Elementary-school students have instant access to images of sexual parts and positions—and a heap of misinformation. But when it comes to sex-ed in the classroom, the Ontario curriculum is trapped in the last century, before Wikipedia, sexting, and PornHub even existed. Here’s how it all went wrong.
What I’ve retained of my formal sexual education—dispensed, reluctantly, by stammering public-school teachers—resembles images from a broken View-Master reel. Click: Here is a pad, thick as a mattress. Click: Here are your reproductive organs, shaped like a sheep’s head. Click: Here is a terrifying metal IUD. I have to go outside the classroom for those scattered frames to cohere into an actual movie, but I remember my first encounter with pornography plenty well. I was 11, and it was lunchtime at my middle school, which backed onto a north Toronto ravine. I’m not sure who discovered those muddy pages of the magazine, and I’m not sure who spread the word, but quickly we all understood: At the ravine’s western edge, there was something naughty among the leaves.
The entire grade assembled, then (I choose to believe) peered down as one. Below us was—and this might not be completely accurate, but this is what I recall—a full-on grid of erect penises. I had no real context for these pictures; my context extended about as far as “greasy hot dogs,” and I immediately felt ill. That is where my memory begins to get hazy, though it’s not unreasonable to assume I backed away from the penises slowly, with my hands in the air.
What I now know: There was a scourge of ravine porn in the late ’80s and early ’90s; I spoke with no fewer than four Torontonians who confessed it was how they first saw lewd material, too. What I also now know: If you relate this anecdote to three 17-year-olds on a chilly October morning, they will regard you as though you just leapt on the table and shuffled through the Charleston. They have no concept of what it’s like to look so greedily upon something so graphic, unsure when the chance will come to see it again. Twelfth-grader May Zou confirms the obvious: “Anyone who’s curious will do a simple Google search, and you can find whatever you’re looking for.” One parent told me that, within months, his 11-year-old son graduated from Wikipedia entries on sexual parts and positions to X-rated videos on a site called PornHub. (Kids are incredibly savvy at finding this stuff online; less so at clearing their browser history.)
Twenty-first-century students are able to access and share information from resources unimaginable in my 20th-century childhood—not only Google and Wikipedia, but text and Twitter, YouTube, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, and 90 others I’m already too old to know about. They can amass a detailed (if not necessarily realistic) database of sexual knowledge, and they can do it from the comfort of their digital camera–equipped smart phones. It’s a landscape that teachers—who, at least at the elementary level, typically spend more time each day with kids than parents do—must navigate, as well, keeping abreast of these changes in order to address and balance what their students might see.
But teachers need guidance of their own, and that’s when they turn to the curriculum set out by the Ministry of Education. In January 2010, the provincial government introduced a heavily updated version for elementary students, which was to be followed by one for secondary schools that fall. Within months, though, a minority of parents and religious groups mobilized to protest the elementary sexual-health content, calling it inappropriate and explicit. Fifty-four hours after they went public, Dalton McGuinty responded by striking the sex-ed matter—some 10 per cent of the health and physical education material—from the new curriculum until further review. Nearly three years later, it remains languishing on a shelf somewhere; the high-school curriculum was never released at all.
When it comes to teaching sex ed, then, educators were told simply to revert to the previous curriculum—a document that was last revised in 1998. To put this date in some perspective: Fourteen years ago, I was still in high school. I wasn’t even in my last year of high school. Which means that students today are being taught from a curriculum written for kids who had ogled ravine porn.
It would be an understatement to call the 2010 health and physical education curriculum a more comprehensive document than its predecessor: At 211 pages, it’s over five times the size of the 1998 material. Says Chris Markham, executive director and CEO of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea), “This was the result of two years of development and consultation with more than 2,400 teachers, parents, health practitioners, and experts in the field, as well as 70 organizations and, for the first time, students themselves.” It took into account topics that were not considered, or even conceivable, when the old curriculum was assembled in the mid-’90s, including sexuality, gender identity, gay marriage and same-sex parenting, bullying and cyberbullying, technological literacy, and sexting. The document also reflects current research about childhood development. “Because we’re seeing kids get to puberty at a younger age,” Markham says, “lessons were to be shifted from Grade 5 to Grade 4.” Students had asked for this change, so that information about what in the hell was happening to their bodies could be presented before puberty actually began.
Another addition to the new curriculum—and this is true across all subjects, not just in health and phys ed—was “teacher prompts”: questions that educators could raise to promote conversation, as well as the student responses that they might expect. It was an attempt to clarify the 1998 curriculum, which teachers often found vague. Whereas the earlier document included, for example, developing a “decision-making process to address [relationship] issues,” the 2010 material proposed steering students towards warning signs that a relationship was in trouble, or tools for building positive communication skills.
It was here, in the teacher prompts, where things got dicey. Social conservatives seized on them as proof of a hyper-sexualized curriculum, even though the prompts are identified as suggestions for discussion, not a mandated part of the syllabus. In April 2010, the president of Canada Christian College, Charles McVety, told parents and media that teachers would now expose “12-year-olds to lessons on oral sex and anal intercourse.” (The Grade 7 prompt mentioned those acts as methods for contracting sexually transmitted diseases.) McVety, who did not respond to my requests for comment, further charged that it was “absurd to subject sixth-graders to instruction on the pleasures of masturbation [and] vaginal lubrication.” (The prompt described masturbation as “one way of learning about your body.” One imagines that near-teenagers are already well acquainted with its pleasures.)
Initially, McGuinty stood behind the curriculum, insisting that children “are going to get this information. We [can] provide it in a format and in a venue in which we have some control, or they can just get it entirely on their own.” Two days later—mindful, perhaps, of the provincial election slated for the following October—McGuinty announced the sex-ed do-over. The curriculum would be pulled so it could undergo “a serious rethink.”
The Ministry of Education has yet to establish parameters or a deadline for that rethink; in an email to me, a spokesperson would say only that decisions “have not been finalized at this time.” And although the government maintains it is committed to helping students confront 21st-century realities, the ministry’s best measures, according to that email, go something like this: “As students are learning to make healthy decisions related to healthy eating, mental health, physical activity, and personal safety, they can apply those same skills to make decisions related to healthy relationships and sexual health.” It seems that when it comes to developing good sexual judgment, parents had better hope their kids are paying very, very close attention to lessons about balanced diets and exercise.
Some form of sexual education has existed in Canada since the early 20th century; by those freewheeling 1960s, more specific information about the birds and the bees was offered at the high-school level. Today, there is almost complete consensus around the merits of sex ed: 85 per cent of Canadian parents agree it should be taught in schools, as do 92 per cent of students.
But is it inappropriate, as McVety claims and McGuinty appears to agree, for Grade 7 students to hear the words “oral sex”? It’s not as though they’re unaware of the term. Katie Lynes has twin daughters in Grade 8 at a north Toronto public school; last spring, their teacher devoted several classes to growth and development. During one of the discussions, a 12-year-old raised her hand and asked about blowjobs: What do you do with the sperm? Do you swallow it, or do you spit it out, and if you spit it out, will the guy be offended? “The teacher was about to answer,” Lynes says, “and then a boy shouted out, ‘Spitters are quitters!’” When the laughter died down, the teacher responded, “Well, that’s one opinion.”
Troy Parkhouse, a Grade 7 and 8 teacher, says these conversations are crucial because however familiar kids might be with sexual language or even sexual acts, they are often oblivious to the consequences. “They have a narrow image that intercourse is just vaginal. So if they do something orally or anally, they feel that they haven’t had sex yet,” he says. “They think pregnancy, and they forget about the other aspects, especially around disease.”
Students recognize this chasm between the knowledge they need and the information they receive. “When we had health class, the teachers really tried to speed through the sex-ed unit and go into the healthy eating stuff,” says 17-year-old May Zou. “I mean, the most the teacher did was, Here’s a banana, I’m going to show you how to put a condom on it.”
In a 2011 Ontario student survey, nearly half of the 7,000 polled said that sex-ed class did not adequately address their questions or concerns. “The school has to recognize that sexting and pornography and sex is happening,” says Grade 12 student Kourosh Houshmand. “It’s a disservice to students if they don’t speak about what is relevant. Schools have to be transparent with the real world, even if it’s controversial, even if they’re scared.”
It takes, without doubt, a uniquely talented educator to stand in front of 30 adolescents and utter the word “vulva.” But if teachers are scared—and many are—the source of their fear can largely be traced back to the antiquated curriculum. “If you were to get yourself into some difficulty because you entered into a conversation with students that parents objected to, your protection was in the curriculum,” says Susan Swackhammer, first vice-president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario. The grade expectations set out a standard of instruction that must be covered. Yet left with sexual-health guidelines now 14 years out of date, several teachers told me there is tremendous confusion over what is needed, what’s appropriate, and how far they’re allowed to go.
“The majority of teachers will not put their toes over the line,” Swackhammer adds. “They don’t want to be made to apologize, or be disciplined, or have a letter go into their file.” Rather than chance their careers, Parkhouse says, “Teachers won’t address sexuality and sexual health, and they’ll just hope the kids get it somewhere else. Or get it next year. And because we’re not willing to take that step with students, it keeps putting them behind.”
No matter how many politicians implore you to think of the children, the provincial curriculum does not go through a political process: It requires no legislative approval, and can in fact be released when the government is prorogued. Currently, the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association is lobbying the government to re-release the elementary sex-ed material and proceed with the absent high-school curriculum. Were that to happen this winter, Ophea believes teachers should have enough time to familiarize themselves with the content before the start of the 2013-14 school year.
That would provide them with a prescriptive plan for tackling the modern realities of sexual health; the next step, teachers say, would be access to similarly modern equipment and aids. The Toronto District School Board still rents out the same laughable doll that was used to teach puberty when I was in grade school: a gender-neutral, felt puppet-thing onto which you stick felt pubic hair, felt breasts, and increasingly impressive felt penises. (A teacher in Leaside told me she unequivocally will not use the felt doll, and then compared it to a golliwog.) There is a hole in the market for sleek anatomical models; Apple may want to get on this.
Toronto Public Health has produced a wealth of material to support teachers around the more challenging aspects of sexual education. It offers guides to explaining issues like consent, same-sex attraction, and sexual abuse; pamphlets for distributing to parents and students; and a no-nonsense DVD of dramatized lesson plans called Teaching Puberty: You Can Do It! (TP:YCDI! contains what surely ranks among the greatest lines in any educational video: “To sum it all up about penises…”) Expanding upon the 1998 curriculum, these resources are available to all teachers if they’re interested.
But even armed with extensive professional aids and cool iPuberty dolls, teachers are never going to toss off sex-ed lessons as casually as they do world issues or math. Given the intimate nature of the subject and the vast range in experience and comfort level—both on the part of students and their instructors—it may be impossible to achieve a standardized approach. Perhaps we’re unnecessarily indebted to the notion that this material is best delivered by a familiar face; kids have parents and guardians for that. Since students are so adept at receiving and divulging information online, a fitting strategy could be to harness the tools with which they’re already in constant contact. Turn the damn stuff over to a machine.
That’s precisely what U of T professor Marco Gonzalez-Navarro did two years ago. For six months, more than 4,500 Grade 9 Colombian students spent 90 minutes each week in front of a computer, clicking through lessons about sex. The online curriculum stressed preventative measures as well as sexual rights, and kids could email a tutor at any time with questions. The course enabled them to learn at their own pace and voice concerns they might not raise in their homeroom.
Six months after the online course wrapped, contraception use among the students had risen, while the number of sexual encounters and partners fell. That result mirrors what studies have found in classroom-based sex-ed programs: Far from hastening sexual activity, they cause that behaviour to decline. In Colombia, the rates were more statistically significant among students whose friends were also enrolled in the course. “It’s hard to change norms from an individual standpoint,” Gonzalez-Navarro says. “It’s easier to say, Oh, let’s delay having sex, or let’s use a condom, if both sexual partners are following the same counsel.”
Curriculum should not be confused for a cure-all—it won’t stop students from watching a kinky video on PornHub, and it can’t singlehandedly guide them through the messy business of growing up. But since schools are the only institution that has meaningful (and mandatory) contact with nearly every child, they uniquely can equip kids to make enlightened decisions about their sexual health. That’s no small task, but—whether the lessons come from a teacher or a computer—it is an essential one. And it shouldn’t spring from information collected when Clinton was president, even if the man did know a thing or two about blowjobs.
Next Page: We ask Torontonians, “What was the best thing you learned in sex-ed class?”