If we tell teenagers not to have sex, they will listen, and everything will be fine. This was the basis of sex education for decades, until one day, some wise soul said, “Hey, so, teenagers are having sex anyway, maybe we should teach them how to do it safely, so they don’t ruin their lives.”
Even if you firmly believe that your child will wait until they are an adult to do the deed, they will presumably need to know about it at some point, lest they wish to start their own version of 19 Kids and Counting.
In 2015, the Ontario government revamped its sex ed curriculum. Though the actual curriculum didn’t change nearly as much as many assumed it did, the masses were now aware that their children were being taught such horrors as bodily autonomy (gasp!), sexual orientation (oh my stars!), and sex practices besides penis-in-vagina intercourse (won’t someone please think of the children!)
There was outrage. But in the end, the curriculum stayed, because it was a good thing. My brave sister was tasked with teaching sex ed to an all-boys grade eight class, while pregnant. In addition to imparting the wise words, “Remember when I used to be fun? This could be your girlfriends…” she opened the floor for frank discussion. Some of the meekest “My kid would never” kids had some pretty heavy questions. They did not need to be introduced to subjects like anal sex – they knew about it. But what they knew was wrong and dangerous.
Widening the scope of sex ed to include more than the act of sex and reproduction can only be a good thing. Talking with kids about how they feel about sex is as important as telling them how to do it.
Consent is perhaps the most important sex ed lesson beyond contraception and disease prevention. If the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, it’s that attitudes toward consent start early and become ingrained. Lessons on consent and bodily autonomy should start from birth, but by the time children are old enough to engage in sexual behaviour, which is younger than you think (think late elementary school, not high school,) it’s time to speak without filter or metaphor about their rights to their own bodies, and their lack of rights to others’.
The Ontario government, and indeed I hope many school systems, refuses to demonize homosexuality. They are committed to teaching inclusivity. This is important. For many children who are struggling with their sexual identities, the message they receive at home is that who they are is wrong. Having school as a safe space, having teachers they can talk to, can save their lives in a very literal sense.
Similarly, discussions about consent, bodily autonomy, and abuse gives kids an opening to come forward and seek help from their teachers if they are victims. If we take the attitude of, “These things should be taught at home” we ignore the very sad reality that home is exactly where many of these children experience these atrocities. Home is not a safe place for many children; how wonderful and imperative to let them know that school is.
Even when it comes to the basics, and even when children have a safe, loving relationship with their parents, relegating sex ed to parents is not always the best plan. First of all, it can be awkward. We like to think our kids will come to us for anything, but in reality, they might not feel comfortable asking some of these deeply personal questions.
My parents discussed sex so frankly with me from such a young age that I was banned from playing with a group of siblings because at age three, I told them I was born by caesarian (their brother, according to their family, had been born by magic. I was deeply disappointed in my own mundane birth.) But there is zero chance I would have asked them about sex once I was old enough to engage in it. I once innocently asked them what bestiality meant, and nearly died. I knew I could talk to them – but I wouldn’t.
And sex is something that should be discussed on an on-going, age-appropriate basis with children from toddlerhood. But that simply isn’t the case in every home. Having comprehensive, age-appropriate sex ed in school, starting in elementary school, ensures no children slip through the cracks.
There’s also the fact that parents are parents, they are not sex educators. Teachers who teach sex ed have access to the latest, most accurate information. We may think we know about sex, but we might not know the effectiveness rates of each current contraceptive, or the difference between a zygote and an embryo. Viewing sex ed as a partnership between schools and parents gives kids the information and the support they need.
With the promise from Doug Ford, upon taking position as provincial PC leader this week, to repeal the comprehensive sex ed curriculum in Canada, the sex pot will undoubtedly be stirred once more. I implore all of us, not just Ontarians, but parents and responsible citizens everywhere, to get past our discomfort with placing children and sex in the same sentence and do what is best for them. They know about sex. They always have. Let’s make sure that what they know is correct and give them the safe space they need to process it.