Kim Martyn has a question she asks parents who may be leery of their kids getting sex education at school.
“How many of your children watch television? How many of your children have access to a computer or anything online without you sitting there?”
Her point is clear: Kids are bombarded with mass media interpretations of sex and gender even before tiny fingers learn to swipe web-connected touchscreens.
But kids in Ontario schools are being taught a curriculum that hasn’t changed since the age of the discman.
Gender’s first mention is in Grade 12; sexual orientation isn’t in there at all.
“It’s absolutely lacking. On many, many fronts,” says Martyn, sexual health promoter with Toronto Public Health.
Many Ontario teachers are using material from other provinces such as Alberta, she said, because theirs is inadequate.
The last time Ontario tried to update its sex ed, in 2010, it abandoned the plan in the face of pressure from conservative and religious groups. Lost in that same confrontation was any update to Ontario’s high school health curriculum – physical, social, mental health, substance abuse included.
“All of this debate has essentially held up all of these health-related topic areas in secondary,” , says Chris Markham, head of the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association.
“And that’s a really big issue.”
The idea of widespread parental opposition to sex ed is a myth, he adds.
An Environics poll the advocacy group commissioned last year showed the vast majority of parents support sex as part of a school’s overall health education. And most would much rather have their kids learn this from teachers than Facebook.
“Parents get that sexual health education is important, that schools have a role to play,” he said.
GALLERY: Click through to explore parental opinions on sex ed:
‘A well-informed child is less likely to be sexually abused’
Talking to kids about sex is awkward.
But what young people don’t know can hurt them: Worrisome jumps in sexually transmitted diseases (a 9.3 per cent rise in chalymdia rates among young people in 2012 compared to the previous five-year average, for example), and concerns about adolescents’ need for better resources on healthy relationships, prompted Toronto to take matters into its own hands.
Last year the city’s public health body developed a campaign of its own – called “I can relate” – that it takes into classrooms.
Parents, Martyn said, often think “that teaching about sex is going to encourage my child to have sex. Which is a little bit like, ‘Teaching about smoking is going to encourage my child to smoke,’ you know? There’s no logic behind it. It’s a completely unfounded fear,” she said.
“Once they hear what we’re teaching and why we’re teaching it, if they know that a well-informed child is less likely to be sexually abused, there are very few parents who won’t reconsider that.”
‘Every year you’re waiting, you have another cohort of kids being educated on a curriculum from the 20th century’
Across Canada, designers of sex education curricula struggle to keep pace with the changing media environment in which young people are immersed.
And the questions Martyn gets from young people are telling: They want help navigating relationships – platonic and otherwise. Students getting the HPV vaccine want more information on how it works and why they’re getting it.
But even the language and teaching materials need an update, Martyn says – when teachers suggest approaching a doctor with questions, for example, the doctor shouldn’t always be a “he.”
And touchier issues around gender and sexual orientation – which get no mention in Ontario’s current curriculum – should be tackled early and openly, she said.
“Even in grades, say, three and four, when we’re talking about what’s a boy and what’s a girl, [educators should] be mindful around how is it that you’re defining a boy and a girl,” she said.
“How would two ladies or two men make a baby? It’s a super-common question. How do you answer it so that children who are sitting in the classroom or have friends or relatives who do have same-gender parents feel visible feel part of the discussion. …
“The main thing is legitimizing that … yes, there are all different kinds of families, and isn’t that great?”
What infuriates Ophea’s Markham is that as the sex ed debate becomes politicized, students are the ones that lose out.
“Every year you’re waiting, you have another cohort of kids being educated on a curriculum from the 20th century. And that’s not fair to them, at all.”
Sound off on sex ed: Do you have a child learning sex ed in school? Do you remember your own experience as a student? We want to hear it. (Note: We may publish your story in this or future articles)
Compare sex ed programs from province to province. Curricula have been copied verbatim save for minor alterations to put them in point form.
In almost all provinces, parents have the option of exempting their children from sex ed classes – as long as they teach the material on their own: Students will be evaluated on it regardless.
- Appropriate terminology for male and female private parts;
- Appropriate and inappropriate touching and treatment;
- Ways to respond to inappropriate touches of confusing and uncomfortable situations (e.g. saying “no” or “stop,” getting away if possible, seeking help)
- Similar to Kindergarten; added focus of not giving out personal information online, not keeping inappropriate touching a secret
- Differentiating between appropriate and inappropriate touches; recognizing potentially abusive situations; avoidance and assertiveness related to potentially abusive situations
- Lures and tricks used by potential abusers, either known or strangers, face-to-face or on the Internet;
- Abuse and exploitation avoidance strategies
- Describe human reproductive system, conception;
- Respect developmental differences at puberty and adolescence;
- Understand practices that reduce the risk of contracting life-threatening communicable diseases, including HIV, hepatitis B and C, and meningococcal C;
- Identify definitions and consequences of stereotyoping and discrimination (including those related to gender and sexual orientation);
- Identify responses to discrimination, stereotyping and bullying;
- Learm school, provincial, national and international policies and strategies for preventing and responding to discrimination, bullying and harassment; and sources of help and support for people in abusive or exploitative situations;
- Learn personal safety strategies for the Internet
- Learn to maintain physical, emotional and social health during puberty and adolescence;
- Understand serious nature of HIV/AIDS;
- Identify healthy and unhealthy relationhsips;
- Identify influences on relationships from peers, family, media, changes due to puberty;
- Identify ways to prevent stereotyping, discrimination, bullying;
- Learn personal safety strategies for avoiding abusive or exploitative situations
- Identify factors that influence healthy sexual decision-making;
- Demonstrate understanding of consequences of contracting sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS;
- Assess importance of healthy relationships;
- Identify school and community sources of information and support for individuals in unhealthy, abusive or exploitative relationships.
- Describe practices that promote healthy sexual decision-making;
- Assess short-term and long-term consequences of unsafe sexual behaviour;
- Propose strategies for building and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships;
- Describe skills for avoiding or responding to unhealthy, abusive or exploitative relationships;
- Describe effective and appropriate responses to bullying, discrimination, harassment and intimidation.
- Demonstrate understanding of skills needed to build and maintain healthy relationships;
- Analyse practices that promote healthy sexual decision-making;
- Analyse practices associated with the prevention of HIV/AIDS
- Describe physical, emotional and social changes that occur during puberty
- Identify the basic components of the human reproductive system and describe the basic functions of the various components.
• Identify and describe the stages and factors that can affect human development from conception through birth
• Examine and evaluate the risk factors associated with exposure to blood-borne diseases – HIV, AIDS, hepatitis B?C; e.g. sharing needles, body piercing, tattooing, helping someone who is bleeding, being sexually active.
- Examine the human reproductive process and recognize misunderstandings associated with sexual development
- Recognize and accept that individuals experience different rates of physical, emotional, sexual and social development
- Apply coping strategies when experiencing different rates of physical, emotional, sexual and social development; e.g. positive self-talk
- Examine the relationship between commitment and intimacy in all its levels;
- Identify expectations and commitments in various relationships;
- Examine a range of behaviours for handling sexual involvement;
- Describe how personal values play a role in relationships;
- Explain the role of trust and ways to establish trust in a relationship;
- Develop strategies for dealing with jealousy
- Examine aspects of healthy sexuality and responsible sexual behaviour;
- Explain the ongoing responsibility for being sexually healthy;
- Examine a range of behaviours and choices regarding sexual expression;
- Describe sexually healthy actions and choices for one’s body, including abstinence;
- Analyze strategies for choosing responsible and respectful sexual expression;
- Describe the ways in which personal values influence choices;
- Assess the consequences of being sexually active
- First mention of gender, when students identify factors that influence their sense of self
- Students are introduced to diversity in families (two-parent, single-parent, foster, extended, same-sex). They also learn how to resist media stereotypes.
- Students learn to understand the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual changes of puberty.
- Students start looking at the social, cultural, and environmental influences on sexual health including attitudes, behaviours and decisions
- Demonstrate the personal insight, motivation and skills necessary to enhance and promote sexual health and avoid health-compromising sexual attitudes and behaviours.
- Identify body parts and the right to privacy (e.g., washrooms).
- Identify basic changes in growth and development, gender differences and how living things produce and care for their offspring.
- Describe human reproductive and endocrine systems
- Identify changes and responsibilities associated with puberty
- Identify influences on sexuality and gender roles
- Identify facts about HIV and AIDS.
- Apply decision-making process in case scenarios related to issues associated with puberty.
- Explain the human reproduction process;
- Describe the development of a fetus and how the endocrine system regulates changes associated with puberty.
- Identify emotional changes associated with puberty and positive ways to cope with moods.
- Identify the lifestyle practices for making healthy decisions related to developing relationships and responsible sexual behaviour.
- Identify symptoms, methods of transmission and prevention of STIs and HIV/AIDS.
- Identify the components of healthy relationships
- Describe the consequences and implications of sexual behaviour and identify responsible sexual behaviours.
- Review reproductive anatomy, factors that contribute to a healthy pregnancy
- Describe social factors and media influences affecting human sexuality.
- Identify facts related to common STIs and discuss behaviours that decrease or increase the contraction of HIV.
- Identify and assess contraceptive methods
- List conditions necessary for a healthy pregnancy
- Examine media and other influences on sexuality and sexual behaviour.
- Explain health issues related to HIV/AIDS and describe ways to prevent STIs.
- Describe simple life cycles of plants and animals, including humans
- Identify major body parts by proper names
- Distinguish the similarities and differences between themselves and others (e.g., in terms of body size or gender)
- Outline the basic human and animal reproductive processes (e.g. union of egg and sperm)
- Describe the four stages of human development (infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood) and identify the physical, interpersonal, and emotional changes appropriate to their current stage;
- Identify the characteristics of healthy relationships (e.g., showing consideration of others’ feelings by avoiding negative communication);
- Identify the challenges (e.g., conflicting opinions) and responsibilities in their relationships with family and friends.
- Identify strategies to deal positively with stress and pressures that result from relationships with family and friends;
- Identify factors (e.g., trust, honesty, caring) that enhance healthy relationships with friends, family, and peers;
- Describe the secondary physical changes at puberty (e.g., growth of body hair, changes in body shape);
- Describe the processes of menstruation and spermatogenesis;
- Describe the increasing importance of personal hygiene following puberty
- Relate changes at puberty to reproductive organs and their functions;
- Apply a problem-solving/decision-making process to address issues related to friends, peers, and family relationships.
- Explain the male and female reproductive systems as they relate to fertilization;
- Distinguish between the facts and myths associated with menstruation, spermatogenesis, and fertilization;
- Identify the methods of transmission and the symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), and ways to prevent them;
- Use effective communication skills (e.g., refusal skills, active listening) to deal with various relationships and situations;
- Explain the term abstinence as it applies to healthy sexuality;
- Identify sources of support with regard to issues related to healthy sexuality (e.g., parents/guardians, doctors).
- Explain the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents;
- Identify symptoms, methods of transmission, prevention, and high-risk behaviours related to common STDs, HIV, and AIDS;
- Identify methods used to prevent pregnancy;
- Apply living skills (e.g., decision-making, assertiveness, and refusal skills) in making informed decisions, and analyse the consequences of engaging in sexual activities and using drugs;
- Identify sources of support (e.g., parents/guardians, doctors) related to healthy sexuality issues.
- Identify the developmental stages of sexuality throughout life;
- Describe the factors that lead to responsible sexual relationships;
- Describe the relative effectiveness of methods of preventing pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases (e.g., abstinence, condoms, oral contraceptives);
- Demonstrate understanding of how to use decision-making and assertiveness skills effectively to promote healthy sexuality (e.g., healthy human relationships, avoiding unwanted pregnancies and STDs such as HIV/AIDS);
- Demonstrate understanding of the pressures on teens to be sexually active;
- Identify community support services related to sexual health concerns.
- Describe environmental influences on sexuality (e.g., cultural, social, and media influences);
- Explain the effects (e.g., STDs, HIV/AIDS) of choices related to sexual intimacy (e.g., abstinence, using birth control);
- Identify available information and support services related to sexual health concerns;
- Demonstrate understanding of how to use decision-making skills effectively to support choices related to responsible sexuality.
- Describe factors (e.g., environmental, hormonal, nutritional) affecting reproductive health in males and females;
- Demonstrate an understanding of causes and issues related to infertility;
- Demonstrate the skills needed to sustain honest, respectful, and responsible relationships;
- Describe sources of information on and services related to sexual and reproductive health;
- Assess reproductive and sexual health care information and services.
- Analyse the factors (e.g., culture, media) that affect gender roles and sexuality;
- Demonstrate an understanding of the factors (e.g., attitudes, values, and beliefs about gender roles and sexuality) that affect the prevention of behaviour related to STDs, AIDS, and pregnancy;
- Describe the factors (e.g., healthful eating, abstinence from smoking and alcohol) that contribute to healthy pregnancy and birth;
- Describe the characteristics of healthy, respectful, and long-lasting relationships;
- Assess the skills needed to maintain healthy, respectful, and long-lasting relationships;
- Describe the communication skills needed to discuss sexual intimacy and sexuality in a relationship.