I still vividly remember sitting in my grade eight classroom trying not to cringe as my French teacher demonstrated putting a condom on a banana. The condom was red. The banana was yellow. Together they formed an orange beacon of awkwardness and I wanted to close my eyes and make it all disappear.
Why was my French teacher doing this? Because my classmates had questions—questions that weren’t being answered in our regular health and phys ed courses. And questions our French teacher wanted to make sure we knew the answers to before we made life-changing mistakes and learned them for ourselves.
Personally, I didn’t need the lesson. At that point I could barely say hi to my crush without blushing and running away. But it also didn’t harm me. It didn’t make me feel like I should start becoming more curious about intercourse because my cohort was. If it affected the choices some of my classmates might be making, I thought it was worth the small shock to my naivety.
It is with this perspective I approached the new Ontario sex ed curriculum. It was originally released in 2010, the first update since 1998, after a period in which Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube were born. But it was then recalled by Premier McGuinty because of the public outcry stirred up by Charles McVety, the president of Canada Christian College.
On February 25, the Liberals reintroduced the curriculum. Its aim is to provide young people with the knowledge to prepare them for what they will inevitably encounter.
A few notable parts of the curriculum:
In grade one, students are taught how to identify their body parts using the correct terminology. (Yes, that includes genitalia.)
In grade three, they discuss visible differences, such as skin colour, and invisible differences, such as gender identity and sexual orientation.
In grade five, they learn about the dangers and emotional considerations of sharing sexual pictures or messages.
In grades seven and eight (prepare yourself, here comes the big one!) students will learn about consent and the risks of and how to be safe when considering vaginal, oral, and anal intercourse.
The curriculum continues through high school, but it’s concerns about the elementary school content that have sparked public protests at Queens Park and endless social media debates.
Those against the curriculum feel that the government is exposing children to the facts of life too early and endangering them. The PCs, currently Ontario’s opposition, have also criticized the Liberals for only including 1% of public school parents in the policy formulation.
Liberal education minister Liz Sandals appeared on Global News’ Focus Ontario program elaborating on the prompts to be used in the sex ed lessons and reminding parents that under the Education Act they have the right to pull their child out of any content they find inappropriate.
Sandals also argued that the Liberal Party did include parents in the conversation by surveying the elected parent council chair at every elementary school in Ontario.
But some of the best insight on this debate might be that of university students. As young adults, unlike most parents, we grew up with social media and we experienced the current sex ed curriculum most recently.
Fourth-year biology major Emile Sabga, who attended elementary and high school in Barbados, recalls starting sex ed at the age of 11. Sabga’s experience didn’t seem much more comfortable that my own grade eight French class. “To be honest, I learned about sex the way most teenage boys do: the Internet,” says Sabga.
Regarding the proposed curriculum, Sabga says we need to give kids these days more credit. “Children are a lot more resilient and understanding than I think parents [and] adults give them credit for,” he says. “I think I would definitely implement these lessons (or want them to be implemented) into my child’s sex ed program. Sex ed isn’t something that should be sugar-coated.”
Sabga supports the inclusion of “invisible differences”, as many in university environments are likely to do. “By introducing these ideas in their early years, it will help to derail some of the associated social stigma, making these differences more normal and acceptable,” he says.
But not all students feel that way. Consider that at six years old children are still reciting nursery rhymes and listening to stories at bedtime. We often don’t want to mix that image with the idea of teaching them about the birds and the bees. Fourth-year molecular biology major Dima Ayache isn’t as sure about the early sex ed. “In theory I’d elect to pull my children from those classes because that is a really young age for kids to even have a grasp as it what any of that is,” she says.
But she conceded that the most important factor is that kids are prepared. “Students are starting to have sex pretty young so they do need proper education,” she said.
Despite the controversy, there does seem to be one common goal: to protect the children. The trouble is that each side has different ideas of what that means.