Let’s Talk About Sex Ed, Baby: A Look at Ontario’s Outdated Curriculum

Jennifer Mutton

Remember sex education, or “sex ed”? Back when most readers would have taken the class, a teacher would darken the room, pull out the slide projector, and present a drawing of the female reproductive system for you to label. Today, that may seem archaic, as most school-aged children and youth can merely Google any term of interest. But as it turns out, the sex ed curriculum currently being taught in Ontario schools is from 1998 — and so modern-day students are for the most part learning (and not-learning) about the very same subjects that we did.

Ontario’s sex ed curriculum is the oldest in the country, now over fifteen years out of date. Since 1998, internet porn, sexting, and treatment-resistant gonorrhoea have emerged, not to mention a relaxation of sexual morals, the hyper-sexualization of adolescents, and earlier-onset puberty. There has also been an increased awareness among the public that abstinence-only education withholds important information about contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and consent. So why hasn’t the province’s curriculum been updated to account for these changes?

In 2010, then-Premier Dalton McGuinty’s attempted to introduce an updated sex ed curriculum to bring sex ed into the 21st century by implementing a series of changes – such as, for example, talking to third graders about same-sex families. This resulted in significant backlash from various religious groups and concerned parents. The Liberal government ultimately pulled the curriculum, seemingly at the behest of socially-conservative interest groups.

More recently, Premier Kathleen Wynne and Ontario Minister of Education Liz Sandals have announced plans to update the curriculum in time for the 2015-16 school year. This time, changes will be made in consultation with parents, an approach that aims to quell opposition. But who can say that Wynne won’t cave to a resurgent outcry? Ignoring the concerns of conservative and religious parents – especially if she tries to enforce new sex ed policies in the publically-funded Catholic school system – could be a politically dangerous move. The implementation of a new curriculum in 2015 is not yet a guaranteed reality, and students could still be stuck learning materials from 1998 if Wynne does not succeed.

I took a closer look at the Ontario health curricula to find out exactly what it is that students are learning (and not learning) today. Sexual education is part of the physical education and health curriculum, found under the sub-heading of “healthy living,” where it is euphemistically termed “growth and development.” Several expected topics are addressed, such as sexual development, body parts, and abstinence. By grades 7 and 8, STIs, pregnancy prevention, and the reproductive system are introduced. Yet curiously enough, the high school curriculum does not extend further than its junior high counterpart in terms of subject matter. As adolescents mature, sex education begins to look the deeper societal implications of sex and sexuality, but still stops short of covering many real-life problems that teenagers face today.

The list is of topics currently omitted from Ontario’s sex education curriculum is long, and includes: same-sex relationships, transgender issues, consent, rape culture, pornography, cyber-sex or sexting, non-traditional relationship structures such as polyamory, and abortion. It fails to mention anything about adolescents actually having sex or exploring their sexuality, and completely ignores the modern resources these individuals are likely to access for information — such as the internet or ill-informed peers — to instead steers inquiries towards doctors and parents. Yet it goes without saying that most adolescents are unlikely to, for example, question their doctor on the dangers of Snapchatting explicit photos to a friend.

Some of the aforementioned topics are still unaddressed by most adults, and few are relevant to elementary school students. But omitting entire communities—LGBT, for example—from an educational curriculum is particularly egregious. After Ontario’s landmark recognition of transgender people in human rights legislation, it is disappointing to see that the province continues to fail to mention the same individuals at any grade level. A vulnerable population that is consistently harassed due to misconceptions and outdated assumptions about sex and gender deserves an early introduction to school children, who otherwise may never learn about the issues affecting them.

Significant media attention has also been directed toward teenaged girls in Canada self-harming and committing suicide as a result of sexual assault, rape, online and in-person bullying, and the distribution of what can be defined as child pornography. Teaching students about rape culture and consent before they are sexually active makes sense as a preventative measure, designed to make young men and women aware of their legal rights and the importance of consent. Wynne has pledged to include a discussion of consent in the new curricula — an encouraging sign that the post-Ghomeshi-scandal Canadian conversation around rape and sexual violence will be carried forth into the provincial school system.

Part of the problem is that parents, policy-makers, and politicians today are often not mature enough themselves to talk about sex. But nevertheless, shouldn’t we as a society prioritize teaching children and teenagers about sex before they have sex? Shouldn’t we employ dedicated sex educators, instead of forcing gym teachers into roles they may not be comfortable with assuming? Shouldn’t we give students the information they need, instead of driving them to ask the armchair doctors on Yahoo Answers (where sample questions include: “Should I Lie to My Gynecologist?” “Do Men have periods like women do?” and “Unusual pain! Fallopian Tubes?!”)?

Although teen pregnancy in Canada is on the decline, the number of sexually transmitted infections is on the rise. Teenagers are having sex, as they will do, and – despite increased access to contraceptives — are still often doing so unsafely and at risk to themselves and others. Short of forcing Ontario’s adolescents into chastity belts a la The Princess Bride, it is going to be hard to reduce rates of teenage profligacy by simply crossing our fingers and ignoring it. With any luck, Kathleen Wynne will have the mettle to introduce a comprehensive, modern, and daring curriculum for sex education, and to defend it from the vocal opposition that shut down McGuinty’s curriculum in 2010, so that Ontario’s students will finally leave 1998 and enter the 21st century.

Jennifer Mutton is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from McGill University. Jennifer is  particularly interested in policy issues related to international trade, social programs, and the labour market.

[Image: Getty Images]