How a Baby is Made was supposed to be my sex-ed playbook as a kid. Written by Per Holm Knudsen in 1975, the book was a gift from my aunt and took a refreshingly honest approach to sex, complete with groovy and explicit drawings
Too explicit, it turns out for my 10-year-old self.
Instead, the book gathered dust on the very top shelf of our kitchen cupboard. My dad never let me see it, shielding me from learning how the mother and a father at the center of the book make a baby.
Like an overprotective parent, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, too, is rolling back the sex ed curriculum in Ontario.
The Progressive Conservative Party announced on July 11 it would revert to the province’s previous health and physical education curriculum from 1998. Which doesn’t sound like it was that long ago. Until you realize it was the same year as the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal, that Y2K was a very real threat, and that the Spice Girls were currently singing “Stop right now, thank you very much.”
Back in 1998, kids didn’t need to worry about sexting or online bullying. Same-sex marriage wouldn’t be legal for another five years in Canada and free online porn wasn’t as easy to access as cable television. But in September 2018, according to Action Canada for Sexual Health & Rights, Ontario students will receive one of the most outdated health curriculums in Canada.
The 1998 curriculum doesn’t teach kids about consent, same-sex relationships, gender identity, online bullying or sexting. Key parts of the current curriculum will be removed including:
-teaching Grade 1 students the proper names for body parts,
-teaching Grade 2 students that “no means no”
-teaching Grade 4 students the dangers of posting sexual images online
-teaching Grade 6 students about masturbation
-teaching Grade 7 students about STIs, anal and oral sex
-teaching Grade 8 students about the gender spectrum
“As a queer mom, I do think about how my son will fare in life as part of a queer family,” says Kelly Wilk, from Toronto, Ont. “If my son can’t learn about gender expression, orientation and healthy sexuality, I will be teaching him a lot more than cursive writing at home.”
As a society, we all bear the costs of the lack of sexual education: unplanned pregnancy, sexual assault and homophobia. Given that it took 17 years for the old curriculum to be updated, it could conceivably take years for the Progressive Conservatives to replace the now 20-year-old curriculum.
So, if the Ontario government won’t step up, it’s time I do.
No more relying on in loco parentis to talk to my son about consent or my daughter about same-sex relationships.
Now, I can understand why my dad hid that book on sex and why he never once had a conversation with me about puberty, sex or relationships. As a parent, you can feel completely out of your depths trying to talk about these things.
“Children need to learn about their bodies and identities without the shadow of shame looming over each conversation,” says Laura Hughes, a community educator and speaker, based in St. Catharines, Ont., who researched Ontario's updated 2015 Health and Physical Education Curriculum as part of her Master of Education. “Talking about sexual health is key to children’s development, sense of self and safety.”
At times, talking to my kids honestly about these things is uncomfortable. And let’s face it, they are far more ‘woke’ than I am. For my 13-year-old son, learning what it means to be LGBTQ2 was no big deal. “It’s fine to be these things. I don’t really care,” he says.”
Three of the biggest changes reflected in the modernized curriculum, that will now no longer be taught, included consent, same-sex relationships and online safety. “The best way parents can prepare to talk openly to their children about sexual health is to educate themselves.” says Hughes. “Listen, engage and create the space for open dialogue.”
Here’s how to get started:
When it comes to consent, Hughes says the earliest we can talk to our children about consent, the better. “Start young and normalize asking for consent,” she says. “Teaching consent can be as simple as teaching your children to ask permission before touching or hugging one of their friends.” Hughes suggests letting your child guide how and in what ways they interact with the people around them.
“Children need to know that they can say “no,” that their voice matters, and that what they want matters,” says Hughes. Talking to our kids about the elements of healthy and unhealthy relationships helps them understand the difference between caring behaviours and exploitative or unhealthy behaviours.
The previous 1998 version of Ontario's Health and Physical Education Curriculum did not include or mention same-sex couples, queer youth, transgender youth or non-binary youth.
“When I was a closeted gay kid growing up in Ontario, I didn’t have the right words to express who I was or how I was feeling,” says Morgan Barnes, a father of four from Ottawa, Ont. “What I was taught in sex ed didn’t address the feelings I had.” He says growing up without access to information on same-sex relationships caused him a great deal of confusion and shame. “The effect lasted decades. I came out when I was 33.”
When it comes to talking to kids about the spectrum of human sexuality, Hughes says, “The key is to not create an ‘us and them’ dynamic. Describe to your children that there are many ways we love, many ways we identify, many varieties of families and couples, and many ways we express our gender.”
The 1998 version curriculum was written and released before smartphones, before Snapchat, Instagram and instant messaging. “This means now more than ever children need to be invited to have open and shame-free conversations about how they interact, engage and share on social media and with their peers,” says Hughes.
The healthiest and most supportive thing we can do for our children is create space for them to be, to learn and to ask questions without fear of judgement or shame, Hughes says.
Teen Health Source in the Greater Toronto Area offers resources and confidential services for teens aged 13 to 19, including trained volunteers who can speak to teens about their questions or concerns on sexual health.
Carly Basian runs My Sex Ed, helping parents navigate the challenges of speaking to their kids about sexual health, development and healthy relationships.
The Native Youth Sexual Health Network (NYSHN) is an organization by and for Indigenous youth for issues on sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice in Canada and the U.S.