The last time Ontario’s sex education was updated was in 1998. Now in 2015, the current revisions will finally give students the tools they need to develop healthy sexual experiences and relationships in this province.
BY: MELISSA MYERS
“Hands off our children!”
A crowd of up to 300 people stands on the front lawn at Queen’s Park just one day after the Ontario government revealed its new sex-ed curriculum. The temperature is far below freezing — but it doesn’t subdue the passion of the screaming crowd.
One person holds two metallic signs: one features the Virgin Mary, the other, Jesus. A slogan appears on three signs held by protesters: Media, it’s parental, not religious.
“We say no! We say no!” they chant.
A small group of no more than five people follows a leader brandishing a megaphone. They holler back:
“Sex-Ed saves lives! Sex-Ed saves lives!”
The vastly larger group hold their signs high and members ask one another where they can sign their names to a petition against the legislated curriculum. Their signs read: Math, not masturbation. Science, not sex and Do not teach HIV before ABC.
On Feb. 23, Kathleen Wynne announced her government’s new health and physical education curriculum for Ontario elementary and middle schools. Five years ago, then premier Dalton McGuinty proposed a new sex-ed curriculum, but it was shelved because of protest from religious groups. Before that, the last time Ontario’s sex education was updated was in 1998. Now in 2015, the current revisions will finally give students the tools they need to develop healthy sexual experiences and relationships in this province. Wynne vows the updated curriculum will be implemented in schools indefinitely in September.
This time around, the Liberals’ updated curriculum is backed by two teenage girls determined to take a stand. In January, the We Give Consent campaign, started by two Grade 8 girls, Lia Valente and Tessa Hill, gained traction in the media. The petition campaigned to have consent added to the new sex-ed curriculum. The two girls stood behind Wynne when the Premier announced that consent would be a part of the new curriculum at Queen’s Park on Jan. 26. More than a week later, the two publicly announced via change.org and Facebook that their campaign was successful after their petition received over 40,000 signatures.
Also working to Wynne’s advantage are the recent big news stories of Rehtaeh Parsons and Jian Ghomeshi that have raised questions about rape culture and challenged our societal understanding of consent.
“Sex is for adults, childhood is for kids”
According to a survey conducted by Toronto Public Health last year, 20 per cent of high school students have had sex, of those students, 20 per cent got tested for STIs and 60 per cent of sexually-active students used a condom the last time they had sex. Toronto Public Health staff polled 6,053 students in Grades 7 to 12 in 165 schools over a period of 7 weeks.
A 2015 study done by MediaSmarts, assessed the online literacy and activity of Canadian kids in Grades 4 to 11. The report conducted between 2011 and 2013, found that 20 per cent of Grade 11 students and 10 per cent of Grade 10 students looked up sexual topics and 33 to 35 per cent admitted to looking for pornography.
The study also found 11 per cent of Grade 10 students and 14 per cent of Grade 11 students had sent a sext of themselves. Even more worrisome, 25 per cent of Grade 10 students and 17 per cent of Grade 11 students said that a sext they had sent had been forwarded to a third party.
The earliest changes from the new legislation will occur in Grade 1, where kids will learn how to recognize healthy and unhealthy relationships. The curriculum will teach them that having someone touch you, when you don’t want to be touched is an unhealthy interaction.
In Grade 2 students will learn the importance of standing up for themselves and personal space. They will also learn defensive social behaviours that can be useful in threatening situations, described as speaking confidently, stating boundaries, saying no and reporting exploitative behaviours. This is another teaching point that helps to develop the concept of consent at this level of education.
“At that age, I think I would have found it really important to understand how to stick up for yourself, because I thought that was like a bad thing to do, that to stick up for yourself was kind of rude,” says Marsha McLeod, a supporter of the curriculum who showed up to the protest.
McLeod is a student at the University of Toronto, co-founder of HERE, a feminist letter writing society at the university, and senior editor at the university’s independent paper. She says her attendance at the rally was motivated specifically by what she related to in the revised Grade 2 curriculum.
“I didn’t realize that I had the absolute right and entitlement myself to have my own space,” she says. “I just found it much easier to hook up with someone, than to say no, particularly because I didn’t understand that people weren’t entitled to my body.”
McLeod’s experience is not unique. Rae Costin, public relations coordinator at the Sexual Education Centre at U of T, says they would like to see mandatory frosh sex-ed and consent training implemented at the university. She says that when many people see the kind of resources available to them in post-secondary education, they express a disappointment in the lack of education they had received prior.
“A lot of problems that can happen around sex-ed and sexual relationships in general, is poor communication in regards to consent,” says Costin. She hopes that in five or 10 years time, students entering university will be better informed. Costin says the issue of understanding and communicating consent in university happens predominantly at big parties, both on and off campus, where alcohol is involved.
“The stereotype is that everyone’s having sex all the time, which really isn’t true, but it makes people feel like it’s something they have to do.”
But Helen Kokolakis, mother of two elementary-age children, who was at the Queen’s Park protest, says that children already know how to say, ‘no.’
“They know how to express their feelings,” says Kokolakis. “I want them to go to school and be a child, not to be 15-years-old in Grade 1 and 3.”
Maria Olaya and Cynamin Maxwell, peer counsellors at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre-Women Against Rape (TRCC-WAR), disagree.
“If you’re not talking about consent, it ties into the whole rape culture of secrecy,” says Maxwell. “As survivors, secrets and secrecy play a huge role in sexual violence.”
Despite silence being one of the tools keeping sexual assailants unaccountable for their actions, some groups don’t want their children involved in the discussion. Organizations against the new curriculum include the Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), Life Site News (LSN) and Parents as First Educators (PAFE). All three are hosting petitions on their websites, LSN’s petition has 61,429 signatures, CLC has 3, 052 and PAFE has gained 55,584, at last reference. All three have also initiated letter-writing campaigns.
The homepage of the CLC currently names the changes as “Ontario’s Radical Sex Ed Curriculum.” Certain sections the CLC find “shocking” include the introduction of homosexuality and gender identity in Grade 3, romantic dating in Grade 4, masturbation in Grade 6 and anal and oral sex in Grade 7. They also take issue with teaching kids how to properly name body parts in Grade 1, which was a part of the curriculum prior to the update.
“Teach math, teach grammar, teach academics,” says Mary Ellen Douglas, Ontario President of the CLC. “Certainly after spending all the years that we have protecting children in the womb, we don’t want to see their innocence destroyed by people like the Premier and Mr. Levin.”
“Keep our kids away from bill written by child sex offender”
The bill is being criticized as having been drafted in part by Benjamin Levin, former deputy education minister and a man who has now pleaded guilty to three of the seven charges he’s facing in relation to child pornography. On March 3, he entered his guilty pleas to creating written child pornography, being in possession of child pornography and also to counselling a person to commit a sexual act.
Having previously been a part of Wynne’s cabinet, concerned parents wonder if Levin had a hand in writing the first draft of the curriculum reform in 2010. In response, Wynne told The Canadian Press that the curriculum was written by experts using “solid evidence that shows what kids need to know in order to be safe in our community,” adding that deputy ministers don’t write curriculums.
“Not meaning to, but sometimes as adults, we reinforce what the perpetrators are saying by not talking openly about and being embarrassed,” says Maxwell. “Sure, it’s embarrassing to talk to people about sex, but let’s just get over it and that’ll add to the safety.”
“Stop imposing your views on our children”
Monte McNaughton, current Progressive Conservative party leader candidate, swears that if he becomes premier, he will stop Wynne’s curriculum from coming into effect. His flyers were handed out at the rally. Supportive quotes from PAFE and the CLC graced the front side with information about becoming an Ontario PC party member and how to vote for a party leader printed on the back.
“We’re in support of him, him and Patrick Brown,” says Douglas. “They’ve taken a good, strong stand.” Patrick Brown is another Conservative MP running for leadership. He currently represents Barrie, Ont.
The curriculum for Grades 6 through 8 has clear language surrounding the practice of consent. Discussing and establishing personal boundaries is a theme introduced throughout the entire curriculum, but understanding consent in a sexual context begins in Grade 6.
“A clear ‘yes’ is a signal of consent. A response of ‘no,’ an uncertain response, or silence needs to be understood as no consent,” reads a scripted student response to teacher prompts written into the curriculum for Grade 6 students.
But saying ‘no’ often requires explanation and is something that women feel obligated to give in our current sexual culture. Words like ‘tease’ label women who want intimacy without sex.
It was only 32 years ago that women in Canada earned the right to charge their husbands with rape under the rape law reforms of 1983. Regaining ownership of our bodies has been a constant struggle, solidified in the fact that consent is only now being written into the Ontario curriculum, putting it ahead of other provinces.
McLeod spoke of this lack of self-ownership in terms of an invisible social contract that says once someone has become intimate, they often feel obliged to follow through.
“Oftentimes you have signed a contract that you will go through with having sex with someone if you’ve gotten to a certain stage,” she says, “depending on a whole bunch of different factors.”
After the new lesson plans are introduced in September, we can only hope that these attitudes will change with time. One thing that’s for sure, the government has no plans to step down on this issue. At a press conference in late February, Health Minister Liz Sandals confirmed that professional development training for teachers has already been scheduled and that this new curriculum will indeed be entering schools this September.
For the survivors and peer counsellors at the TRCC-WAR, the changes to the curriculum can’t come soon enough.
“What are we so afraid of? Sex can be fun and awesome, so why can’t we talk about it? And then that makes it even more enjoyable,” says Maxwell.
“Consent is sexy,” says Olaya.