There are plenty of reasons why I believe sex education should be taught in schools, and one of them was brought home by a recent conversation with my brother-in-law. I told him I had attempted to talk to my son about masturbation and my brother-in-law was horrified. “What were you thinking?” he said, laughing at me. “No 12-year-old boy wants his mom to talk to him about masturbating. That’s the worst.” We went back and forth for a while, but he had a point. I outsourced the follow-up conversation to him. My son would get good information from someone I trusted, minus the mortification.
In the emotionally charged debates over sex ed in schools, parents opposed to it often say that it’s up to the family to teach children about sex. That’s true. Parents should talk to their kids about all kinds of things to do with sex: how to be a respectful, compassionate, self-aware person, how to make sound choices and how to ask for advice. When it comes to the rest of it, though, many parents are not great teachers. They’re ashamed and embarrassed themselves, they’re ignorant of the basic biological facts, they’re scared of their child’s looming independence, they’re judgmental of certain acts and certain types of people. Even if they are well-intentioned and well-informed, they might not be who their child wants to talk to, or feels easy confiding in. That’s where uncles (and aunts and cousins and friends) come in, and it’s where the experts are needed.
The Ministry of Education in Ontario, where I live, has revised its sex education curriculum for the first time since 1998 to reflect the latest information and guidance about subjects like sexting and same-sex marriage — neither were realities 17 years ago. It launches this fall, and the government has just released an online ad (above) aimed at parents who might be leery, making the case by showing various curious young people with questions about body image, homosexuality, social media and sexual pressure. Quebec has gone one step further, announcing this week a new no-child-left-behind approach to sex ed, making it mandatory from kindergarten through high school, regardless of religious or personal convictions. A pilot program will start in 15 schools within the next few weeks.
Both Ontario and Quebec are grappling with a culture that feels alien to anyone over the age of 30. Young people aren’t having more sex — in fact there’s research in Canada and U.S. indicating that teenagers are slightly less sexually active than they were 20 years ago — but they are communicating about sex in arenas unfamiliar to adults and they are far more open about their identities and desires. Witness the proliferation of Gay Straight Alliances in middle and high schools, and the growing visibility of transgender kids and adolescents. Meanwhile, the suicides of 15-year-old Jamie Hubley, and 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, both victims of bullying and assault, have underscored the necessity of vigilance and early intervention to prevent kids from being targeted and harmed.
These two governments are gutsy for pushing for better and more comprehensive sex ed, and they are up against serious objections. Religious parents in Ontario have threatened to keep their children home when topics they feel are taboo (gender identity, masturbation, anal sex) will be taught, and surely there will be similar protests in Quebec. No one wins these battles over sex ed, but it’s the worst for the students in the crossfire, and teachers and the administrators who have to deliver the lessons.
These lessons, after all, are no longer confined to reproduction and contraception, but also the development of social skills and empathy, the understanding consent and power dynamics, and the rocky emotional landscape of insecurities and heartache. A lot of weight — perhaps too much — is being placed on sex ed to address all of these issues, as well as sexual assault, bullying, mental illness and social inequality. As one sex education expert I spoke to put it, “When you teach algebra, you’re conveying mathematical principles, that can be demonstrated and measured in the classroom. When you teach sex ed, you’re not just conveying information about reproduction and sexually transmitted diseases, you’re trying to shape the behaviour and attitudes of teenagers at a party on the weekend. That’s a huge undertaking.” And the people who teach it need self-assurance, deep expertise and a stone cold constitution in order to stand in front of a room of sixth graders and answer the question, “What’s a blow job?” knowing that no matter how honestly and deftly they deal with it, some parent is going to freak out and complain.
In Ontario, there’s been limited information about the training teachers will receive to teach the new curriculum. As for Quebec, what’s been made public so far is that sexuality will be taught for five hours a year at the primary level and 15 hours a year in high school, and the education department has promised that teachers will receive all the necessary training to do so. I hope as much audacity and muscle will go into that as has gone into pushing the curriculum forward. Better yet, I hope social workers, educators and nurses from sexual health clinics and organizations like Planned Parenthood will be involved to advise and direct the curriculum, and be present in school to provide teacher training and back-up. Sex ed is too important for kids to have the adults fail at it.