Ontario Education Minister Liz Sandals
Last month, the province of Ontario unveiled an updated sex education curriculum for children in Grades 1 to 8. It was matched by great pushback from parents who said that teaching gender fluidity, masturbation and oral and anal sex to children in elementary school is “age-inappropriate”. To say the least.
In 2010, the province tried to introduce a very similar curriculum but backed down after vocal opposition from religious groups and parents who threatened to organize and rally against the government.
This time though – with no election on the horizon – the curriculum is here to stay, even though hundreds of parents have rallied outside the legislature holding signs saying things like, “Math not masturbation, science not sex” and chanting, “We say no!”
The changes that were made were only to introduce some of the most sensitive topics at even younger ages.
Ontario Education Minister, Liz Sandals claims the reason they’ve shifted the curriculum to earlier grades is that puberty is starting earlier. She also says that, no matter what the opposition, this curriculum will be taught in schools beginning in September. However, parents can choose to have their children opt out of class when these specific topics are being covered.
The government’s commitment to this policy is puzzling when the public is so divided on the matter. A Forum Research poll found that 49 per cent of the voters surveyed said they approve of the curriculum, 34 per cent disapprove and 17 per cent had no opinion.
There is also concern about Ben Levin’s hand in the curriculum’s development. The just-convicted child pornographer was formerly Ontario’s deputy education minister. He pleaded guilty to two child-porn related charges and one charge of counseling to sexually abuse a child.
When concerns are raised about his involvement – email records show that he was communicating with those at the top of the province’s education field just days before he was arrested – Premier Kathleen Wynne, a self-declared lesbian, dismissed opponents who questioned her about Levin and asked that the curriculum be reconsidered, as just being homophobic.
Ontario is certainly not the only place where sex-ed is becoming more explicit in early years – and this without any studies to back the practice up. Kids are serving as guinea pigs because although abstinence-only sex-ed has been well studied, there are few studies that have looked at the effect on kids of being presented with an abundance of sexual information in the classroom. Those that have been done were inconclusive. There is no proof that bombarding kids with sexual information early on will prevent unplanned pregnancies or STDs.
The reason this type of education continues to appear in the classroom is because the so-called “experts” in sex education — those who major in gender studies or attend conferences and workshops on sexuality — tend to have one particular view about how to teach the subject.
The problem is that not all parents share this view and many feel that their child would be better off having these sensitive sexual conversations earlier, or later, or in a different setting, depending on their life experience and disposition.
Though there are thousands of parents signing petitions and hundreds rallying outside government buildings against explicit sex-ed, their voice is seldom well represented in media coverage of the conflict.
While many parents say they oppose the things being taught in their kid’s classrooms, few will speak to the media about it. The result is that many journalists are left with a very narrow understanding of who those opposing sex-ed curricula are, what they specifically object to and why. Their coverage then tends to perpetuate stereotypes.
By taking time to seek out members of the media and explaining specific objections to them, parents can begin to change the way they are portrayed in the media coverage, which can then influence politicians and educational authorities.
When up against the “experts”, many parents can feel their voices don’t count. They can feel intimidated, even though as their child’s first educators they have every right to question and challenge anything that is taught in the classroom.
To make matters worse, many experts don’t feel the need to consult parents on curriculum matters. As Elizabeth Schroeder, executive director of Answer, an organization that provides sex-ed, put it, “We are the educational experts.” Even when consultation does occur, few parents leave the process saying they feel that they were really heard.
On the subject of sex, the values families want to transmit to their children are so different it’s exceptionally difficult for a “one-size-fits-all” curriculum to please everybody.
In an article in the New York Times this week Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of education and history at New York University, points to the role that immigrant communities have played in the opposition to Ontario’s new sex curriculum, and to similar initiatives in other parts of the world. Though apparently liberal himself on the issue he says:
In an age of globalization, in fact, schools are probably the least likely places for kids to learn about sex. Schools are central for deliberating the values we wish to transmit to our young. But on the subject of sex, we disagree too fundamentally to arrive at anything like a consensus about what adolescents should learn, know and become.
Zimmerman suggests that adolescents can find all the information they want from out-of-school peer counseling programmes and websites “free from adult scrutiny”. That is not what many responsible parents would regard as a wholesome alternative, but at least they can have more influence over their children when the subject is removed from the classroom.
Given the inflexibility shown by the Ontario government and its experts over the past five years regarding sex-ed content, it seems that putting a hold on this controversial curriculum until real consultation can happen would be a fair and democratic answer to the current situation.
If the majority really wants changes to the instruction that is taking place in schools, at least the experts could start listening to parents and become more open-minded about the diverse views of others regarding sexuality.
Ada Slivinsky is a Canadian journalist who writes about family and social issues.