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If you are a child in an Ontario public school studying sexual education, you are stuck in a time far different than your own. Your sex-ed curriculum, last revised in 1998, reflects a world in which Coldplay is cool, sexting doesn’t exist, and Facebook isn’t even an idea brewing in Mark Zuckerberg’s brain. Your curriculum predates not only every piece of technology you use on a daily basis, but also what is likely your mother’s favourite talk show. Ellen Degeneres, North America’s favourite lesbian, began dancing down the studio aisles of The Ellen Show in 2003—the same year gay marriage became legal in Canada, and Kim Kardashian starred in her career-making sex tape. But your sex-ed curriculum doesn’t reflect these monumental cultural shifts in our society because it is a relic. Until now, that is.
Related reading: How safe is sexting?
This week, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne unveiled the province’s revamped sex-ed curriculum, one that makes no reference to Kim Kardashian, but includes other topics equally significant to the modern age: sexting, cyberbullying and LGBT issues (namely, that families come in all different shapes and sizes—a fact that even the movie Mrs. Doubtfire tried to embrace in 1993).
The new curriculum, revised in 2010 but shelved by then-premier Dalton McGuinty after a small group of socially conservative parents complained, will be introduced to the province’s schools in September—but not without controversy. The same group of parents and activists who spooked McGuinty staged a modest-sized protest at Queen’s Park in Toronto on Tuesday, chanting slogans and holding signs, one of which read: “What’s next . . . safe animal sex?” (A girl can dream.)
Chief among the things that disturb this group is the early age at which students will learn the facts of life. Kids in Grade 2 will learn about consent, kids in Grade 3 will learn about homosexuality and same-sex marriage (which is to say they will learn that such things exist, not that the Adonis bathhouse in Toronto offers a 30-minute “soft hands” massage). Students in Grade 7 will get the facts on contraception, STDs, and oral and anal sex. Being products of a hypersexual era, they will likely know these things already (and a whole lot more), whether their parents want them to or not; some kids watch porn for the first time when they are 10.
Related reading: Q&A: A mother’s journey through the perils of teen sexting
But parents wary about sex ed in Ontario—or parents wary of progressive sex education anywhere in the country—shouldn’t despair at the thought of teachers taking health class into the future. They should rejoice. In fact, they have more reason to rejoice than their socially liberal counterparts, for there is no dissuading voice more powerful when it comes to sex than the voice of an enthusiastic, open-minded authority figure. Kids don’t giggle in health class because they are titillated, but because they are embarrassed. Talking to a teacher about sex, watching him circle the urethra on a giant diagram of a penis, or put a condom on a banana, does not typically make a kid hot and bothered; it makes her cringe.
Related reading: Emma Teitel on the real world of teenage cyberbullying
The saving grace to sex ed in my youth (i.e., the sex ed of today) was that the types of things that did get us hot and bothered—cybersex, web-cam shows, Internet porn—existed entirely outside the classroom. They were covert; they were unknown to parents and teachers alike and, thus, free from awkward school-sanctioned dissection.
When the new sex-ed curriculum rolls out in September, this will cease to be the case in Ontario. Students will not find out about sexting from their friends—or from those sexting them—but from their teachers. In other words, when Susie receives her first explicit text message, she may not be able to shake the memory of Mr. Johnson’s lesson in sex ed about the “the dangers of dick pics.”
This doesn’t mean that cybersex will never be had again, or that kids will stop downloading porn, but that an intensely private world will, for the first time, be made public in a very sterile, cerebral and unsexy place. In the end, then, progressive sex ed may not just be a victory for public health, but for abstinence.