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Students speak up about the new Ontario sex education curriculum

The new sex education curriculum was rolled out by the Ontario’s Ministry of Education touting the most up-to-date curriculum for students in grades one through eight. However, some parents and critics are wary of what the new curriculum means.

In the new sex-education curriculum, teachers are given latitude in how they cover topics, but many concepts and terms are suggested such as: learning proper names of body parts (grade one), learning about puberty (grade four), discussing sex, gender identity and sexual orientation (grade five), consent and abstinence (grade seven) and STIs and contraception (grade eight).

You would think the news would be met with celebration; however, parents across the province lost their collective minds for various reasons, mostly due in part to ignorance about what the new program entailed and how it would be discussed and covered with children. But as parents were freaking out, did anyone stop to think about how students felt?

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I had the chance to chat with Lia and Tessa, two grade eight girls from Toronto who created We Give Consent, an awareness campaign aimed at having the concept of affirmative consent included in the province’s new sex-education curriculum.

So why are people so angry about the new Ontario curriculum? To Lia, it seems a little crazy that people have such a strong opposition to the new curriculum, but she believes the reaction comes out of fear. “Parents and teachers are uncomfortable having open conversations about sex and body parts because they may have never learned it themselves and are not aware of the media and information that children have access to nowadays,” she says. Kids are asking all kinds of questions about their bodies, gender, about what they see out there in the world and when they don’t have these frank, open and honest discussions at home or at school, they turn to the internet. Lia tells me, “Although they may not be in a sexual relationship, having the tools provided to them to develop healthy ones in the future is extremely important when a lot of the images they’re seeing may not be healthy portrayals of relationships.”

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For most students, the current curriculum is minimal at best, especially with so much of the 1998 sex-education curriculum being fear and shame based. Lia believes, “The ideas behind shaming young people for their sexuality or gender and sexual orientation all come from a narrow-minded idea that having any discussions about these things at all are bad and wrong. If kids and youth are taught to accept their own bodies and other’s decisions, then they will grow up in a culture free of shame and judgement.”

Tessa adds, “There is definitely a lack of important information about sex in the current curriculum, and in my personal experience (and through talking to others we know), it fails to provide help and guidance for young people.”

Some parents have also taken issue with portions of the new curriculum that deal with the issue of consent, particularly when it comes to what consent means and what exactly the school board plans to teach 6-year-olds around this issue. Is sexual consent even relevant to them at this age? Tessa explains, “Talking about consent in the young grades mean talking about every person’s right to say yes and no, and to just generally pay attention to the body language and emotions of the people around you. A lot of it really revolves around empathy, and being mindful of the people around you.” However, when the dialogue begins early enough about the transfer of consent, it is believed that as students grow older, they will have an easier time wrapping their heads around consent moving forward in their sexual and romantic relationships, and in turn this can help prevent sexual violence and abuse.

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Of course having frank, age-appropriate conversations about body parts and sexuality should help combat the shame that most kids and youth feel. When children and youth are taught about the positive balance in sexual health, they in turn will feel empowered. Tessa shares, “I know that some of the opposition is rooted in homophobia and sexism, but so many parents just don’t understand why the updated curriculum is so important. That’s a problem. It’s so great that the government has stood their ground on the issue, but I think that they have to take action to educate parents.”

Overall, the Ontario government is working very hard to create a culture of safe spaces within the education system, where kids and teenagers can feel free to ask questions free of judgement and build awareness of themselves and their bodies. And as Tessa and Lia have shown, the new sex education curriculum fills in a lot of gaps, showing why this update was necessary.

What do you think of the new curriculum?

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