What We Learned From Doug Ford’s Sex Ed Debacle

The Conservatives’ plan to remake the education system reflects a disturbing ideology that will do real harm to Ontario’s children.

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Doug Ford's Conservative government is repealing the Ontario sex ed curriculum
Photo, Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

At a party over the weekend, I was cornered in the kitchen by the five-year-old daughter of a family friend. As I reached in the fridge for more rosé, she demanded to know the origin story of my teenage son, who, she just learned, has two moms. This was too fascinating for her to ignore. “How can a baby come from two ladies’ tummies at the same time?” she asked, eyeing my stomach skeptically. “How did he get in there?”

Explaining that he never was in my tummy (he was adopted), and after digressing to address her curiosity about that, we had a short, age-appropriate chat about the various forms families can take, about two daddies and two mommies and kids who live with grandparents and her cousins who have step-parents. Later, I explained it to her mom, an elementary school teacher, who found the whole thing hilariously timely.

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The previous week, Premier Doug Ford’s Conservative government had announced it was repealing Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum and going back to a much older, outdated and less comprehensive version — which predated social media and current conversations about cyberbullying and consent, and which has limited information for and about LGBTQ kids. Was this what the fall-out would look like, we joked, but with even older kids, desperate for knowledge, turning to ambush random grown-ups at parties with their “where-do-babies-come-from” questions?

It was funny only to a point, though. The repeal of the 2015 curriculum was one of Ford’s few concrete campaign promises in an otherwise vague platform — a gift to his conservative base. But the repeal’s announcement was met with widespread criticism, and since then, the government has contorted itself into more positions than are outlined in The Joy of Sex — first stepping back the repeal, then stepping back that step back, and now planning to launch another expensive consultation campaign.

The repeal reflects a larger ideology within Doug Ford’s government, close-minded and driven by fear-mongering and the targeting of vulnerable people. The repeal came on the heels of abrupt cuts to Indigenous education that were announced earlier this month. A major initiative arising from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action to introduce more Indigenous history and culture into Ontario classrooms was suddenly cancelled without consultation or conversation. It was the first signal of the Ford government’s intentions to remake the education system.

As for sex ed: Ford has promised some sort of curriculum, but we still don’t know what Ontario kids are going to be taught when they return to school this fall. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if the new Conservative sex ed curriculum is a stern recommendation that teenagers take cold showers and keep their legs crossed.

Opponents of the 2015 curriculum go so far as to imply that teachers are subjecting students to a pornified classroom, without any safeguards or limits. Conservative activist Tanya Granic Allen was one of Ford’s opponents in the PC leadership race. At a February debate, she called sex education her “number one priority” and said that children would “focus more on math if they’re not talking about anal sex in the classroom.” Not one of the other candidates — Ford, as well as Christine Elliott and Caroline Mulroney, both of whom are now cabinet members — challenged her on this declaration.

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My guess is that Granic Allen has talked about anal sex more frequently in public than it’s ever been discussed in Ontario high school classrooms (she’s a little fixated on the subject). The actual content of the 2015 curriculum is broad, tackling issues like physical and emotional health, self-awareness, tolerance, identity, ethics and respect. Children are meant to understand how to make thoughtful, healthy choices about sex and relationships and how to act responsibly. They learn about sex and how bodies work — and also gender identity and sexual orientation, dating and relationships, how to prevent cyberbullying and sexual violence.

For many kids, sex ed isn’t about titillation – if anything, it can be a little embarrassing – but it’s a place where a trans or queer child might learn that they’re not alone; where a survivor of abuse might be encouraged to seek help; and where a kid confused or scared or freaked by the myriad images of sex that are available to them online can have a place to talk about that confusion or fear.

And let’s be honest: The vast majority of kids come to sex ed with knowledge already, gleaned from friends or popular culture or the internet, and a lot of that knowledge is wrong, misguided or dangerous. But rather than being honest about that, rather than taking seriously children’s real curiosity and expressed desire for guidance from responsible, compassionate adults, the Conservatives prefer to alarm parents with allusions to anal sex during algebra lessons.

Ontario’s children may not learn much that’s useful this year when it comes to sexual health and relationships. But we have learned a great deal about how Doug Ford intends to run the government: with fear, untruths and a willful disregard for the best interests of our children.