The Government of Ontario's recently elected Progressive Conservative Party (Canada) has decided to go back to the sex education curriculum of 1999. Yes, a group of right-wing Canadian legislators decided that in 2018, the best thing for students from Kindergarten through Eighth grade would be best served learning a vital part of their health studies from an era where before iPhones, Beyonce's solo career, and, more importantly, the development of the language we as a society have (thanks to marginalized) people to thoroughly, ethically, and accurately discuss the topics that should be included in sex ed. Doug Ford, Ontario's Premier, has effectively placed a gag order on teachers who wish to teach comprehensive sex education as a part of the health curriculum in classrooms. In fact, the public has been encouraged to snitch on educators who wish to do so.
It does not take a profound understanding of Canadian politics (or politics in general) to see why Ford and his government would want a rollback. The updated curriculum introduced by the previous Liberal Party government was controversial to some as it covered gay and transgender issues, introduced young kids to the topic of consent, anatomy, and other vital topics. When we say "controversial to some" we mean everything from trans/homophobes to the ultra-religious, to those skeptical of science, to the all of the above. The 1999 curriculum is missing not only the basic advancements health and medicine have made since then, it also blatantly misses key points vital to the health of young girls and LGBTQIA+ youth, who deserve to feel valid and safe in their classrooms.
Sex education is important. It is taught as preventative, to help students when engaging in sexual activities, protecting young people from infections (STIs) and unwanted pregnancies, situations that students become more and more exposed to as they get younger. Sex education is important because it also includes information on the development of humans (critical things like menstruation are discussed!), sexuality, healthy relationships and more. Children are also taught essential things like consent- equipping children with the ability to speak up for themselves if ever in any danger or feel unsafe.
Scarily enough, according to UNESCO, only 34% of adolescents around the world know about the transmission and prevention of HIV. Two-thirds of people and girls who menstruate are aware of their periods. Comprehensive sex education is vital here! Comprehensive sex educates and empowers young people to make the right choices when it comes to their bodies, and how to deal with them. It also promotes respect for people's human rights, and gender equality.
Sex education at its best is up to date, comprehensive, inclusive, and informative, and its worse, sex ed is hetero & cis-normative, exclusive, misogynistic, and limited. Comprehensive sex education within the curriculum of schools needs to teach kids the knowledge of the emotional and social aspects of sexuality- not just the physical. It should also give young people the skills and attitudes to help them take their health and well being into account. Sex education should let enable students to develop respectful healthy social and sexual relationships while ensuring the protection of their rights and freedom.
Why is this important? Not enough students receive sex education, but when they do, it's confusing and very hindered. They take the information they collect (info that at many times can be plainly false) and take it with them through their transition to and after adulthood. This inhibits them from making safe and healthy decisions. In a world filled with homophobia, transphobia, gender inequality, and gender-based violence sex education are essential. Making sure that sex education is age and developmentally appropriate is just as important as having sex education.
Does comprehensive sex education work? There is significant evidence that sex education has positive effects, from improving attitudes towards sex and sexuality to raising knowledge on the impact of the risky sexual activity. One of the most important things that research done by UNESCO shows that teaching kids comprehensive sex education does not increase sexual activity, sexual risk-taking behaviour or STI/HIV infection rates. The response to sex education from many people with conservative views is something called "abstinence-only" sex education. An "abstinence-only" curriculum promotes sex education through the lens of shaming people for engaging in sex, along with pushing the belief that to avoid unwanted pregnancy, STIs, and even rape can be prevented by practicing "abstinence." The idea of "abstinence," of course, is directed more at young women, going back to the sexism mentioned earlier. Focusing on gender within the curriculum can be useful- but not when slut-shaming and controlled ideas plague it.
One major issue that is specific to Ontario's situation is that the 1999 curriculum Ford and his government want is that it (most strikingly) is simply not good enough for 2018. It makes no mention of the way social media, sexting, and the realities of sexual predators that lurk on the internet exist and affect young people.
By repealing the modern sex education curriculum and installing the one from 1999, Doug Ford and other Conservatives are deliberately erasing the experiences of those most at risk, making it harder for young girls to take care of themselves, and barring people who don't fit the cis/straight mould from equipping themselves with fair and up to date information that can save their lives. Ontarians must speak up for comprehensive sex education because without it, young people are robbed of knowledge about healthy choices at an age where they need to know they have choices.
However, the onus cannot only be on students, educators, and/or marginalized communities. Including parents and community support allows students to reinforce the fact that there is more to sex education than just the birds and the bees. It should educate young people on sexuality, human rights, values, healthy and respectful relationships, cultural and social norms, gender equality. This reaffirms the position of sexuality education not just within the classroom, or preparing students for heterosexual marriage, but through the framework of human rights and gender equality. Things like non-discrimination, sexual behaviour, violence and gender-based violence, consent, sexual abuse and harmful practices. Sex education should not just be about infections, a structure of learning intended to scare young people out of sex. STI prevention should be highlighted, yes, but empowering young people to make decisions for their health, well being, and development means going beyond traditional sex education. Sex education must be intersectional and inclusive, equipping young people for real-life experiences.