Sex-ed curricula can't satisfy everyone, and they shouldn't try, say some experts

As Ontario grapples with its sex education curriculum, any effort to come up with a consensus on what should be taught in schools may very well be a "fool's errand," says a noted researcher on the controversial issue.

"You can't come up with a curriculum that can satisfy everybody. Not even close," said Jonathan Zimmerman, author of Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.  

"It has to serve all the people in a community. And on a subject like sex there's so much difference among members of the community that finding any sort of statements that's in any way consensual or uniting seems to be a fool's errand."

Finding that consensus will only continue to get more difficult because of globalization, said Zimmerman, who is also a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. 

"It just makes it harder for any community to reach a consensual viewpoint on this subject because you have [an] ever wider array of voices," Zimmerman said. "As more and more people come to Ontario from different parts of the world, I think we should expect less consensus about sex and not more."

In Canada, sex education varies province by province. For example, in B.C., Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec, children in kindergarten must know the names of all the body parts. But in New Brunswick, that doesn't apply until Grade 6.

And while sexual orientation is taught in Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia in Grade 3, it's not until Grade 9 that students who live in Newfoundland and Labrador will discuss that topic.

Backlash against Ontario government

Meanwhile, the decision by Ontario Premier Doug Ford to repeal the current sex-ed curriculum continues to spark backlash among some teachers, parents and civil rights organizations.

The government has said it is replacing the current curriculum, brought in by the previous Liberal government, with the 1998 curriculum until consultations are carried out and a new document is created. Some parents and social conservative groups opposed the new Liberal curriculum, complaining the classroom was not the place to address issues such as gender identity, sexual orientation and masturbation.

The decision by Ontario Premier Doug Ford to repeal the current sex-ed curriculum continues to spark backlash among some teachers, parents and civil rights organizations. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

While consent is one of the issues not included in the 1998 curriculum,  Mary Lou Rasmussen, a professor of sociology who specializes in gender, sexuality and education at Australian National University, said that should be a topic where both sides can find common ground.

"I'm not at all blind to the political sensitivities that governments need to negotiate in these areas," Rasmussen said. "Whether you're a conservative government or you're a progressive government, I think that that is a really useful way to have a more expansive curriculum."

Giving young people a "vocabulary around consent" and discussing how to reject unwanted requests is really important, she said. 

Schools should decide

One solution, said Zimmerman, is that the curriculum should be left up to the schools and not mandated by the province. 

"It's a much better solution than an Ontario-wide curriculum," he said. "Even though schools themselves are internally diverse, they are generally not as diverse as a whole province or state."

But Zimmerman also acknowledged that schools are only a part of sex education and probably a very minor part.

"I think the most promising forms of sex ed are the ones that don't necessarily take place in classrooms."

Some parents and social conservative groups opposed the curriculum introduced by the previous Liberal government, complaining the classroom was not the place to address issues such as gender identity, sexual orientation and masturbation. (Jackie Sharkey/CBC)

He pointed to text-messaging services in the U.S. that are often run by state health departments or organizations like Planned Parenthood.

"The way it works is you're in school and your friend says, 'You know, you can't get pregnant the first time, you can't get pregnant when you have your period.' And instead of listening to your friend or asking some other equally uninformed person, you text somebody that actually knows what they're talking about and, lo and behold, they text you back.

"What I just described, that's sex ed. That is 100 per cent sex ed."

Zimmerman said that, historically in Canada and the U.S., the sex ed curriculum mostly focused on the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

"Here's the problem. We've got very slender evidence that it works," he said.

According to his research, there has been little sex education taught in schools across the globe, so it's difficult to determine its effectiveness in those areas. 

"I'm not saying it doesn't work, just saying that the evidence for it working is slender in large part because there's so little of it. That's not to say we shouldn't keep trying."

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