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.