There has been a hot and heavy sex education “debate” taking place in Ontario in recent weeks. I use quotation marks around the word because, although that’s how the media describe it, what’s been going on here doesn’t fit my definition of debate.
The way I learned to debate in school, the parties throw up opposing concepts, they discuss the pros and cons in a civilized manner and then, they either agree to disagree, or one party admits they’ve been convinced by the other’s arguments. Debate over. That was not the case here.
After a year of consultation, beginning in 2007, with educators and representatives of health and parent groups – all individuals who might be expected to know a thing or two about children and curricula – the Ontario government decided it was time to revise the sex education curriculum, which dates back to 1997. Proposed new guidelines for teachers were drafted and underwent another year of public consultation and revisions, receiving more than 3,000 inputs from parents and educators. The final draft, which was to launch in the classroom on September 1 this year, was posted on the government’s website last January, without any fanfare.
Under the new curriculum,Â Grade 1 students would be taught body parts, including the correct names for genitalia, which experts claim can help prevent sexual abuse.Â Gr 3 students would learn about sexual orientation; in Gr 6, masturbation; and, in Gr 7, discussion of anal and oral sex were part of the lesson plan. The new curriculum was designed to counter the hideous stew of (mis)information to be found on the Internet, and to help kids who are floundering in our hyper-sexualized society.
So far, so good. But then the head of a so-called “family values” group got wind of the revised curriculum, and all hell broke loose. At first, the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty, our self-styled “education Premier,” stood pat and faced down the critics. But then some of the more conservative elements of religious and immigrant groups began to come forward, saying that the proposed guidelines were antithetical to their way of life. At that point, McGuinty caved, because you don’t piss off the various multicultural lobbies in Ontario if you want your party to stay in power. In fact, from what I’ve read, both online and in the newspapers, the new guidelines are copacetic with most of the ethnic communities. But, as always, a few very loud dissidents dominated the headlines and sound bites, and it was game over. Guidelines that had been exhaustively discussed and revised, with input over two years from all the experts in the field and full agreement on the final draft by all the parties, were tossed.
The Toronto Star letters page provides a pretty good sampling of public reaction to the furor, with a number of fairly nuanced responses, on the one hand, balanced by a large helping of “pig-ignorant-and-proud-of-it” on the other.
As an empty nester, I don’t have a dog in this hunt, so I was alternately amused by the uproar and outraged by the media’s handling of it, while not at all surprised by McGuinty’s pusillanimous response. And I have to confess to feeling more than a little smug, reflecting on my own track record as a parent in the area of sex education. I remembered #1 Son coming home from school, when he was about 10 years old, and announcing that they’d had a sex education class that day. When I asked him if he’d learnt anything new, he answered “Not really, although I did discover that Always has wings!”
I was shocked, some years ago, when my cousin confessed that she had never spoken about sex to her then-16 year old daughter. I couldn’t understand how it was possible not to discuss sex, in one way or another, given the amount of it that was being bandied about in the media. I could think of so many times, when something was said on the television news or the radio, #1 Son would ask me what it was about, and we’d have a lengthy discussion on the topic.
One incident that sticks out in my memory was the day, when he was about 7, that he heard the word ‘flagellate’ on the car radio and asked what it meant. Much hilarity ensued, as I told him about flagellation, in all its religious, fetishist and sexual permutations. (On reflection, I may have gone a bit overboard on such occasions. He has since been heard complaining to a pal that it was near-impossible to ask his Mom the time, without getting a swift rundown of the history of the Swiss watch industry from the Middle Ages to the present.)
As a parent, sex education in school was not something that bothered me one way or another. So far as I was concerned, I had already covered all the bases, and I had low to no interest in the topic at the time. But, when I stop to think about it now, I can’t really say, with my hand on my heart, that we ever had the “Talk” about sex. “Where do babies come from?” never came up, for example. Not much point, really. When #1 Son began toddling around and pulling books out of bookcases, his favourite was theÂ Lennart Nilsson book, A Child is Born. I suspect he thought it was his baby album.
He’ll be visiting for Mother’s Day next week. Maybe it’s not too late for me to rectify the situation. I’m sure he’ll be really pleased when I take him aside and give him the long-awaited “Talk.”