay sex in the minds of kids?," it asks among its milder insinuations.
In almost every country, every iteration of the sex-ed curriculum provokes the same cries of doom from the social-conservative Cassandras. But as New York University professor Jonathan Zimmerman, author of a recent history of sex education around the world, aptly titled Too Hot to Handle, notes: "No credible research has ever sustained the conservative claim that sex education makes young people more likely to engage in sex." Nor, however, does it make them any more likely to abstain from it.
But as much as Mr. Brown has tried since becoming leader to distance himself from the extremists who brung him – becoming the first PC leader to march in Toronto's Pride Parade – the Liberals are not about to let him off the hook. His earlier use of sex-ed as a political wedge issue is now being used against him.
Mr. Brown may find that culture wars, like the military kind, are a lot easier to start than end.