What are schools afraid of?

You may have heard about the revisions to the Physical Health and Education curriculum in Ontario over which there was – and still is – considerable controversy.  Ontario teachers had been using a curriculum from 1998 until the revisions came out in 2010.  Although they were posted on the provincial web-site, they never saw the light of day primarily because of pushback from fundamentalist groups.

However, in 2015, after ongoing consultations with teachers, health professionals, parents and other interested parties, the curriculum, which included sexual health and personal safety, was finally ready for implementation.

Or was it?

Guidelines are only as good as the lesson plans that give them life in the classroom.  And lesson plans must be approved by the local school board.

First misstep

Recently, an article appeared in the Toronto Star in which I was quoted regarding the way terms for genitals would be discussed in grade one.  The headline referred to “sanitized” sex-ed (as if teaching dictionary words for genitals needed cleaning up).  The curriculum guideline requires the teacher to “identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology”.

So that’s what they are teaching, right?

In the school cited in the article, after months of discussion, they ended up offering parents “religious accommodation”, allowing their children to opt out of a dictionary word class to attend a euphemism class.  The following day I was asked to do five interviews of which I did three (in both official languages).  I very publicly said that the school had unwittingly emboldened parents to challenge the curriculum at every level from grade one to grade 12.  It is the children who will pay.  Starting in grade one they will lack the basic building blocks of language, the basis of future sexual health education.

Some educators argue that at least these kids will get something.  They point out – and rightly so – that because there is no real oversight/monitoring over how – or even whether – sexual health information is taught, there are likely thousands of school children throughout the province who continue to have little or no sexual health information in the classroom because their teacher just skips that part of the curriculum.  I do not agree, but I do commiserate with the principal who over many months tirelessly attempted to change parents’ minds.

To teach or not to teach menstruation

The second misstep came from school boards relying on the official lesson plans put out by OPHEA.

Puberty is now to be taught across the province starting in grade four rather than waiting for grade five.  And a good thing, too, especially given the drop in age of menarche 

But OPHEA has taken menstruation out of the grade four curriculum despite the guideline that stipulates secondary sexual characteristics are to be taught:

“Describe the physical changes that occur in males and females at puberty (e.g., growth of body hair, breast development, changes in voice and body size, production of body odour, skin changes) and the emotional and social impacts that may result from these changes.”

The curriculum provides examples, but in no way prohibits teaching the physical change most likely to frighten girls unless they are aware of its approach.  Unfortunately, OPHEA interpreted the examples as limitations.

Teachers (and sexual health promoters who often assist teachers with the curriculum) were put in a bind.  They were not to teach menstruation; they were not to answer questions about menstruation.  A colleague pointed out recently, “There are no age inappropriate questions” and of course, teachers learn how to answer questions in age appropriate ways.

On the other hand, the OPHEA package contains the following gem:

“People with vaginas should wash their external genital area (vulva) regularly with warm water… Douching (using soaps or water in the inner vagina [sic] is not recommended because it may upset the pH balance of the vagina.”  (Grade 4 Understanding Changes at Puberty Personal Hygiene.)

So don’t teach about menstruation, but introduce the fact that some women douche and it’s not a good idea.

When contacted by e-mail, an Education Officer in the Ministry of Education noted:

“while the Ministry of Education is responsible for developing curriculum policy, implementation of policy is the responsibility of school boards; and that the curriculum includes “detailed lists of examples that teachers may (but do not have to) use in the planning instructions for students…”

One sexual health promoter I spoke to said, “You can’t go in and not do your job”.  So either staff are considered “guests” and dance around the facts; or they do their job.  Because, if they can’t do their job, what’s the point of going into the classroom?

Parents say they want to be the first sexual health educators of their own children, but many shirk this responsibility because of embarrassment or lack of information.  That is the reason such a high percentage of Canadian parents support sexual health education in the schools.

Studies conducted in different parts of Canada have consistently found that over 85% of parents agreed with the statement ‘Sexual health education should be provided in the schools’”.

 

Many grade one children will finish the school year with no dictionary words for their genitals; and some grade four girls will start bleeding from a place in their body for which they either have no name, a family name or, if they are lucky, a dictionary word.  Like many of our mothers – and perhaps many of us as well – they will think they are hurt or dying.

That is a very big misstep indeed.

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Teaching sex ed – what’s love got to do with it?

Reading this article, I was reminded of an interview I had done on a national radio program last spring.  I guess it’s time to revisit this discussion.

The article above explains the dilemma for (heterosexual) boys:

“…while boys crave closeness, they are expected to act as if they are emotionally invulnerable. Among the American boys I interviewed, I observed a conflict between their desires and the prevailing masculinity norms – if they admit to valuing romantic love, they risk being viewed as ‘unmasculine’.”

The writer encourages sexual health educators to teach boys about emotional intimacy; but there is a distinct difference between emotional intimacy and love.  One can certainly have one without the other.  Let’s be frank.  Adults know full well that we don’t have to be “in love” or in a committed relationship to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy.  And one can have emotional intimacy in a casual sexual relationship to which one would not necessarily apply the “love” label.

The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality has published numerous articles on casual sexual relationships (CSRs). This article identifies four types of casual sexual relationships: One Nights Stands, Booty Calls, Fuck Buddies, and Friends with Benefits.    Despite the apparent crudeness of the terms, these are indeed intimate relationships, which hopefully include the basic requirements of good communication, honesty and respect.  Sex educators need to acknowledge the reality of CSRs rather than insist on a societal ideal.  In the early days of sexual health education, we used “love” as part of the discussion of heterosexual pairings leading to commitment and babies.  “When a man and a woman love each other…” etc.  For sex educators, in the same way that we have sought to be broadly inclusive in terms of gender and orientation, we need to avoid upholding a hierarchy of intimate relationships with marriage at the pinnacle.

Not so very long ago, lesson plans abounded with examples of the difference between infatuation and love.  No doubt these classes evolved from educators’ fear of talking about pleasure: we were afraid it might lead to early, risky experimentation.  But what would be the point of raising the question of “love” with children having their first crushes who are just discovering the pleasure of holding hands or enjoying that first kiss?  With older adolescents, at what point in the discussion of the sexualization of relationships would we then introduce the notion of love?

The article insists that we talk with young people about feelings.  And we do.  We want them to be able to evaluate whether they feel happy and satisfied in their relationships.  We encourage them to ask themselves: Do I look forward to seeing my partner?  How do I feel when we are together?  Does my partner treat me the same when we are alone as when we are in public?  On the whole, do I feel happier because I am in this relationship?

Not all feelings measure up to the standard set by romantic notions of love.

What we really need to teach young people are the bases of healthy relationships; viz., integrity, honesty, respect, fairness and good communication.  These are, after all, the values that we hope will inform their relationships.  Depending on the individuals, all of these qualities may be found in CSRs as well as long-term committed relationships.  Moreover, we can teach them the prerequisites of sexual activity – consent, safety and pleasure – which are also rooted in equitable, clear communication.

Let’s teach young people about emotional and sexual intimacy, so that when they are ready to engage in more sophisticated sexual activity, they are able to be present, find connection, take risks, experience erotic intimacy, communicate their desires, explore and be authentic.  After all, aside from asexual people who may only want to experience emotional intimacy, the rest of us also want our sexual desires to be fulfilled.

It is important to point out that many people in battered relationships are in love, albeit a love that is based in a power imbalance.  This tie is particularly hard to break.  Not only do women find it difficult for complex reasons to leave their male abusers but the dynamic also holds true for same gender partners.  We may think we can change the person or control the situation, but it is no exaggeration to say that the scenario may also escalate into murder.  As Maya Angelou says of jealousy,

“Jealousy in romance is like salt in food. A little can enhance the savor, but too much can spoil the pleasure and, under certain circumstances, can be life-threatening.”

So let’s teach young people about equitable relationships, and offer them the skills to seek happiness in their relationships, whether they consider themselves to be in love or not.

 

When is sexting child pornography?

The other day I received a last minute phone call from CBC Radio Canada asking for an interview.  The journalist said the story concerned grade 7 and 8 students sending naked pictures; and that there had been some discussion about potential child porn charges.  I hadn’t heard or read anything about it and didn’t have time to prepare for an interview or come down to the studio.  The story didn’t appear until a few days later: http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/04/18/waterloo-region-kids-involved-in-child-porn-investigation.html.  Based on what she told me, I did make a few comments, including the low numbers of adolescents sending naked photos.  These are US stats from my files on its prevalence:

The American Pediatric Society stated in 2011 that “estimates varied considerably depending on the nature of the images or videos and the role of the youth involved. Two and one-half percent of youth had appeared in or created nude or nearly nude pictures or videos. However, this percentage is reduced to 1.0% when the definition is restricted to only include images that were sexually explicit (ie, [sic] showed naked breasts, genitals, or bottoms). Of the youth who participated in the survey, 7.1% said they had received nude or nearly nude images of others; 5.9% of youth reported receiving sexually explicit images. Few youth distributed these images” (http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2011/11/30/peds.2011-1730).

I also commented on the senselessness of applying laws on child porn (or “child sexual images”, the term preferred by people in the field) to this case.  But according to the article, some grade 7 and 8 students in Kitchener-Waterloo are indeed “under investigation” for allegedly being in possession of child pornography and could face charges”.  However, local police are looking at it more as an opportunity to educate, a strategy with which I wholeheartedly agree.

And yet, I cannot help reflecting on the suicides these past few years provoked by public humiliations, including posts of sexual assaults – a far cry from sexting, which some researchers have referred to as a contemporary form of spin the bottle (http://www.newswire.ca/en/story/485407/-sexting-just-a-modern-version-of-spin-the-bottle).  In the Waterloo case, there were “reports of nude photos being used as a “manipulation tool”.  Unlike the majority of sext messages with partially nude images, “some of the images were allegedly ‘frontal nude photos,’” and at one point, the photos were posted to Facebook”.

Using the images in this way does smack of adult revenge porn, popular with disgruntled exes, and now illegal in some countries like the UK (http://www.theverge.com/2015/4/13/8398691/revenge-porn-laws-uk-jail-time).

Apparently, these young students had started out having fun – which was mutual – but ended up using the images as blackmail.

When and how do you start teaching kids why this is not OK?

As you have read ad nauseum in these blogs, sexual health education starts at home and must continue throughout students’ schooling.  While it is laudable to teach children about safe (and respectful) Internet use as part of their health and physical education curriculum, if they are not taught explicitly about sexual abuse at an early age and do not understand the potential sequelae of sexual trauma, they will not develop empathy for people who suffer these traumas.  Nor will they disclose abuse and receive the therapy they need to heal.

Make no mistake: Distributing child sexual images is a form of sexual abuse.  Adults who post child sexual images tend to minimize their offense by saying they were not the ones to originally abuse the child(ren) pictured, willfully ignoring their re-victimization.  Charges recently laid against a man who encouraged sexual abuse and also fabricated stories of abuse involving his own family is a case in point (http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/sentencing-hearing-set-to-begin-in-child-porn-case-for-ontarios-former-deputy-education-minister).

While it is difficult enough to teach children the importance of disclosing sexual abuse – that is, the negative side of sexuality – for some parents it is equally difficult to teach about positive sexuality.  This is where sexual health educators step in.  Given the opportunity, parents can easily brainstorm a list of what they understand to be a sexually healthy person.  In my workshops on raising sexually healthy children, parents’ lists always include respect of self and others as well as communication – the ability to say yes and to say no.  Children can be taught these principles from an early age.  They are the building blocks of consent and empathy.  The school is their partner in this critical education.

Aside from laying charges, the state has an education and advocacy role to play.  The Ontario government recently launched a campaign against sexual violence with these ads: http://www.ontario.ca/home-and-community/we-can-all-help-stop-sexual-violence).  One includes a scenario which I have often described in the classroom: When you send a sext message and/or photo, you never know who is on the receiving end.  I remember discussing this point with a group of young people in a shelter.  I asked if they had ever received a sext message. One participant took his cell out to read us one he had just received, nicely illustrating my point.

The law cannot go very far in addressing the education piece.  It is the parents and the Waterloo Region school board that have their work cut out for them.  One hopes they are up for the task.

Resources

Parent guide to consent: http://www.octevaw-cocvff.ca/know-more