Ontario’s new sex education curriculum in context

Can teachers reach students before the Internet does?

Illustration: pencil and sharpener

The sex education curriculum in Ontario has attracted criticism from all parts of the political spectrum for years now. This is nothing new and is common throughout the world. In a bold move, applauded by some, derided by others, the Ontario government has finally introduced a new curriculum and is rolling it out for implementation this year. This is the first significant change in the curriculum since 1998 and is arguably long overdue.

At the same time, Jonathan Zimmerman’s new book, Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education, has arrived on the scene. It provides a fascinating history of sex education and a welcome context for the recent debates in Ontario’s long-awaited changes to the sex education curriculum. This article provides a brief review of the new sex education curriculum in Ontario and then draws insights from Professor Zimmerman’s global comparative history.


Ontario’s new sex education curriculum

The new Ontario Curriculum for Health and Physical Education has been most controversial for the topics being introduced in the elementary school years, particularly teaching students the proper names of body parts in Grade 1, teaching students about different family structures (including same-sex parented families) in Grade 3 and teaching students about reproduction and consent in Grades 4-6.

These changes have been made to reflect the fact that students are entering puberty at younger ages than in previous generations: girls are usually entering puberty between the ages of eight and 13 years old and boys between the ages of nine and 14 years old. The changes also reflect the Ministry of Education’s view that students need information and skills to make sound decisions before they face a situation.

In light of the fact that 22 per cent of Ontario students in Grades 9 and 10 report having had sexual intercourse, the curriculum on delaying sexual activity, providing information on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and “pregnancy prevention” (as it is called in the Ministry’s Parents Guide)* will be taught beginning in Grade 7. Students will be expected to understand self concept, gender identity and sexual orientation, and to consider decision-making around sexual activity, contraception and intimacy in relationships in Grade 8.

Less public attention has been paid to the secondary school curriculum, which has expanded its focus on healthy sexuality and on healthy relationships, and away from the whats and hows of human sexuality. For Grade 9, the curriculum focus is on understanding how to prevent pregnancy and STIs as well as understanding factors affecting gender identity and sexual orientation. Students will also be taught about skills and strategies for healthy relationships and thinking ahead about sexual health, consent and personal limits.

The Grade 10 curriculum focuses on decision-making, communication and healthy sexuality, the effects of sexuality on oneself and others, and misconceptions relating to sexuality, including the assumptions of heterosexism.

In Grade 11, the curriculum places a central focus on mental health, including understanding the causes, manifestations and effects of addictions and mental illness, reducing the stigma of mental illness and skills for dealing with stressful situations. The curriculum also focuses on proactive health measures for reproductive and sexual health, including regular tests and screening, local health clinics and other resources.

Grade 12 students will be prompted to understand skills and strategies for evolving relationships and maintaining health and well-being when independent. Students will also be expected to consider bias and stereotyping in media portrayals of relationships.


The curriculum in a global and historical context

In Too Hot to Handle, Jonathan Zimmerman reviews sex education around the globe through the 20th century, from early social hygiene curricula focused on venereal diseases to Soviet and Nazi prohibitions on any sex education to the Swedish focus on a healthy sexual life. His history provides information that is unexpected (“Some of the most sexually explicit instruction occurred in Iran, where curricula emphasized ‘the consent and readiness of the woman’ and ‘the enjoyment of each partner.’”), while placing the more familiar 1990s culture wars in their historical context.

Professor Zimmerman reviews the 20th century as the century of sex, but also the century of the school. He places global sex education in the context of the general shift of learning from the home to the school.

Professor Zimmerman describes many of the pitfalls of sex education in the 20th century, particularly unclear curricula and curricula that place discretion with respect to sex education at the level of individual schools and teachers. He references the experiences of teachers in Sweden faced with parent complaints on both sides: from parents

who object to the traditionalist family-and-marriage message as well as parents who don’t wish their children exposed to any detailed information about sex. In the absence of clear curricular requirements, many teachers in Sweden in the 1970s minimized sex education. In Ghana, where classrooms in the 1970s were packed full of students and often presided over by teachers will little more training and preparation than their students, any mention of sex in the classroom jeopardized teachers’ control over the classroom. In many countries, female teachers faced intrusive questions about their own sexuality when teaching sex education. Professor Zimmerman notes that teachers have been both an obstacle to curricular implementation and the “footsoldier on the firing line of sex education.”

Although Too Hot to Handle is focused on schools and curricula, Professor Zimmerman concludes that magazines, films, television and the Internet have been the real leaders of the 20th century in educating children about sex. He gives serious consideration to the limits of sex education. He quotes Scott Thomson, a U.S. educator who said presciently in 1981 that “a few chapters of a textbook on marriage and family cannot really compete with Hustler, Oui and Playboy…. Even more absurd…is the expectation that any significant outcomes will come from that instruction.” While there is no credible evidence that sex education makes young people more likely to engage in sex, “scholars around the world have struggled in vain to show any significant influence of sex education upon youth or sex education on youth sexual behaviour,” including rates of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.

From his global review of sex education, Professor Zimmerman concludes that schools in the 20th century continuously played catch-up. In the century of the school, students learned more from their peers and the media than from their teachers, parents or other authority figures. In a century where schools became increasingly sexualized spaces, for the most part, schools taught students what they already knew about sex.


Where does Ontario’s new curriculum fit?

Ontario’s new curriculum seeks to upend this trend of teaching students what they already know. The curriculum is expressly designed to provide information to students before they face a situation. It seeks to be the educator of students before they learn about sex from the media and from their peers. Despite this novel goal, the approach

of Ontario’s new curriculum fits squarely within the predominant model of 20th-century sex education: it seeks to provide students with information to guide them in making their own decisions about a healthy sexual life. As Professor Zimmerman argues, it is this idea that continues to give rise to controversy between those who see sexuality as essentially personal and others who believe in the value of religious and social norms and roles. Controversial or not, in the age of Internet expertise, where information and disinformation are both readily available to virtually all ages, it is possible that even this new curriculum will still be putting schools and teachers in the position of playing catch-up.

Perhaps a better description of the dynamic at work in sex education is not that schools are playing catch-up but that schools are making sure the best information is reinforced through the curriculum. That may not always be cutting edge but in the long run it is healthy. Providing students with the best information is a legitimate and desirable goal for any educational curriculum.


Karen Ensslen is an associate at Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP, practicing in labour, human rights, professional discipline, administrative law, and pension and benefits. Susan Ursel is a senior partner at Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP, with an extensive background in human rights and Charter litigation, including issues of sexuality and gender expression in schools.

* Ministry of Education, A Parent’s Guide: Human Development and Sexual Health in the Health and Physical Education Curriculum, online at www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/HPEgrades7to12.pdf.

About Karen Ensslen
Karen Ensslen is an associate at Ursel Phillips Fellows Hopkinson LLP, practicing in labour, human rights, professional discipline, administrative law, and pension and benefits.

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  1. Great image for our recent Sex Ed article! – CEPA – Canadian Educational Press Association

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