I have written many times about teaching sexual health and the necessity for following the Canadian Guidelines. When the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario cancelled the 2015 revisions to the 1998 curriculum, I wrote about that as well. More than once.
After a year and an expense of more than $1 million on online consultations, they have come up with their finished product – which many say looks a lot like the 2015 revisions – but which will not be implemented until late 2020 following teacher training. This process has been an egregious assault on students’ rights to have comprehensive sexual health education. In the interim, teachers be will obliged to continue using the 1998 curriculum: in other words, teaching nothing about online pornography, sexting, consent to sexual activity, sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression – and all the other issues that have been front and centre in our society for the past 20 years.
The Toronto Star pointed out one critical difference in the updated curriculum:
The government will also usher in a new, standard system for parents to opt their children out of sexual health and development lessons. That may be at odds with the current practice that some boards like Toronto and Peel have had in place, where parents cannot formally opt their children out of lessons around gender identity, citing human rights obligations. Starting this fall, boards will have to give parents 15 school days — or three weeks’ — notice about upcoming human development and sexual health lessons, and during which parents can submit opt-out forms.
In the past, the Toronto District School Board sent out notices letting parents know about the upcoming classes and accepted notes initiated by parents who did not want their children to participate. It was assumed that the majority of parents would want their children to have this education – a fair assumption given consistent survey results not only in Ontario but across the country, indicating parents’ desire to have sexual health education provided in the schools.
Before delving into the details of the new/old curriculum, I will remind readers that when the 2015 revisions were finally implemented, in one school, after months of discussion, they ended up offering parents “religious accommodation”, allowing their children to opt out of a class where dictionary words would be taught to attend what I called a “euphemism class”. Those parents did not want their children to learn the names of body parts including genitals in grade 1. The 2019 Ontario curriculum correctly points out the importance of this information. Aside from being the building blocks of sexual health language, it also provides children with standardized vocabulary if they need to report sexual abuse.
You may read my comparison of the 2015 revisions to the 1998 curriculum here.
The 2019 curriculum
Here is the full curriculum. Below are my questions and comments.
Identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology and body-positive language.
This is laudable (although as stated above, some parents will continue to opt out). The teacher prompt elicits reasons why students need this information. The hypothetical student response says they may need to report sexual touching. This is an unlikely scenario.
Sexual abuse tends to begin somewhere between the ages of 5 – 9 often preceded by a period of grooming. Unless the teacher has a solid lesson plan, six year old students are unlikely to be able to distinguish between nurturing and sexual touching. Moreover, child sexual abuse may not involve inappropriate touching at all. Following the logic of using dictionary words; viz., normalization and standardization, is best left to parent workshops.
Personal Safety and Injury Prevention and behaviours that can be harmful to physical and mental health (e.g., ignoring or excluding others; bullying [my emphasis]; manipulative behaviours; sexually exploitative or abusive behaviours, including inappropriate touching [my emphasis]; verbal, emotional, or physical abuse), as well as appropriate ways of responding, demonstrating an understanding of the importance of consent
There may be bullying towards children from families that are perceived as “different”. Some children may also be perceived as different if their expressed gender is different from their assigned sex. “Invisible differences” are not taught until taught in grade 3. Sexual orientation is not introduced until grade 5. Gender identity and gender expression are not taught until grade 8.
What is the plan for discussing sexually exploitative behaviours including inappropriate touching? (See grade 2.)
Explain the importance of consent and demonstrate the ability to stand up for themselves and others, to enhance well-being and safety (e.g., speaking confidently; stating boundaries, whether in person or online; saying no; respecting the right of a person to say no and encouraging others to respect that right also; reporting exploitative behaviours, such as improper touching of their bodies or others’ bodies)
Teachers will have to define “improper touching”. Will they teach students to trust their uh-oh feelings as described by Boost Child and Youth advocacy centre? When they undergo training as per the province’s plan, who will offer the training and what lesson plans will they use? There has been considerable controversy in the past about the best time to discuss sexual abuse. Sometimes children who are being sexually abused, who were previously sexually abused or who are physically abused may act out sexually on other children. Dealing with observations/disclosures requires training.
The 2015 revisions were more explicit about diverse families than the current curriculum. From my article:
They list “invisible differences (e.g., learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation diverse families. Some students live with two parents. Some live with one parent. Some have two mothers or two fathers.
In the 2019 curriculum, I see nothing more than “visible and invisible differences”. Sexual orientation and gender expression are not listed.
There is a good section on bullying and consent.
Describe various types of bullying, abuse, and other non-consensual behaviour and identify the impacts they can have and appropriate ways of responding.
No one should touch another person without their consent. Verbal bullying could include name calling, mocking, teasing about ability or appearance, including weight, size, or clothing, and making sexist or racist comments in person or online.
Why not be explicit about homophobia and transphobia? Are we to assume they are covered under “sexist remarks”?
Describe the physical changes that occur 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.
Unfortunately, they are not to not teach menstruation until grade 5. This is a mistake. Although the average age of menarche in Canada is 12.72 years, 15 percent get their periods earlier, as young as eight or nine. It is safe to assume that there has already been some breast and pubic hair development. It is critical for girls to know what to expect well before it happens.
Under Personal Safety and Injury Prevention, they mention sexual orientation and homophobia buried in the hypothetical teacher prompt and student response:
“I can listen to my friend and talk about ways we can stand up for ourselves when someone is bullying us, including by naming the behaviour – stating firmly that it’s not okay to say things that are racist or homophobic, even in a joking way. I can stand up for my friend if I am there when it happens, or I can get help by telling a trusted adult.”
In the section on Human Development and Sexual Health, it is more explicit:
Identify intersecting factors that affect the development of a person’s self-concept, including their sexual orientation (e.g., self-awareness, self-acceptance, social environment, opinions of others who are important to them, influence of stereotypical thinking, awareness of their own strengths and needs, social competency, cultural identity, availability of support, body image, mental health and emotional well-being, physical abilities), and how these factors can support their personal health and well-being.
The teacher prompt:
Sexual orientation refers to a person’s sense of sexual attraction to people of the same or different sex.
They place sexual orientation as a sexual attraction rather than the desire to have relationships with someone of the same gender. This narrow definition is wholly inaccurate perpetuating a harmful stereotype.
The section on puberty is all about the stressors
There is nothing about sexual feelings or the desire to self-pleasure. There is nothing about fertility and conception.
There is nothing about sexual abuse.
On a personal note, having given classes in the Anglophone and Francophone schools in both the public and Catholic boards, I talked about attractions, sexual feelings, self-pleasuring, fertility and conception in grade 5. I also systematically included a class on sexual abuse receiving many disclosures over the years.
Children who do not disclose may become have difficulties maintaining healthy intimate relationships with life partners; they are at higher risk of developing psychiatric illness, especially mood disorders, self-harming, and eating disorders; and are at higher risk for substance use, and perceived sexual promiscuity.
They discuss relationships, communication and healthy decisions. They spend time on the “isms” which is good.
Assess the effects of stereotypes and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, culture, mental health, and abilities on an individual’s self-concept, social inclusion, and relationships with others, and propose appropriate ways of responding to and changing harmful assumptions and stereotypes that can lead to destructive social attitudes including homophobia and racism.
I keep waiting for the nitty gritty – the sexual and reproductive issues students want to know about in detail. But they give us this instead:
Describe how they can build confidence and lay a foundation for healthy relationships by acquiring a clearer understanding of the physical, social, and emotional changes that occur during adolescence (e.g., physical: voice changes, skin changes, body growth; social: changing social relationships, increasing influence of peers; emotional: increased intensity of feelings, new interest in relationships, confusion and questions about changes).
Aha! I found masturbation in the teacher prompt:
Things like ejaculating when you are asleep (wet dreams) or experiencing vaginal lubrication are normal and happen as a result of physical changes that come with puberty. Exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating is something that many people do because it feels good. It is common and is not harmful and is one way of learning about your body.
So, what about orgasm? What parts of the body are we talking about? Vaginal lubrication happens when you have sexual feelings, like when you’re kissing someone which many grade six kids do. Now is the time to tell them these feelings of pleasure are OK as long as they feel good about what they are doing. And now’s the time to remind them that there needs to be ongoing consent; and they do, again buried in the hypothetical student response.
A clear, specific, and enthusiastic ‘yes’ that is ongoing and given freely is a signal of consent. A response of ‘no’, an uncertain response, or silence needs to be understood as no consent. It is important to remember that a person can change their mind and say no at any time to something that they said yes to before.
Under Personal Safety and Injury Prevention:
Describe benefits and dangers, for themselves and others, that are associated with the use of computers and other digital technologies; e.g., dangers: misuse of private information; negative impact on mental health, including possible social isolation, feelings of depression, and addiction; identity theft; cyberstalking; exposure to online predators, including those involved in sex trafficking and/or soliciting explicit sexual images…
The teacher prompt covers the risks of sexting and the potential pressure to send explicit digital pictures. Good. Another teacher prompt:
Another risk is encountering pornography and other sexually explicit material that promotes gender stereotypes, unsafe sex practices, and unrealistic portrayals of sex, sexuality, and relationships.
This may be a quibble, but I think it’s a good idea to let students know these are adult materials which they may choose to use when they are older.
Mike Harris introduced the term “abstinence” to the 1998 curriculum.
In 2019, the teachers are to:
Explain the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about the following: delaying sexual activity until they are older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from oral-genital contact); the reasons for not engaging in sexual activity; the concept of consent, the legal age of consent, and how consent is communicated; and, in general, the need to communicate clearly with each other when making decisions about sexual activity in a healthy, loving relationship.
They start off well by being explicit about the sexual activities they hope 12 years olds will refrain from. They add:
People can also have different understandings of what is meant by having or not having sex. Be clear in your own mind about what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with. Being able to talk about these boundaries with a partner is an important part of sexual health.
And then, they go on as if vaginal sexual intercourse were the only sexual activity to be discussed:
Having sex can be an enjoyable experience…
“I did not have sex with that woman.” Bill Clinton
Are we to understand that different definitions of having sex means not only questions like “Is oral sex sex?” but also implies that we may be talking about girls having sexual activity with other girls and so on? That would be a welcome addition indeed.
And then they launch straight into the negatives: unplanned pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted and Blood Borne Infections (STBBIs), pressure, drugs and alcohol.
The section on STBBIs is not very accurate (most STIs have no symptoms; swabs are generally not used in the male urethra to diagnose chlamydia and gonorrhea – this is a scare tactic). They use the term “sexually active” which most people understand as vaginal intercourse. It is important to be explicit; i.e.,
If you have had unprotected oral, vaginal or anal sexual activity with a new partner, you need to get tested. It is also important to mention viruses transmitted skin-to-skin. Also a good time to mention stigma, antibiotic cures for bacterial infections… This whole section is very poorly written and is reminiscent of earlier attempts at sexual health pedagogy .
Under Personal Safety and Injury Prevention they mention sexual harassment and inappropriate touching in the school but do not mention sexual assault and what needs to happen following an assault. (See grade 8.)
Under Human Development and Sexual Health
Demonstrate an understanding of physical, emotional, social, and cognitive factors that need to be considered when making decisions related to sexual health (e.g., sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections [STBBIs], possible side effects of contraceptives, pregnancy, protective value of vaccinations, social labelling, gender identity, gender expression, sexual orientation, self-concept issues, relationships, love, respect, desire, pleasure, cultural teachings).
Why is one of the topics the “possible effects of contraceptives”? Are we to understand they are referring to hormonal contraception? This sounds like lesson plans I observed in some Catholic schools. Don’t get pregnant; but don’t use contraception – it’s bad for you.
I would like to see a discussion about birth control which includes emergency contraception and abortion.
So. We finally arrive at…
Identify and explain factors that can affect an individual’s decisions about sexual activity (e.g., previous thinking about reasons to wait, including making a choice to delay sexual activity and establishing personal limits; perceived personal readiness; peer pressure; desire; curiosity; self-concept; awareness and acceptance of gender identity and sexual orientation; physical or cognitive disabilities and possible associated assumptions; legal concerns such as the legal age of consent; awareness of the risk of sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections [STBBIs]; concerns about the risk of becoming a parent; use of alcohol or drugs; personal or family values; religious beliefs; cultural teachings; access to information; media messages), and identify sources of support regarding sexual health
Teacher prompt: “How would thinking about your personal limits and life goals influence decisions you may choose to make about sexual activity?”
These kids are 13 years old. They don’t have life goals. They are barely out of Piaget’s Concrete Operational Stage (the development of logical thought).
And now, teachers can feel free to discuss gender identity – much too late. Trans children know who they are at an early age. Early rejection and bullying can put them at serious risk of harm and self-harm.
Demonstrate an understanding of gender identity (e.g., male, female, Two-Spirit, transgender), gender expression, and sexual orientation (e.g., heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual, pansexual, asexual), and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop a positive self-concept.
Under Personal Safety and Injury Prevention
Although they say that when one hears “no” they need to stop, there is no guideline about sexual assault: what to do if it happens and the potential sequelae. Both physical and psychological care are critical for the person who was assaulted. In the case of a forced vaginal assault, they need to be offered emergency contraception. In all cases, they need testing, preventive treatment and counselling. As with child sexual abuse, people who are sexually assaulted tend to blame themselves.
Human Development and Sexual Health
They review the dangers, the risks but not the pleasures of sexual activity.
I find the following particularly galling:
Teenagers need to know about the benefits and risks of different types of contraception. They need to understand that the only 100 per cent sure way of not becoming a parent is to abstain from sexual contact. Those who choose to be sexually active also need to know which contraceptive methods provide a protective barrier against disease as well as pregnancy. For example, condoms provide protection against both pregnancy and STBBIs – but to be effective, they need to be used properly and used every time.
What does “abstaining from sexual contact” mean? No kissing, no touching, no bringing another person to orgasm with your hand, no oral sex, no same gender sexual activity…? If there is conception, abortion is an option. One can choose adoption, another way to avoid becoming a parent.
One can get Human Papillomavirus (HPV) or Herpes Simplex (HSV – 2) from skin-to-skin contact. Who is writing this drivel?
And finally, under Human Development and Sexual Health
Analyse the attractions and benefits associated with being in a healthy relationship (e.g., support, understanding, camaraderie, pleasure), as well as the benefits, risks, and drawbacks, for themselves and others, of relationships involving different degrees of sexual intimacy (e.g., hurt when relationships end or trust is broken; in more sexually intimate relationships, risk of STBBIs and related risk to future fertility, becoming a parent before you are ready, sexual harassment and exploitation; potential for dating violence.
Be still my beating heart: I see the word “pleasure” tacked on at the end of a bracketed list of examples.
To sum up:
In my comparison between the 1998 curriculum and the 2015 revisions, I still felt the previous government had a long way to go. However, the 2019 curriculum guidelines, despite the backlash from social conservatives, is far from hitting the mark of excellence in sexual health education as outlined by the SIECCAN guidelines. Children and young adolescents will continue to be cheated of the information they deserve – and require – to lead them towards safe and fulfilling sexually healthy lives.