Sex ed vs. the Internet in Ontario curriculum debate

·National Affairs Contributor
Sex ed vs. the Internet in Ontario curriculum debate

Some time around 2010, stories began circulating on the Internet about a sexually transmitted disease called “Blue Waffle.” Use your imagination.

For five years now, sexual health educators throughout Canada and the United States have been fielding questions about the disease which, according to web wisdom, is only passed from women to men and may be the result of poor hygiene or an overactive sex life. It does not exist.

That may seem laughable, except that it’s a sexual myth that persists among tweens and teens and even people old enough to vote and buy beer. And it’s just one of many.

Lyba Spring spent nearly 30 years as a sexual health educator for Toronto Public Health. Now retired, she is a private sexual health educator and consultant and a blogger on sexual health issues.

Over the years, she’s fielded many questions from teens that convinced her that Ontario needed a relevant, updated sex education curriculum: Can masturbation make you a non-virgin? Can you get an infection from doing a bikini wax? Can your vagina dry out?

Younger students had their own questions: Does a baby come out of the belly button? How many people can you have sex with at one time? If you are a boy and turn into a girl and marry a man is that a gay couple?

“Ontario teachers have been working with the most outdated curriculum in the country. Surely our children deserve better,” Spring tells Yahoo Canada News.

She says studies show 94 per cent of parents are in favour of sex education in schools. Though parents may have good intentions to talk to their kids themselves, they tend not to, she says.

But Ontario’s new sex education curriculum has become a battleground.

Concerned parents, groups take on the province

Toronto parents kept almost 35,000 children home from school earlier this week to protest the new program. Absences were reported in other cities, as well, including Ottawa and London.

Some rather wild rumours have been circulated about the curriculum, including that Grade 6 students will be “taught” masturbation and Grade 8 students instructed on anal sex.

One of the most outspoken critics of the new program is Charles McVety, the evangelical Christian president of the Institute for Canadian Values and head of the Canada Christian College, who once publicly chided Prime Minister Stephen Harper for failing to reopen the abortion debate.

McVety says the primary concern about the new curriculum is the discussion of gender.

“I’m not against sex education. I believe it’s an important part of a child’s development,” McVety tells Yahoo Canada News. “But I am against radical sex education and this is as radical as it gets.”

He says the program teaches that there are six genders, not two.

“Everybody knows what gender is – male or female,” McVety says. “Virtually no one in the population thinks there are six genders.”

The curriculum does prompt teachers to discuss six gender identities: male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual and intersex. It also includes discussion of heterosexual, gay, lesbian and bisexual orientations beginning in Grade 3.

Spring says it’s appropriate.

“They will already be familiar with these concepts if there is a television in their homes,” she says.

Studies suggest transgender youth face a much higher rate of bullying and suicide than their peers. One survey cited by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control says 25 per cent of transgendered teens reported a suicide attempt.

McVety says he is not opposed to discussion with transgendered teens – but suggests it is more appropriate that the discussion take place separately, rather than “teach” gender confusion to all students.

The curriculum also includes, for the first time, discussion about consent to sexual activity and tackles modern-day issues such as sexting – issues adults themselves struggle to understand.

A study released this week by the Canadian Women’s Foundation found that while 96 per cent of Canadians they spoke to agreed sexual activity should be consensual, two-thirds of them didn’t understand exactly what that means.

Only one in three respondents understood that, under the law, consent must be given at the outset of sexual activity and throughout.

And one in 10 people either didn’t know or believed consent was not required for sex between spouses or long-term partners.

No small number of parents are concerned about the new curriculum. The line appears to be drawn along largely religious lines, by parents of various ethnic and cultural groups.

“It is so diverse, the opposition to this, it’s really right across the board,” says McVety, who says the fight is far from over.

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