Sex ed: The curriculum is new, but the controversy age-old

New and somewhat controversial, this is the first update to Ontario's Sex ed curriculum since 1998.

New and somewhat controversial, this replaces curriculum last revised in 1998.

This past Monday, Ontario’s ruling Liberal Party rolled out a new “sex-ed” curriculum for grades 1-8 and 9-12.

Both can be read by clicking through links in this National Post coverage.

As quickly as Tuesday dueling protests took place at the seat of provincial government in Toronto. The larger group by far consisted of parents and supporters who feel the lessons contain too much, too soon and represent government over-reach in the sacred realm of family values and who teaches what. But a small cluster of pro-sex ed supporters were there too.

Sex education has been taught in public schools across Canada and the U.S. for many decades now. Parents in Ontario, for example,  retain the right to have their children “opt-out”. But it’s still (always?) controversial. Consider this “Brief History of Sex Education” from UK academic  Michael Reiss, a professor of science education:

Politics and sex education
There are interesting differences between countries in the extent to which national politics have affected school sex education. In both the UK and the USA, national politics have been extremely influential with a small but powerful lobby believing that much school sex education is corruptive. As Baroness Strange, speaking in a parliamentary debate about school sex education in 2000, put it “Yesterday, when I was kneeling in the snowdrops, in the woods at home, picking fresh white blossoms with their sharp, sweet scent, they made me think of the innocence, purity and loveliness of children”.

In the Netherlands, on the other hand, sex education has remained remarkably non-political. It has been argued that this has led, in the Netherlands, to a much more coherent programme of school sex education, in which teachers are not worried that they may be blamed for teaching something that they shouldn’t be. Whether this is partly responsible for the fact that a teenage girl in the UK or USA is about 10 times as likely to become pregnant than in the Netherlands is controversial.

Recent and current school sex education
Recent school sex education programmes have varied considerably in their aims. At one extreme (rarely found in the UK but well-funded and widespread in the USA), abstinence education aims to ensure that young people do not engage in heavy petting or sexual intercourse before marriage. At the other end of the spectrum, some sex education programmes challenge sexist and homophobic attitudes, try to help young people make their own decisions about their sexual behaviour and discuss issues of sexual pleasure.

Even when offered, sex education in North America tends to lag behind the times, probably because it takes so long to produce and has to tip-toe around strong political reaction.

Sex-ed at my public school in (late 60s?) early 70’s, consisted of a confusing TV series called ‘Time of your Life”. (Which many of us felt was an embarrassing effort to educate that didn’t really deliver.) An unsuccessful hunt for old episodes of that series lead instead to a crime scandal concerning a writer/narrator for that program, Dr. William H. Ayres. He attained a different notoriety culminating in a criminal conviction in 2013.

Young people today might easily have access to everything under the sun via the Internet. Yet they can’t always get complete answers from parents, doctors or clergy. Here’s a group of high schoolers in Las Vegas making that point to Jordan Klepper of the Daily Show. (That clip is geo-fenced for Canadians, but the full episode is available here, go to 9:30 in the 2/11 show for the individual skit.)

It’s odd. We in the west value and protect free speech. Media and marketing love to hyper-sexualize and make sure everything is available, one way or another. But our schools have to tip-toe very carefully in trying to help our youngest citizens make sense of it all.

It’s well worth noting Ontario’s previous curriculum was written before wide availability of the Internet, smart phones or the allure of “sexting”, as discussed by Adrian Lee in this Maclean’s article.

These are tough times to be parenting around so many temptations and issues.

Just for fun, here’s a moldy oldie from the 1950s. It’s dated and far fetched. (Seriously? What coach could do this? And have so many charts at hand?!) Yet it’s still far more relaxed and informative than what I got circa 1970.

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6 Comments on “Sex ed: The curriculum is new, but the controversy age-old”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Probably, if truth be told, some parents are more in need of sex education than are their children.
    Then again, how often do we see the kids who are most protected from learning about sex are the very ones who go crazy with sex and have all the problems?

  2. Jane says:

    The author of this piece mentions the sex ed series called “A Time of Your Life” by child psychiatrist Dr. William Ayres on national PBS as well as in all the California schools in the late 60s to early 70s.

    Before, during and after he made this program- right up until he was arrested in 2007, Dr. Ayres, a former President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry had been molesting young boys sent to him for therapy.

    When he was sued in 2003 by a patient and before there was a criminal investigation into him, in a deposition for the civil suit, Ayres listed every last accomplishment in his career, but oddly didn’t talk about the sex ed series. He went out of his way to hide this fact on his resume in later years as police zeroed in on him.

    Why Well, I was lucky enough to see a few episodes thanks to KCBS in San Francisco in a screening room shortly after Ayres was arrested. Dr. Ayres’ former medical partner had warned me that Ayres’ sex ed series was “disgusting” “over the top” and it appeared that he was using it to “procure.” In the episodes, Ayres talks in a dead voice devoid of animation or spirit about sex and shows pictures of the male and female body, describing the sex act in the most dead manner imaginable. In fact his deadpan style was very similar to what pedophiles use to desensitize children before they molest them. “This is all normal… trust me.”

    There’s one bizarre episode where Ayres demonstrates how the foreskin attracts by shoving his arm through the sleeve of a sweater. Even the PBS publicist was covering his eyes in embarrassment at the scene.

    For many parents in the 60s, Ayres’ series was felt too be too graphic and creepy. Many filed suit to keep it out of California schools. One couple went to jail because they insisted on keeping their daughter home on the day it was shown.

    When Ayres was arrested these same parents felt completely vindicated… .Ayres, by the way, is one of the most prolific child molesters in recent California history. Police estimate that he had at least 1000 young male victims. Who knows how many he procured through his disturbing sex ed series.

  3. It seems since the 50s, we’ve gotten more open talking about sex but more squeamish about our own bodies. My city produces a yearly rec program brochure. One year, it had a retro photo (looks like from the 40s or 50s) of kids swimming in the local river. None of the boys were wearing anything. I think it was common back then. Now, they’d be arrested in a heartbeat. And being naked is not even a sexual act.

  4. Two Cents says:

    pete klein touched on an interesting point and raises a good question:
    if parents are not informed how can their children be?
    that only leaves it up to the school system then to educate children on this topic.
    why don’t school districts provide parenting sex education programs, (maybe even mandatory) rather than requiring of children the same?
    it puts responsibility on the parent–as child raising should be- not solely the school as is the case very often…
    educates the parents in current information. we all think we know about sex, but all things evolve…
    can inform parents of current “trends” (!!), yellow flags
    it can eliminate parental concern as to whom is telling their children what
    or is all this tooo basic for our modern society?

  5. Kelly says:

    I consider myself to be lucky. I teach sex ed. Everyday. Often parents and educators are shocked at what I teach. NOT because it is graphic and gross, but because it is such a wide-ranging field. We teach the basics of anatomy and birth control; but we also teach about abstinence, communication, consent, healthy relationships, identifying their values and boundaries, saying “No” and saving the relationship, laws, dangers of mixing drugs/alcohol & sex, barriers to health care, barriers to good parenting…oh the list is endless. You can’t just define sex once and expect youth to make good decision while being bombarded by conflicting sexual messages everyday.
    So what’s the problem? Time, money, and geography for starters. SLC is the biggest county and has the smallest budget.
    As for parents, I’ve not had much success getting parents to show up. If you have a group of parents who are willing, I do presentations in community groups and faith communities. How about some parents of sports teams? Parents of scouts? Parents of drama students?

  6. bill shaver says:

    whatt…this is still an issue…how can this be….

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