Cathy Coote remembers the sex talk she received from her parents as “very awkward.” She wants to approach it differently and more openly with her own children, with ongoing discourse as questions arise.
“I want my children to feel that they can come to me about anything, and I mean anything and know that I will listen and try to help them as best I can.”
And Coote, 43, who works for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, supports the revised Ontario health and physical education curriculum that will reach students this fall. She wants her children to “have the knowledge to make informed decisions.”
This marks the first time in almost 20 years that students will receive updated information about consent, sexual orientation, gender identity, and safe use of technology. The provincial government attempted to implement a new curriculum in 2010, but backed down when faced with criticism.
This updated curriculum has also met with some disapproval. In February, a protest at Queen’s Park in Toronto attracted hundreds.
According to Johanne Brownrigg, a mother of five and Campaign Life Coalition lobbyist, concerns include parental rights and religious and cultural sensitivities being ignored, age-inappropriate content and the government overstepping its authority.
“CLC’s position is that the curriculum disrespects child development and what is appropriate to learn at what age. It introduces concepts that will be confusing to many children, who frankly, aren’t curious about such things at younger ages,” she said. But there are students who feel passionately that the curriculum should reflect reality and the range of sexual issues today’s youth face.
Toronto Grade 8 students Tessa Hill and Lia Valente created We Give Consent, a campaign to include consent in the curriculum.
After gathering over 40,000 signatures and meeting with Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne, the teens declared victory when consent was incorporated into the revised curriculum.
“The outcomes we’re seeing are exactly what we were hoping for,” said Valente.
Hill added that parents are supposed to teach their kids about sex, but not all have had proper education, and many find it hard to discuss.
“The right way to teach sex ed is to talk openly about sex, in a positive way, and let kids and teens ask questions,” she said. “The important thing to keep in mind is that when we focus on the fear of having sex, i.e., abstinence and STIs, [is that] it doesn’t scare kids away from having sex.
“Parents and teachers need to teach about sex ed by talking about pleasure, desire, and consent.” Lyba Spring, a former sexual health educator for Toronto Public Health, strongly favours the new curriculum.
“It was high time the revised curriculum was put in place,” said Spring. “The revisions, especially the recent additions regarding the Internet and consent, are very welcome.”
But Spring is concerned about one element. “The language does not go far enough when it comes to inclusion … it is one thing to discuss diverse genders and orientations in terms of acceptance; it is quite another to use the language of sexual activity that speaks to all students.”
Mike Reynolds, a Canadian dad blogger and founder of puzzlingposts.com, has publicly supported the updates and said children have a right to learn about the issues.
“It seems straightforward that children would know that everyone is different, but everyone deserves the same respect.”
Erin Leigh, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women, which developed a guide for parents on talking to children about sex, relationships and consent called kNOw More, said she is “very happy.”
“The new curriculum means that kids will come home with more questions,” said Leigh, adding that parents should build an open and trusting foundation by having regular, ongoing discussions, rather than one talk.
And despite her Catholic upbringing, with sex talk taboo at school and home, an Ottawa lawyer who didn’t want to be named said no one should be shielded from the new curriculum.
“Everyone needs to know these things, regardless of religion or belief. We are all human and therefore sexual beings.
“We need our kids to learn about cyber safety, consent, and the acceptance of all people and all loving relationships.
Information leads to enlightenment, and helps us to make informed choices – we should not be fearful of that.”
Photo: depositphotos.com © michaeljung