In a time where we are finally holding people accountable for their actions, it is impertinent that we take steps to educate ourselves and future generations about sex education. The idea of respect, personal space, healthy relationships, consent, gender identity, and mental and physical health all need to be taught at a young age. Children need to learn about their bodies and what respect looks like in order to reduce the issues of sexual assault, gender-based violence, discrimination, STIs and teen pregnancies in the future. The topic of sex-ed tends to be a controversial one as many families want to be the ones to expose their children to this part of the “adult world.” However, it is schools that are the most qualified, reliable and influential to teach children about sex education.
As a biology and psychology student, I believe that we need to expose children to sex education early in order to build a more safe, appropriate and tolerant society. With that said, the information provided under the umbrella of sex education should be age-appropriate for each grade.
Reflecting on my time in an Ontario elementary school, the sex education we received was based on the 1998 curriculum, which frankly looking back, was lacking. I remember growing up with M.A.D.D (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) programs, and mini-assemblies about sexual assault prior to grade 4. In grade 5 we were introduced to the human body at the most rudimentary level. In grade 6 we had V.I.P (Values Influences and Peers) classes about substance abuse and the consequences they have on the body as well as the law. By the time I was in grade 7 and 8, we finally began learning about sex, the reproductive system, and STIs. The progression of information was spaced out fairly well however, the content presented was inadequate and incomplete.
What children learn when they are young, stays with them until adulthood. We all are a concoction of our socialization and experiences. People who come from backgrounds of abuse are more likely to be abusive. People who grow up in households of drugs are more likely to substance abuse. Children from households who provide inadequate information about healthy relationships, sex and respect are more likely to have unhealthy relationships, be uninformed and have trouble expressing their own needs, wants and feelings. All of this leads to dissatisfaction, frustration, and negativity. Therefore, it’s vital that we begin teaching children what is and isn’t appropriate from the beginning.
It’s naive to think that all families have “the talk” to provide their children with some sort of sex-ed. Many families especially those of certain cultural backgrounds find the topic of sex taboo and uncomfortable to talk about, thus the discussions are never had. Those children rely on schools and medical professionals to educate them on their bodies. Moreover, some parents don’t have the information to pass along to their children, thus creating a lack of knowledge or misinformation which leads to toxic behaviour.
Children are exposed to sexualization in the media before they learn about sex-ed in schools. Advertisements, music, and films all create unrealistic beauty standards and rigid gender roles, all of which have negative impacts on children about their bodies and identities. Schools should be tackling the questions and concerns children have about themselves in a safe and positive environment to help prevent body image issues, eating disorders, gender identity issues, and low self-esteem and self-worth.
In the Netherlands, primary schools begin sex education at four years old, but there is no explicit reference to sex. Instead, children are being taught how to have open, honest conversations about love and relationships. As children get older they begin to learn about self-image, gender stereotypes and then discuss sexual orientation and contraceptive options. This approach is known as comprehensive sex education. This system exists to address sexual diversity and sexual assertiveness, which encourages respect for all sexual preferences and helps students develop skills to protect themselves against sexual coercion, intimidation, and abuse. The Netherlands is known to be the most effective nation in tackling teen sexual health. In fact, the World Bank has stated that the rate of teen pregnancy is one of the lowest in the Netherlands, as well as HIV infection and STIs.
Back in 2015, the Ontario Liberal government at the time set forth a long-overdue modernization of the sex-ed curriculum to include sexting, online bullying, consent, updates to LGBTQ rights, sexual identity and the addition of anatomical names of body parts. However, this past summer Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Lisa Thompson cut the 2015 sex-ed plan. Ontario students will now continue with the 1998 curriculum, which is detrimental to our future society. This plan fails to meet the needs of today’s students.
Opponents of 2015 modernization, including the new administration, claim that the information students were being given in the new sex-ed curriculum was beyond student level of comprehension and was age-inappropriate as these were “sensitive” or “delicate” topics. They believe that exposing children to “adult material” through discussions has adverse effects as it “forces” children to grow up and proceed through developmental stages faster. These claims may be warranted as parents always worry about their children, however, knowledge is power. By giving children information, they are able to stay safe. Parents should always impart their values on their children, however, when a school echoes a parent’s concern and knowledge, the conversation is reinforced. Children are already exposed to sexualization in the media, thus schools should be given the opportunity to debunk the negativity they are imposed to. Children need to be taught how to be safe, that they shouldn’t feel any pressure to conform when they aren’t ready and that abstinence to engage in intimacy based on personal choice, values and/or faith is also normal. Children should also learn that their personal identities and bodies are nothing to be ashamed about and that we must all respect others for who they are.
Medical professionals in Ontario signed a petition against Ford’s educational cut as they also believe that denying information to children about consent, safety and inclusivity puts their health at risk. Sex-ed needs to emphasize young people’s rights so they can be responsible and respectful of themselves and others as that is the foundation of sexual health.
With my background in both science and psychology, I can firmly say that the Ford government’s cut will hurt students, teachers, and parents. Their elimination of vital issues like consent, cyberbullying, LGBTQ families and gender identity are detrimental to society. Putting personal ideology before science, choice and student-wellbeing are just sad. The previous curriculum received a lot of backlash from social conservatives, but if we take a second to really read the legislation, there was always a slow progression of knowledge for young students at each level that was age-appropriate. The new curriculum just expanded on what was lacking from the previous curriculum to better meet the needs of today’s students. To review a summary of the 2015 curriculum for each grade, click here.
Whatever your personal belief is, knowledge is power. When we aren’t aware, we are ignorant and prone to making mistakes. We need to educate our young people to make a safer, healthier, and more prosperous tomorrow.