Let’s look back at 1998 for a second.
Back to when Frozen was just a popular Madonna song and actress Alicia Silverstone wasn’t making headlines yet for her “gentle parenting” approach. According to my research, 1998 was also the first year cellphones were made available without an external antenna—and even basic cameras or web capabilities didn’t yet exist, making “sexting” nonexistent. And it happens to be the last time the sex education curriculum was updated in Ontario.
Seventeen years have passed since 1998. Seventeen years in which sex itself may not have changed, but technology and public discourse around sex certainly have—especially for our kids.
Technology has been a force of both good and evil where our youth are concerned. Where and how young people are pressured, made vulnerable and bullied has changed. However, social media has also made it possible for young people worldwide to access support groups and connect online to discuss instances of slut-shaming, rape culture and a desire to create a culture of consent. Here’s the thing: Young people are not just entitled to a culture that promotes consensual sex, they are asking for one.
On Monday, the updated sex ed. curriculum for Ontario students was made public for the first time—curriculum slated to debut in September of this year. The updates include teaching kids proper names for body parts in grade one, and about same-sex relationships and healthy communication in grade three. Students in grades four through six will be cautioned about sharing sexual information and images online. By the time these kids hit puberty and experience wet dreams and masturbation they will—wait for it!— have already learned about puberty, wet dreams and masturbation, which leaves them better equipped to deal with their changing bodies. Discussions on contraception and STIs—which were still referred to as STDs in 1998—and gender identity will be included in classroom curriculum. And kids will learn about consent.
There are some parents who object to this.
Chief among these concerns is the belief that teaching consent results in the sexualization of kids at an early age. But consent is also about being able to say “yes, it’s OK to hug me” or “no, I don’t want to be hugged.” It’s about teaching appropriate touching versus inappropriate touching. It’s about teaching our sons not to force sex on another person or demand it as something they are entitled to. It’s about teaching our daughters that healthy sexual experiences exist outside of threats of assault, and that they can choose when they are ready. In these objections is the idea that we should not be teaching consent before the age of consent. But I say, of course we should—for all of the reasons listed above, and because a significant margin of youth under the age of consent in Ontario are already engaged in sexual activity.
As for teaching kids about gender identity and the LGBT spectrum, it’s being described by some as “radical.” As a queer person myself, it’s hard not to feel these comments come from a homophobic place.
Kids have had LGBT parents, and peers with LGBT parents, well before this was part of school curriculum. Kids have genitals and have had reasons to discuss them long before teaching the proper words for their anatomy was proposed for the curriculum. They’ve had experiences with gender identity long before the new curriculum was approved. Young people can get STIs and become pregnant whether you shield them from that fact or not. Teaching them about these realities is a significant part of protecting them and helps them make informed decisions about their bodies. Cat-calling, sexual innuendos and pervasive sexual imagery in the media—all of these exist, and kids are exposed to them, whether we talk about it in schools or not. So why not break it down and provide some analysis and give our children some context?
Sex happens whether we talk to our kids about it or not. And, ultimately, sexual health is part of a person’s overall health—and I just can’t wrap my head around why people would want to keep health information away from their children. Not to mention denying discussions about consent to the young girls who are asking for more information—what is that denial telling them about their worth?
Here’s the real zinger for me: The new curriculum is arguably not “pro-sex.” Everywhere I look, and everything I read, all the new information on sex and sexuality itself is positioned as teaching students the risks involved. Now students will learn “the risks of” sex and “the risks of” sexting because now, in 2015, both exist. They will still be steered toward abstaining until they are ready—it just means they are better equipped.
In my home, I couldn’t explain to my daughter that sex is for “reproduction, between a man and a woman, when in love” even if I wanted to. There was no love or sex involved in the making of my child. I got pregnant alone, with a jam jar of donor sperm, from a trans woman friend of mine. At age four, my daughter already knows all of this (aside from the jam jar part, specifically) because it’s her story and has been since before she was born. That being said, she doesn’t know that people have sex for both pleasure and to conceive because this has no relevance to her life right now. Instead, she’s learning about bodies and the proper names for genitals. She knows she can say “no” when she doesn’t want a hug from someone. Do I think sex ed. should be taught in the home first? Yes. And it’s my hope that, by the time my kid is learning sex ed. at school, it’s at least somewhat of a reiteration of what she’s already been taught at home.
Seventeen years from now my daughter will be 21 years old. I’m fairly certain that “sexting” will be outdated—as outdated as that Spice Girls movie, which was in theatres back in 1998. I want to see continued improvements and additions to Ontario’s sex ed. proposals as the years go by, and hope another 17 years won’t pass before we update the curriculum once again.
Tara-Michelle Ziniuk is a Toronto-based queer mom to a four-year-old. She started off as a single-mom-by-choice, and now co-parents. You can read more of her posts here and follow her on Twitter @therealrealTMZ.