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let’s talk s-e-x…(shh, lest we freak out our parents)

March 7, 2015

Well, it appears Ontario’s Premier Kathleen Wynne decided to step into the very murky waters of sex education, and instructed the Ministry of Education Bureaucrats to come up with a new sex ed curriculum for all students in Ontario – kindergarten to Grade 12.

Oh what a brave decision this was. For, when bureaucrats and sex get together, the politics usually reeks of disaster.

First of all, middle class Ontarians get very uncomfortable when it comes to talking about sex, especially in public (even though they know – deep down –  that we need to teach our kids not to make any of the same sex mistakes we did). And we know that we are too uncomfortable to discuss sex with our our own kids – so our teachers do need some space to teach the sex ed basics, lest we have pregnant teens on every corner, and STI’s running amok everywhere.

But it all becomes very muddled – because we give the job over to bureaucrats to figure it all out. Think about the idea for minute…that we want government bureaucrats to design our kids sex ed classes…

Have you ever met a bureaucrat?!

Have you ever met them at their job? And watched them milling about all day in CubicleLand?

Have you ever walked the back hallways of Queen’s Park, trying to find the Assistant to the Assistant of the Minister in Charge of whatever it is you are there to discuss?

Jesus Christ, these are probably some of the most repressed people I have ever met! Their jobs require a personality dedicated to policy, legal considerations, impartiality, politics, and polyester.

These are the people we have decided should be instructed with the task of teaching our children sex ed.


Sex Education is one of the death stars of provincial politics. The very concept of public school sexual education pisses off the religious, and the conservative-minded, and upsets most especially, those people who are both.

It also makes Anglo-Protestants very uncomfortable because now they have to talk about sex, and what they think it should be, and what their kids should and should not know – and they hate doing this in public – even when the “sex talk” is abstract, and comes with pie charts, multicolored graphs, and germ-free pamphlets.

And no one is ever happy with the results because at one end of the spectrum there are a good number of people who want no sex ed at all, and at the other end of the spectrum – those who want more and better and smarter. And as all the science and social analysis and statistics clearly indicate the need for more and better sex ed, there is always a political cost for any politician who decides it’s time to re-examine how and what we will teach our kids about sex.


I have worked in community harm reduction for more than two decades and I have read the science, and the relevant studies, and looked at the statistics. I spent ten years as a community youth worker working with other brilliant youth workers creating some of the most successful teen sex workshops youth had ever been exposed to. Our workshops were packed rooms of teen hormones full of wonder, hilarity, and questions.

The Ontario bureaucrats will do their due diligence and they will review all the relevant studies done on sex education; they will talk to the relevant politicians to get a sense of what the Ministry is willing to explore (risk); they will talk to the various school boards to hear their concerns about parent blowback (and how much they think there will be), and then, they come talk with people like me, who work in community sex ed – to find out what is actually working in the community (which merely supports what they already read in the studies).


When I was first involved in public sex education, back in the late ’80’s and early ’90’s, we knew then that the school’s approach to sex ed could be rated as ridiculous at best. All the kids we talked to gave their sex ed a solid F-.

The vast majority of youth were receiving no sex ed at all – save that class in Grade 9 gym that can only be described as “ridiculous”. That’s when – remember? – you discovered you had a “penis” and a “scrotum” and “testicles”, and girls had “ovaries”. The “penis” enters the “vagina!” and the “sperm” “fertilizes” “the egg” and that’s how you make babies?

If you were lucky, you got one of the “cool” teachers, who had very few problems talking about sex in a classroom context, and you always left that class with fascinating questions dancing in your head.

We did these community workshops because study after study after study has shown that the more youth know about sex, the longer they will wait until they have sex, the safer they will be when they do have sex, the fewer STD’s there will be, the fewer suicides as well. And teenaged pregnancies in our communities dropped to a tenth of national averages.

And study upon study has also shown that those places that do their best to ignore sex talk with kids – Nova Scotia, for instance – also have the highest rates of teenaged pregnancy, highest rates of STD’s, highest rates of sexual violence, highest rates of alcohol/pot use prior to sexual activity, highest rates of teen suicide, and a litany of other teen social ills.

Hey, facts don’t lie.


In the course of my work as a youthworker there were only ever two issues that we were not allowed to talk about. The non-profit agency where we worked got some community blow-back when we started exploring the concept of sexual pleasure with youth (aged 16-24); and worried about potential blowback when we said we wanted to use a harm reduction approach in supporting some 16 and 17-year-old girls we had discovered in our community who were working in porn (consensual and non-consensual). Because to an outsider we might appear to be “supporting” 16-year-olds in making safer decisions doing porn – we would be seen as, in fact, supporting porn. )Which we were emphatically not doing.)

We were not allowed to talk about sexual pleasure. And we were not allowed to help 17-year-old porn workers.

Otherwise, everything was on the table.

And after the decade of hard work that had already been put into getting this far in community sex ed, it was a compromise we learned to live with. (Gratified by the fact that this didn’t stop teens from booking our space to have their own discussions about pleasure; and knowing that there was an agency in the city that works specifically with sex workers and had lots of advice and support for these girls.)


So when the Ontario Bureaucrats came to see what we did, we told the bureaucrats everything we knew and saw in our work (some of them thrilled by what they discovered; others horrified), and they hummed and hawed and took it all away. Later, some of us were asked to present to some sitting committee in some stuffy conference room on the 13th floor of the Ministry of Education, and for a couple of hours we tried to convince a room full of ties, and pant suits, why the province needs better and smarter sex education.

Nine times out of ten, this is as far as the process goes. The sitting committee makes it’s recommendations to the Minister – a study is published – the relevant politicians and their advisors read the study – and then they shelve it away, because they either don’t want the public headache, or fear for their re-election possibilities.

But Kathleen Wynne recently won the provincial election with an overwhelming majority, and she was once a community worker herself. (At one point, we both worked at the same non-profit. But in different departments.) She is openly intelligent (she has a Masters in Education). She is youth positive. And a lesbian.

If she didn’t upgrade Ontario’s public sex education curriculum, no politician ever would.

And this is what she has proposed:

That a new sex ed curriculum be based on the twin concepts of “Physical Literacy” and “Health Literacy”.

Physical Literacy is explained as: “Individuals who are physically literate move with competence and confidence in a wide variety of physical activities in multiple environments that benefit the healthy development of the whole person.

Physically literate individuals consistently develop the motivation and ability to understand, communicate, apply, and analyze different forms of movement.

They are able to demonstrate a variety of movements confidently, competently, creatively and strategically across a wide range of health-related physical activities.

These skills enable individuals to make healthy, active choices that are both beneficial to and respectful of their whole self, others, and their environment.” (From: Physical and Health Education Canada, “What Is Physical Literacy?”)

Combined with “Health Literacy”:  [which]involves the skills needed to get, understand and use information to make good decisions for health. The Canadian Public Health Association’s Expert Panel on Health Literacy defines it as the ability to access, understand, evaluate and communicate information as a way to promote, maintain and improve health in a variety of settings across the life-course.”

So far, so good.

The new sex ed curriculum will also be based on ‘best practices’, and the fundamental learning principles that have emerged from analyzing best practice results.

These principles include: 1. Health and physical education programs are most effective when they are delivered in healthy schools and when students’ learning is supported by school staff, families, and communities. 2. Physical activity is the key vehicle for student learning. 3. Physical and emotional safety is a precondition for effective learning in health and physical education. 4. Learning in health and physical education is student-centred and skill-based. 5. Learning in health and physical education is balanced, integrated, and connected to real life. 

So, with that all in mind, here’s some of the nuts and bolts of the curriculum change:

1. In Grade One kids will discover the joys of being active, and why/how to make healthy choices. They will learn all the correct words for their body parts (all their body parts).

2. In Grade Two they will explore the idea of consent. Consent will, from Grade 2 onward, be a consistent part of the sex ed curriculum.

3. In Grade Three, students will learn about gender identity, sexual orientation, and respect for differences.

3. In Grade Four they will learn about reproduction.

4. Intercourse will be discussed in Grade Five; and masturbation in Grade Six. They will also learn about sexting, privacy issues, and the legal ramifications of non-consensual sex-related internet activities.

5. Oral and anal sex come in Grade Seven.

High School will be all of this, plus, all the relevant and informed discussions that would come with talking about sex with teenagers.

Now, Kathleem Wynne is no political fool, so she also included a clause that allows parents to opt their children out of these classes. Whether you agree with that idea or not, it was a politically prudent move – with the larger prize being most important to Wynne. (And from my experience, those excluded youth who want to know about sex, will then simply talk to their peers after class.)

And so far the Premier has pulled it off. When the Conservatives tried to insinuate she wasn’t “the right person for the job of sex education” she ignored the implied gay bigotry (that a lesbian can’t decide what heterosexuals will be taught about sex), and she hit their pitch so far out of the park the media has been running her reply for days.


Why we are so hung up about teaching sex education has always been a mystery to me.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised as so many people are so hung up about sex. As I have written elsewhere, Canadians are famously hung-up about sex. Only Americans and the Japanese have less sex then we do. I have met mothers and fathers (especially fathers!) who refuse to talk to their kids about sex at all. They just flat out refuse! We are very reluctant to teach it to our kids, and therefore we have some of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the western world – especially outside the big urban centres of Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. We also have some of the highest sexual violence and teen suicide rates in the western world.

Our deep orthodox anti-sex Christian heritage still rings in the deep backgrounds of our culture.

If you have ever been to Brazil, or Paris, or Ghana – or a million other places that is not English Canada – you know how hung up we are about sex.

Rather than look at the hard science of sex ed, or listen to those in the field who can tell you how good sex ed can reduce a whole host of social costs, the majority of us prefer to have some sort of repressed emotional counter-reformation reaction to the idea of sex ed, and would much rather be Ostriches with our collective heads in the sand.

Studies suggest that for every $1 spent in good sex ed, the gov”t will save $150 in future medical, welfare, court, or criminal costs – not to mention those young women who will not become single moms – and all those teens who will go to college rather than to parenting class.

We waste a great deal more money not teaching sex ed –

but it’s not about the money – is it?

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