High School

Why we need to get in bed with modern sex ed

Emma Teitel on the misconceptions of progressive sex education

We need to get into bed with modern sex ed

Owen Franken/Corbis

In the fifth grade, my friends and I had a special afternoon tradition. When school let out at 3:30, we would walk to Katherine’s house (a pseudonym), raid her fridge, go upstairs to her bedroom, lock the door and watch Internet pornography. Where were Katherine’s parents? They were at work. But it wouldn’t have mattered. When they were around, we just turned off the sound, or read erotic literature on a website called Kristen Archives. This is how we gained the indispensable knowledge that some women like to be ravished by farmhands, and others, by farm animals. The year was 1999. We had not yet sat through our first sex-ed class, but when we did, almost two years later, it was spectacularly disappointing. We had seen it all, and now we were shading in a diagram of the vas deferens.

Since our special after-school tradition came to an end over a decade ago, Friendster, Myspace, Facebook, Flickr, Formspring, Instagram and Twitter have emerged. But against all logic, nothing has changed in the sex-ed business. Our century is literally on the cusp of puberty, and yet despite these enormous social and technological changes, we remain largely incapable of giving kids the resources they need to deal with their own puberty. I’m talking here, specifically, about the province of Ontario. As you read this, kids from Sarnia to Kingston—kids who, on average, have viewed Internet porn by age 11—are probably shading in the exact same vas deferens diagram I did. There’s nothing wrong with the vas deferens—or so I’m told—but surely there is more to sexual education in the 21st century than anatomy and colouring. Ontario currently boasts the most out-of-date sex-ed curriculum in Canada. It was last revised in 1998, which means sex ed was out of date when I took it.

The Ontario Liberals were prepared to do something about this in 2010, when they championed a revised sex-ed curriculum—one that includes sexual diversity, i.e., the revelation that not everyone is straight, and the requirement that teachers answer junior high school students’ questions about anal and oral sex. However, former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty got cold feet when a small group of vocal parents opposed the revised curriculum. So here we are three years later, with a newer, gayer premier—who promised to do what her predecessor wouldn’t—and still no dice. The revised curriculum, it was just announced, will not be implemented this fall. Several health organizations, including the Sick Kids hospital and the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association, banded together at Queen’s Park last week in frustration. They say failure to implement a curriculum that the majority of Ontario parents support (over 90 per cent, according to a recent poll) is sheer negligence. They are right.

Most kids see some kind of porn before they hit puberty. A recent U.K. study found that over 80 per cent of respondents under 24 have used social media to fulfill a sexual purpose. I don’t think I need to cite studies about sexting and cyberbullying. All the things parents oppose in the revised sex-ed curriculum are already likely very familiar to their children. So why not address them in the classroom?

The misconception about progressive sex ed is that kids are inundated with sexual material every day outside of school, and educators shouldn’t be inundating them inside it. But good, progressive sex ed doesn’t do this. Under the revised curriculum, health teachers wouldn’t add insult to injury. They would give thoughtful and measured responses to the questions kids ask about sex—particularly stuff they see and do online. They would, in other words, quell the fire, not feed it. Growing up in the early 2000s, for example, I did not know a single sexually active girl with pubic hair. Somewhere along the way, our after-school tradition at Katherine’s house (i.e., watching porn) convinced us that desirable women just didn’t have hair down there. Nobody discussed porn in our sex-ed class, or how women are portrayed in it. But perhaps if they had, we would have learned that shearing yourself is not a mandatory prerequisite to sex. A revised sex-ed curriculum gives context, and context is everything.

As for the curriculum’s controversial inclusion of anal sex—get over it. Gay teens have sex, too, and they have every right to learn how to do so safely. That is a public health issue, not a social one.

Our current premier’s reticence on a program she once lauded is most likely political. She doesn’t want to rock the boat quite yet, which is disappointing. But the aversion to the new curriculum by some parents is more clear-cut. It is not an aversion to sexual material in the classroom; it is an aversion to reality. It’s the reason fundamentalist Christians refuse to hand out condoms in AIDS-ridden Africa. It’s the reason my high school’s administration wouldn’t install outdoor ashtrays on our cigarette-butt-filled front lawn. (To do so would, of course, promote smoking.)

Kids shouldn’t watch porn, but they do. We can’t un-invent the Internet. And we can’t reverse puberty. Case in point: In 2001, one of the most determined voyeurs in our special after-school group skipped sex ed at the request of her religious father—for whom an hour of vas deferens shading was just too much to bear. He told her to go to the library instead, which was fine with her. Who, after all, could resist an afternoon with the Kristen Archives?

Have a comment to share? emma.teitel@macleans.rogers.com

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