Teaching consent

Sexual health educators have been teaching about consensual and non-consensual sexual activity for decades.  Despite gains made by the women’s movement since the late 1960s, sexism is far from eradicated.  Rape culture, although under scrutiny and challenge, is still the norm.  Sexual harassment and assault are as common as dirt.  How can we make a fundamental change in our society through education?

If all genders are not on board with the concept that consensual sexual activity is enjoyable and fulfilling, we will not make any headway.  If boys and men in particular are not included as allies in this struggle, classroom education will remain no more than an exercise.

I created a lesson plan about sexual assault at least 20 years ago which continues to be used by former colleagues.  It is a two part activity.  In the first part, the facilitator reads a series of statements and asks students to agree, disagree or indicate that they are not sure; in the second part, students work in small groups and read through two scenarios, one told from a girl’s point of view where it is clear there was no consent; and the other from the boy’s.  Then they answer questions on the board which are later discussed by the whole group.

One of the statements in the first part, “It is OK to say no at any time” (during sexual activity) provoked a grade 8 boy to insist that once you had initiated sexual activity, you couldn’t stop.  I asked the class why someone might want to stop (fear, pain, flashback, changed their mind etc.), but this kid wasn’t budging.  So I said, “Suppose you’re on top of her and you can see that she is in pain”.  He said, “Turn her face away”.

That is an unusual response from a 12 year old, but indicative of the far end of the consent spectrum; viz., a total lack of empathy and clear exercise of power.

After each group reads their story, I read them both out loud, where it becomes clear that what happened was not consensual.  I remind them that there are medical issues that need to be explored (Emergency Contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infection testing) psychological/emotional issues (the need for counselling since most people blame themselves after an assault) and legal issues.  Because the stories are written in a way that demonstrate a miscommunication based on the popular cultural ideas we explored earlier, exacerbated by alcohol, I suggest that if the police came to this boy’s door and said they were investigating a sexual assault, he would probably say, “Who got raped?”  We end the class by brainstorming how it could have been prevented.

Gray zone

Girls and women are still seen as gatekeepers in heterosexual relationships.  In spite of the current support for affirmative, ongoing consent, it continues to be difficult for a girl/woman to live this new norm.  Societal ambivalence rules: is it really OK for women to want sexual activity and say yes to it?

I remember teaching that to say no, it is important that tone and body language be congruent; i.e., to say no in a way that is clear and unequivocal.  But no to what?  No means no to a particular sexual activity at a particular moment in time.

People are complicated and so are their desires – they can change during the course of any sexual encounter.

In a more sophisticated discussion with older students, this can be illustrated with a continuum: from enthusiastic mutual consent to playful seduction; to giving in; to coercion; and to forced sexual contact.

People may move back and forth along the continuum from mutual consent to playful seduction during a single or multiple encounters.  One may not initially want to engage in a particular sexual activity, but could become interested.  There is a difference between talking someone into it and turning them on.

There is also a difference between hearing no and ignoring it.  We are familiar with the power dynamic and the culture that facilitates this crime.

For boys/men, saying no to sexual activity with girls/women may be difficult for other reasons.  Society tells them never to refuse what is handed to them on a silver platter.  Women who sexually assault men are more likely to use shame and coercion than force for obvious reasons.

Same gender assault involves many of these same dynamics.

Politics and pedagogy

We want affirmative, ongoing consent to become the norm.

We detest rape culture and want it eradicated.  We are appalled when images and videos of assaults are posted as entertainment.  Good pedagogy includes teaching empathy for survivors in order to eliminate this ghoulish feasting on others’ misery.

While it is useful to explore the underlying ideas that lead to assumptions, miscommunication and/or predation – a simple unpacking may be preferable to political rhetoric.

In their fervour to drive home the harmful outcomes of rape culture, some educators are using materials that are more likely to alienate the boys and young men in the classroom than to enlist them as allies.  We want them to accept the premise that there is an advantage to mutuality in relationships.  I read recently that consent culture is a resistance movement to rape culture.  It is a lot to ask for young men to see themselves as freedom fighters against rape culture and sexual assault.

I think Wiseguyz is on the right track in the way they address young men directly.  There are also some excellent public campaigns like the one from Norway “Dear Daddy” and New Zealand’s “Who are You?” that bring home these messages in a simple, clear and direct manner that appeal to the positives.

Because good lessons on consent and sexual assault are so hard to come by, well thought out print materials can play a role.  I would love to see a good pamphlet which includes the language of consent and refusal as a guide for young people to take home.

There is work to be done.

 

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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.

Yikes. An STI Spike.

A recent story about a spike in Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in Alberta piqued my interest, not so much because of the increase, but the reaction to it.  The Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Karen Grimsrud, blamed “apps”: “We believe this is due to use of social media to set up sexual encounters,” she said, and added that social media tools are helping people communicate quickly to arrange anonymous sexual encounters.  While I agree with her follow-up statement – that anonymous encounters make it difficult to contact people for testing and treatment – I cannot join her in blaming a social media platform for a complex social issue.

After discussing the increase on CBC’s “The Current” , I decided to expand my thoughts.

Unprotected sexual activity

While it is true that apps make casual sexual relationships more accessible, you still have to make a decision about what’s going to happen – and how – whether you meet in a bar; or whether you meet online through a dating site or app.  Human behaviour is complicated; and human sexual behaviour is especially complicated when it comes to risk-taking.  Any sexual relationship, be it a one-time hook-up or longer term, requires clear communication.  Consent – ongoing, affirmative consent about the sexual activities that will occur should be established; and the level of safety with which both people are comfortable should be negotiated.  Should.

And yet, communication and negotiation are not always straightforward.  The result is risky behaviour.

The social determinants of health influence risk-taking.  Poverty, for example, is associated with increased risk-taking.  In my city, one can map the curve of teen pregnancy and STIs through the poorer neighbourhoods.  Internalized homophobia, current or previous abuse may also prevent a person’s ability to be assertive about safer sex because of low self-worth.

Of course, comprehensive sexual health education and the availability of sexual health clinics also play a crucial role.  Awareness and testing go hand in hand.

One, two, three testing

Why get tested?  Here are the basics.

Most STIs show no symptoms.  To be blunt, if you have had unprotected sexual activity, you need to be tested.  But you will not necessarily get an HIV test for example, unless you specifically ask for it.  That means you have to actually disclose your unsafe sexual practices.  Bacterial infections can be cured with antibiotics, but viral infections, although treatable, generally stay in the body.  The exception is Human Papillomavirus (HPV) which clears in the majority of cases.

Women may falsely believe they are protected because they have regular Pap tests.  But they are unaware that the Pap only looks for unusual cells on the cervix: it does not test for STIs.

Men may avoid testing because they are afraid they will be swabbed for Chlamydia and gonorrhea; clinics generally do a urine test.

There is no test for  (HPV) or a screening test for herpes.  You have to show your bump or sore to a doctor.  You may not even notice a sore on, around or inside the genitals, especially if it goes away.

Some people want testing so they can stop using barrier protection for vaginal or anal sex.  One of the reasons for an increase in chlamydia among young heterosexuals is that he drops the condom before testing once she starts using the Pill.

After testing, a couple can negotiate the sexual activities they are willing to have without protection.  If someone has a history of cold sores, for example (caused by herpes simplex virus – 1), they should tell their partner before offering unprotected oral sex.  (In the absence of a sore, one can still transmit HSV-1.)

Public Health initiatives

After the first Alberta STI spike in 2013, they came up with sexgerms.com .  “Plenty of syph” received a lot of attention, much of it negative.  The site has since been revised.  But it still refers, as do most educational materials, to “sex” rather than higher and lower risk sexual activities.  Moreover, the assumption is that “sex” means penis in vagina intercourse.  Skin-to-skin contact in the “boxer short area” is enough to spread HPV and HSV -1 and -2.

Since we’re not going to plastic wrap our entire bodies, there is always some risk involved.

But health authorities are not always realistic.  Dr. James Talbot, former Chief MOH of Alberta interviewed during the 2015 STI spike called for:

  • no unprotected sex
  • abstinence
  • mutual monogamy
  • condoms

This is not a risk reduction strategy.

There is no point encouraging unrealistic, unattainable goals.  In 30 years of clinic work, I can count a handful of people who used condoms for oral sex, most of whom were sex workers.  So when I talked with men who had sex with men, I explained that if they were having multiple oral sex partners and not using condoms, they needed to be tested more frequently for syphilis, which could be treated and cured.  This is a concrete way to prevent HIV transmission.

Older folks get frisky, too

The Current discussion  touched on seniors and safer sex.  The statistics for seniors are becoming alarming.  Statistics show increases in incidents of syphilis, chlamydia and gonorrhea in adults 45-64.  Alex McKay of SIECCAN mentioned an ongoing study of middle aged Canadians, indicating that condom use for this group is “staggeringly low”.

Older people may be even less able to communicate about STIs than teenagers or young adults.  Heterosexuals may have used condoms in the old days for pregnancy protection, rather than out of concern for STIs.  They may (erroneously) assume that a new sexual partner was monogamous during their former long-term relationship.  They may also be learning the dating game the “hard” way.  A 2010 study discovered that men who use erectile dysfunction drugs such as Viagra have higher rates of STIs in the year before and after use of these drugs.

Older women whose vaginas may have lost elasticity and the ability to lubricate may be at higher risk for STIs including HIV.  Potential abrasions during vaginal intercourse may allow the entrance of viruses and bacteria.  Prolonged vaginal intercourse with a Viagra inspired partner may not help either.

 True prevention

Rather than app bashing or unrealistic expectations, let’s just apply good old public health policy.

Here is my short wish list to prevent STIs:

  • ensure comprehensive sexual health education across the country
  • eliminate poverty, sexism, sexual abuse, homophobia and transphobia
  • adopt harm reduction as a national strategy
  • establish sexual health clinics from sea to sea to sea

That’s not a lot to ask, is it?

 

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.

 

Detoxifying society

If people are still reading these blogs in say, ten years, I hope they will have to look up the meaning for FHRITP and “hate fuck”.

The FHRITP acronym has been used to publicly humiliate female journalists during live TV spots.  “Who would you like to hate fuck” was one of the posts of the Dalhousie dentistry students’ “Gentlemen’s Club” Facebook page.  These examples of hateful male bonding seem to be the topic of the week.

The Dalhousie students were sent to a restorative justice program rather than being summarily expelled. On the same day that I read the report, detailing the comprehensive process of rehabilitating the male dentistry students (http://www.dal.ca/content/dam/dalhousie/pdf/cultureofrespect/RJ2015-Report.pdf) I listened to a CBC interview on the sexualized atmosphere in the military and the way different countries were addressing it (http://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-may-22-2015-1.3083305/seeking-worldwide-lessons-on-reforming-military-sexual-misconduct-1.3083331).  The CBC interview focussed on finding the best mechanism for pursuing complaints of harassment and sexual assault of women, men and LGBT people in the military.  But when asked about prevention, one participant said that just being able to check “inclusion” off a list was inadequate; there needed to be enforcement.

Quite right.  But I generally associate prevention with education.  The word was not mentioned in either the interview on the military or in the Dalhousie report, although the Dalhousie report does describe “the way forward”:

“…addressing climate and culture is about doing the things we do differently, not just doing different things.”  They expect that “…the ways forward on culture and climate issues within the Faculty… will also be informed and shaped by the recommendations of the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia … at the end of June 2015.”  I hope they are right.  Because part of a good university education is the preparation of young adults to take their place in society.

Unfortunately, we live in a society that is toxic – and unsafe – for women and LGBT people.

Inclusion and respect seem to exist only on paper.  The expression of deep hatred towards the “other” is based in the distortion of human sexuality where we commodify sex and objectify people.  I addressed some of these issues in an online magazine article on how this affects girls (http://www.cwhn.ca/en/networkmagazine/hypersexualization).  Their self-objectification starts young, when they are encouraged by societal norms, reinforced by media, to buy into their objectification and the accompanying loss of power.

When we see strong women break down because their hard earned power has been attacked, it is both shocking and distressing.  In the wake of the recent FHRITP incident, CBC women reporters assailed their harassers in a video where they related their personal stories of dealing with sexism (https://www.facebook.com/thenational/videos/10152868931477686/?pnref=story).  One reporter asks why no one steps forward.  In a recent TV interview, a female comedian also asks: why does no one step forward when we are sexually harassed on stage?

The answer is that critical mass has not yet been reached.

Addressing society’s negatives, like racism, misogyny and homophobia begins in the home.  Media literacy can take place in front of any screen, unpacking the prancing women of Victoria’s Secrets’ lingerie ads, the overt misogyny of music videos and the every-day cultural normalization and trivialization of violence against women.  Before girls become imprisoned as objects in their own minds, this work needs to continue in the schools.  For example, the 2015 revised Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum addresses stereotypes, harassment and consent at multiple grade levels.  With good teacher training and comprehensive lesson plans, perhaps we can, at last, have some positive expectations for their – and our – future.

What I hope will emerge is a generation of young people who respect one another, who have no desire to discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation, who are empathetic and brave.  They will stand up to the Neanderthals who have not yet absorbed the basic values of equality and respect.  This is the generation of young people who will turn rape culture on its ass and kick it to the door.

Teaching sex ed – Ontario updates 1998 curriculum

In 2007, the Ontario government began the process of updating their health and physical education  curriculum which was sadly out of date.  It was, in fact, the oldest curriculum in the country.  Sexual health is part of that curriculum.  A broad consultation with teachers, parents and agencies took place before the revised curriculum was finally released online in 2010.

There was little notice taken, until a group of zealots found it and started a web-site: stopcorruptingourchildren.ca where they cherry picked the sexual health components, misrepresenting the information students were about to receive and inflaming public sentiment.  At first, then Premier Dalton McGuinty stood by the revision, but caved within days.  This, despite consistent surveys that indicated parents wanted comprehensive sexual health education taught in the schools.

It has been five long years, but the government finally released the “revised revised” curriculum.  Revised revised, because in the interim, it was acknowledged that there was no content on Internet issues like sexting; or any discussion of consent.  Regarding the latter, the premier, who was approached by two grade 8 students after they posted an online petition https://www.change.org/p/ontario-ministry-of-education-make-consent-a-topic-in-the-2015-ontario-health-curriculum agreed to its inclusion.  They also published some very clear and useful parent guides (see resources below).

The latest version of the curriculum guide was released on February 23, 2015.

That morning, I did an interview on a local radio program just before the document became public.  Although I did over a dozen interviews on all platforms, it wasn’t until five days later that I finished going through the entire document to check these revisions against the ones originally proposed in 2010.

It should be pointed out that these are just guidelines.  They give teachers permission and encouragement to discuss the issues and some “prompts” to assist them.  However, teachers still have to either seek out or create lesson plans in order to implement them.

For the record, here are the pertinent changes and my comments. 

Grade 1

  • identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology

A very good place to start.

Grade 2

  • outline the basic stages of human development (e.g., infant, child, adolescent, adult, older adult) and related bodily changes
  • saying no; respecting the right of a person to say no and encouraging others to respect that right also; reporting exploitive behaviours, such as improper touching of their bodies or others’ bodies

This is where there needs to be an acknowledgement that children are usually unable to say no to an adult who manipulates them into sexual touching.

Grade 3

  • 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.

By grade 3, most kids know this already.  Good place to reinforce it.

Grade 4

  • identify risks associated with communications technology (e.g., Internet and cell phone use, in­cluding participation in gaming and online communities and the use of text messaging), and describe precautions and strategies for using these technologies safely
  • sexist, racist, or homophobic comments in person or online – any of these kinds of bullying could cause emotional pain
  • 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

Given the increasingly early onset of puberty, this is an excellent revision.

  • Some people start ‘liking’ others

A perfect opportunity to say that sometimes one likes a person of the same gender or another gender.

  • It is not uncommon for the person being abused to know the person who is abusing them. If a friend told you that she had a secret and that she was being abused, how could you help?

A comprehensive lesson plan on sexual abuse will be useful here.  (See www.boostforkids.org)

Grade 5

  • identify the parts of the reproductive system, and describe how the body changes during puberty

There is no mention of kids who are trans for whom these pubertal changes may be traumatic.

  • When the sperm from the male and the egg from the female join together, pregnancy occurs.

Nope.  Conception occurs.

Moreover, this whole section dances around vaginal intercourse:

 “Fertilization can occur when the penis is in the vagina.”

How did it get in there?  What about erections?  A decent lesson plan, will need to include orgasm and the pleasure people (hopefully) feel during sexual activity like vaginal intercourse.  There is nothing about sexual feelings.  They euphemistically refer to “crushes and more intense feelings”.

  • Ways of show­ing that you like someone that are inappropriate include touching them without their permission, spreading rumours about them to others or online, and making fun of them in order to get attention. Sharing private sexual photos or posting sexual comments online is unacceptable and also illegal.

I’m impressed that this warning shows up in grade 5.

 Grade 6

  • gender identity and self-concept
  • wet dreams, vaginal lubrication
  • exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating as something people find pleasurable

Still no orgasm.

  • relationships we see online or in the media are not always accurate and can send false messages

An introduction to media literacy – good.

  • signs of a healthy relationship; signs of potential trouble

I like the way they do not set up a dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

  • jealousy or behaviour that is too controlling can be signs of trouble
  • a clear “yes” is a signal of consent
  • A response of “no”, an uncertain response or silence need to be understood as no consent.

This is an excellent introduction to the notion of consent in sexual activity.

  • assess the effects of stereotypes, including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, gender expression…

In later grades, unfortunately, they maintain a heterosexual bias.  It is important to discuss these issues, but the language of sexual activity in particular must change at every level.

Grade 7

–              the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity until they are older (genital contact, vaginal or anal intercourse, oral-genital contact)

What does older mean?

–              consent and how it is communicated

–              the need to communicate clearly when making decisions about sexual activity in the relationship

–              abstinence can mean different things to different people

From this point on, even though they have named several sexual activities, when they refer to sex, it is clear that they mean vaginal intercourse.  They name the risks – pregnancy and STIs.

  • sex can be an enjoyable experience

But they do not use the word “pleasure”.

  • But having sex has risks, too

What I want them to say is this: some sexual activities are higher risk than others.  There are sexual activities that are pleasurable and safe, like kissing and touching.  Is that so much to ask?

  • common STIs are listed and the importance of knowing that they are often asymptomatic

Unfortunately, pubic lice is listed with STIs instead of infestation.  But this is worse:

  • Engaging in sexual activities like oral sex, vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse means that you can be infected with an STI.

They leave out the crucial term “unprotected”.  And this is much worse:

  • If you do not have sex, you do not need to worry about getting an STI.

Skin-to-skin contact in the boxer short area with an infected person can transmit HPV and HSV.  Again, the implication is that sex equals intercourse.

  • If a person is thinking of having sex, what can they do to protect themselves?
  • People who think they will be having sex some time soon should keep a condom with them so they will have it when they need it.

If two women are thinking of having “sex” how does this apply to them?  How do adolescents who are trans protect themselves?

  • If a partner says they do not want to use a condom, a person should say, “I will not have sex without a condom”.

This does not take into account intimate partner violence or other reasons why someone is not assertive enough to insist on protection.

In the section on HIV, they discuss treatment as prevention.  Bravo.  It would be good to add that untreated STIs facilitate HIV infection.  

Grade 8

  • factors that can affect an individual’s decisions about sexual activity

They discuss personal limit setting and a personal plan.  That may work for people with a roof over their heads, a loving family, food on the table and an abuse-free life.  Young people from a lower socio-economic status, young people who suffer from abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia are among those who are more likely to engage in risky behaviours.  This should be acknowledged.

  • demonstrate an understanding of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop positive self-concept

Start by having them and their sexual issues appear as per my comment above.

  • Teenagers need to know about the benefits and risks of different types of contraception.

They also need to know about abortion which is part of birth control as is Emergency Contraception.

In the discussion on safer sex, there is nothing for WSM or young trans people.  They do use the term “sexual contact” to avoid STIs – but it will need to be spelled out in a lesson plan.  They also need to add the phrase “for the parts that are covered” when discussing condoms as protection against STIs.

  • analyse the impact of violent behaviours, including dating violence and gender-based violence
  • against girls it can include physical assault in a relationship, sexual assault, or rape

They will have to define terms, since “rape” no longer exists in the law.

  • understand the attractions and benefits associated with being in a relationship as well as the risks and drawbacks
  • there is a range of intimate behaviours that people can use to show caring and connection and different levels of risk associated with different levels of intimacy
  • being intimate with someone includes having a good understanding of the concept of consent
  • consent to one activity doesn’t imply consent to all sexual activity
  • it is important to discuss consent at every stage
  • consent is communicated not assumed

And this is where the curriculum really shines.  It would be even better to talk about how wonderful it is to enthusiastically consent to a sexual activity one really enjoys.

Grade 9

Bear in mind – Physical Education is only compulsory till grade 9.  In terms of sexual health education, for many students, this is their last chance to hear it in school.

  • understand the benefits and risks of using electronic communication technologies
  • harmful or undesirable information and entertainment such as pornography

This will require a skillful educator.  By grade 9, most students will have been exposed to pornography and many will be regular consumers.

  • If someone is being abusive online or through texting, you can be assertive and stand up for yourself or others.

This is somewhat naïve, especially in the light of recent teen suicides due to online bullying and the posting of filmed sexual assaults.

  • discuss the relative effectiveness of various methods of preventing pregnancy or STIs
  • if you are thinking of having sex, you need to know how to avoid unintended pregnancy or STIs

Again, the assumption is that having sex means intercourse.  Where are WSM in all this?  The reasons given for non condom use are naïve (see remarks above about social determinants of health).

  • Clinics can provide counselling like birth control advice and pregnancy tests.

They also offer counselling and abortion referral.

  • demonstrate an understanding of factors that can influence a person’s understanding of their gender identity

This is a good section.

  • to build healthy relationships, it is important to have open communication, mutual respect and honesty between the people involved
  • one way to take care of your sexual health is to do some thinking in advance about your health and safety

This is not how it works for the 14 year old mind.  Moreover, they give the example of a Metis woman who says making decisions about sex depends on how much she respects herself and respects being a woman.  That is particularly ironic when we consider how First Nations and Metis people’s deracination, aided and abetted by residential schools, has contributed to ongoing substance abuse, sexual abuse and murder of Indigenous women especially sex workers.  This is disingenuous to say the least.

  • thinking about your health involves planning for a regular medical check-up, regular breast or testicular self-examinations and STI and Pap tests if you are sexually active

Adolescent women should not be doing breast self-examination.

Adolescent men should be doing TSE.

Pap testing does not start till age 25.  These are egregious errors.

The term “sexually active” is meaningless.  If someone has had unprotected sexual activity, they need to be tested for STIs.

Grade 10

  • factors that influence sexual decision making
  • being sexually active is not something you should feel pressured into doing

There’s that term again.  The assumption is that “sexually active” means intercourse.

  • It’s OK to delay having sex with my partner until both of us feel ready, so that we’re able to enjoy sex without regrets.

There is constant double speak about sexual activity.  It’s good, but it’s bad.  Young people like anyone else engage in a variety of sexual activities.  At issue is the risk level of each activity which needs to be spelled out.

  • describe some common misconceptions about sexuality in our culture and explain how these may cause harm to people
  • respect is enshrined in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act
  • heterosexism is the assumption that if someone is in a romantic or sexual relationship it is with someone of the opposite sex
  • explain how being in an exclusive relationship with another person affects them and their relation with others

It seems to me they want to discourage teen relationships.  They also do not take into account casual sexual relationships, like friends with benefits or F-buddies.

Grade 11

  • describe how their understanding of factors that affect reproductive and sexual health and their knowledge of proactive measures and supports (including breast and testicular examinations, Pap tests) can be applied to avoid or minimize illness

Once again, they got it wrong about breast exam and Paps.

Grade 12

  • discussion of harassment, violence and abuse
  • stalking, sexual assault
  • how relationships develop through various stages
  • skills and strategies needed to maintain a satisfactory relationships the relationship evolves
  • if you’re not comfortable talking about sex with your partner, you shouldn’t be having sex

Not helpful.  Once again, what is sex?

  • Analyse the portrayal of different relationships in the media with respect to bias and stereotyping, and describe how individuals can take action to encourage more realistic and inclusive messaging

Final remarks…

This updated curriculum is a vast improvement over the one implemented under a Conservative government in 1998 when they introduced the term abstinence as part of sexual health education.  The next round will need to take into account children’s and adolescents’ realities.  It will need to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identities into the body of the discussion so that all students feel they are represented.  Otherwise, they are just paying lip service by discussing stereotypes and barriers to healthy sexual expression.

Congratulations on a very good start.

Resources

Sex ed: Let’s get real – August 1, 2013

Sexual health curricula. Who writes them, and for whom?  Is a curriculum written for the benefit of students; or is their language carefully edited to assuage dissenting organizations and reassure jittery bureaucrats? When new curricula are published, opponents of sexual health education will inevitably be poised to cherry pick material to discredit the contents. Provincial governments worry about political backlash to progressive sex education that teaches about pleasure, choice, inclusion and current sexual realities.

And yet, that is the job of a sex educator.

Comprehensive sexuality education is critical to society. In Canada, it has been partly responsible for the dramatic drop in adolescent pregnancy since the 1970s, the other factors being increased availability of effective birth control, and access to abortion. But sexual health education must go far beyond birth control and sexually transmitted infections. The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality” requiring “a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

How does sexuality education support children’s development so they become sexually healthy individuals? The Canadian guidelines to sexual health education are a good start and required reading for anyone planning on offering it. But there are a few contemporary issues I would like to address.


The best curriculum in the world is useless for someone who has no control over their life.

Good sexual health education acknowledges that people’s ability to control their sexual lives does not take place in a vacuum. The realities of young people’s lives—such as prior sexual abuse, low socio-economic status, sexism and racism—must also be acknowledged and addressed. The best curriculum in the world is useless for someone who has no control over their life. For example, any curriculum worth its salt will include education about sexual abuse, sexual trauma and compassion for survivors. How else can we counter the messaging on social media that turns a gang rape into entertainment?

I have written previously in this space about parents’ roles in raising sexually healthy children. But it is schools that must be courageous and accept the challenge of helping children and youth to deal with the confusing realities of a hypersexualized and sometimes vicious world.

This means discussing pornography and pornographic images starting in puberty classes. Children by age 10 will freely admit that they have seen pornographic images (generally inadvertently). What has changed since the 1980s when research suggested that for 12-to-17-year-old boys, pornography was sex education? The answer is the increased availability and explicitness of sexual images for any child with access to the Internet. These images inculcate young minds with misogyny, the association of sex and violence, while ignoring safety, the notion of consent and the potential for equitable relationships.

Some critics of sex education bemoan a lack of values in sex ed curricula. What they mean is the lack of their values. I think the values young people need to learn are honesty, respect, acceptance, fairness and integrity. These values would inform their relationships. They may even become a backdrop to any future erotic and pornographic materials that fuel their pleasure as adults.

I admit that sex education has come a long way from talking exclusively about what a married (heterosexual) couple does in bed presumably with the intention of making a baby. Sex educators began to use gender neutral language decades ago, replacing “husband,” “wife,” “man” and “woman” with “person” or “partner.” Educators have steadily moved towards broad inclusion ever since. But we must also learn to avoid the language of a hierarchy of sexual couplings with marriage as the ideal. Adults know that one need not be “in love” or in a committed relationship to enjoy the pleasures of sexual intimacy. Would we be censured for allowing that some young adults may consider as viable options a one night stand, a casual sexual relationship, like the occasional “booty call,” or “friend with benefits” arrangement? We need to acknowledge reality—their reality—rather than insist on a societal ideal.

One cannot attain a “state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality” and the possibility of “pleasurable and safe sexual experiences” without learning about pleasure. Students have complained bitterly for years that they want to learn more than plumbing.

While progressive sex educators do not teach how to masturbate, we tell them that it is common for people to pleasure themselves. We talk about orgasm. We answer their questions about why some women use dildos and why some people are very noisy lovers.

In order to be a credible sex educator, when we say we will answer all of their questions, we should. Some curricula discourage educators from answering questions that are not directly addressed in the curriculum. Do the curriculum creators prefer that students rely on popular media images rather than receiving clear information from reliable sources? Probably not.

We’ve come a long way from just teaching how to make babies; but we haven’t come far enough. Sexual health education must teach about life. It is personal, but oh so political.