Our newly elected Progressive Conservative government has repealed the 2015 Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum, which includes the sexual health curriculum, taking us back to 1998. You may be confused, and rightly so, about what this means as the government has been continuously providing mixed messages and statements, not making clear what this means for students and teachers come September.
I have been teaching the sexual health curriculum in the schools since 2007, meaning I have taught both the 1998 and the 2015 curriculums. The 1998 curriculum predates Google, social media, same-sex marriage and does not discuss consent, online safety, sexting, gender diversity or LGBTQ+ relationships. The more up-to-date 2015 curriculum covers all these topics. It also provides teachers with suggestions on how to have classroom discussions.
However, students don’t know, or care, what the curriculum guidelines say. They have been asking questions about pornography, sex, diversity and relationships since my first sex ed lesson over ten years ago. What is relevant in their lives does not change because the school curriculum changes.
It is our job and responsibility as educators to listen to what students are asking and telling us about their bodies, their relationships and their online activity. We have one chance to get it right. Sex education is a life skill, a skill that needs to be taught at the appropriate age, and in the appropriate way, to prevent harm.
Talking about puberty after puberty has happened, talking about consent after students have been in an abusive relationship, talking about gender diversity after a student has been bullied is allowing the harm to happen. I also educate adults, and what I hear more often than anything else is this: I wish I had known this information when I was young, it would have prevented so much grief, heartache, pain …
I think the most important part of teaching sexual health education is listening, answering questions and building comfort and trust. Without comfort and trust the questions students most need answers to will not be asked. Without questions, how will educators know what students need to learn? Students may not be able to ask questions elsewhere, and they may not get the intricate answers they need to keep safe and healthy by googling their questions. And google they will.
Students are getting a great deal of their sex education online and from the media. We cannot prevent the media from influencing students. What we can do is talk about what students are seeing online and in the media, and teach critical thinking skills and media literacy.
I have always been a believer in the question box. It is way for students to ask questions anonymously so they can feel safe asking about their biggest fears and worries. If you listen to the heart of each question, most are asking the same thing: “am I normal?” A question we have all asked ourselves, probably multiple times.
A comprehensive, inclusive, sexual health curriculum is essential because it may be the only opportunity students receive to validate who they are, the relationships they have and the people they want to become.
Stacey Jacobs is the sexual health educational manager at SHORE Centre.