By any other name (‘Birds and the Bees’, ‘Family Life’, ‘Personal Hygiene’), sex education has been part of provincial school curricula in Canada since the early 20th century, taught ostensibly for the public good, in spite of historical opposition from various quarters for various reasons.
The dynamics of ‘sex ed’ can be depicted in the following way:
And how very controversial this area of education continues to be. The arrows with the broken lines reflect the extremely uneasy, often dichotomous juxtaposition in which science and morality (public and private) co-exist. Such polarity does tend to obscure the realities of the 21st century, however.
Perhaps the most telling reality of the current century is the ease of access to information and social media. We don’t go looking for information; rather, it encroaches upon us, as a fact of life. It is doubtless ironic that public authorities spend a lot of time and taxpayers’ dollars trying to protect our privacy in the ‘public interest’. When it comes to sex education, though, governments rarely are resolved about what to do, wary of public opinion and the ballot box.
Premier Wynne’s Ontario may be the exception. In 2015, she rolled out a revamped curriculum (after extensive consultation from experts, religious groups, and parents’ organizations) that clearly has attempted to respond to current social conditions and practices. A centrepiece is social media awareness and the risks that come with it (‘sexting’, abuse of personal photos/information, cyberbullying, and other forms of exploitation). Not surprisingly, this topic is linked to the long time, often troublesome area of ‘consent’ (just read recent accounts in our law courts).
If the curriculum were limited to the above, would that be tolerable to most (parents)? Maybe, but by Grade 8, students are told about the existence of 6 gender groups in our society *, for example. In secondary school, the focus is on the qualities of ‘healthy relationships’, emotional and mental health, and refinement of what constitutes ‘consent’ to sexual intimacy. Teachers are instructed what to teach, with discretion as to how to teach the curriculum. Adequately trained? Some say no.
Parents, especially from certain cultural or religious backgrounds, reject such an approach **. Teaching about sex is their private, exclusive preserve, they claim, a matter of private versus ‘public interest’. Are they up to the task, and being responsible and effective by maintaining such a position? Data to answer this basic question essentially does not exist, because these are ‘family matters’.
What do YOU think? What works? for YOU, and for your children?
( * male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual, intersex. ** In Ontario, parents are entitled to have their children opt out of sex education.)
(Robert MacFarlane is a graduate of Princeton University, and has tutored in English for Book Smart Tutors for several years. He has conducted seminars on Ontario’s sex education curriculum.)