The backlash against Ontario's new health curriculum has left many people confused. Is it radical? Whose interests does it serve? Are fundamental parental and religious rights being undermined? Where and how should children of varying ages learn about their bodies?
All parents want to protect their children, but opponents of sex education are inadvertently doing the opposite. Denying children accurate and inclusive information about their bodies, human relationships and sexuality is not protective; it is irresponsible. Without such information, children are unable to care for themselves and grow into healthy and responsible adults.
Puberty, no picnic at the best of times, becomes a terrifying and lonely ordeal. Young women, unaware of their fertility and often ashamed or confused about their sexuality, are particularly vulnerable. This is just one reason why the World Health Organization and many local organizations, including Health Canada and The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada, regard comprehensive sexual health education as a human right.
"What about my rights?!" the protesters retort. There are two kinds of important rights here -- parental rights and religious rights -- and neither are being infringed.
Let's start with parental rights. Ordinarily, parents, and not the state, have final authority over their children, including the right to make choices about children's moral education and cultural identities. But the right does not extend to parental micromanagement of the public education curriculum. Indeed, sex education is practically the only area of the curriculum in which any consultation is even expected. When is the last time parents complained about not being consulted on the new math curriculum? That Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne did not personally consult every parent in the province does not mean that there was inadequate consultation. In fact, 4,000 heads of parent councils were involved in the development of the curriculum.
Besides, consultation is not the same as veto. Curricular matters ought to be determined by education and policy experts, who in turn learn from experiences in other jurisdictions (Ontario is the last province to update its sex ed curriculum). Parents who may have no education themselves about adolescent sexual behaviour, gender diversity, safer sex practices, or effective pedagogy are fuming that their children's education has been designed by those who do.
It seems protesting parents prefer the alternative: that their children learn about their bodies during Frosh Week, on their wedding night, or not at all.
"The curriculum promotes masturbation!" some opine, as though it would never occur to children to touch themselves unless a teacher mentioned it, and as though children should learn to be ashamed of it anyway. "Pre-marital sex is a sin! Preach abstinence!" some may say, clearly oblivious to the positive correlation between abstinence education and teen pregnancy. "There are only two genders!" others proclaim, as though saying it makes it so. ("But we're not homophobic!" they add in the same breath.)
The protesters need to do their homework. Sex education does not expedite (and may in fact delay) sexual activity and LGBTQ students and families exist, protected by Canadian law regardless of anyone's metaphysics. Neither silence nor moralizing prevent kids from being queer -- they just torment the ones who are.
Parents make most decisions about their own children, but education is a collective enterprise. Our children are all in this together. Sexuality is a matter of public health, sort of like that other controversial topic, immunization. It works better when everyone signs up. If you opt out your own child citing "parental rights," everyone is vulnerable. "My child, my choice" only goes so far.
Religious rights have also been invoked. Some claim that children's religious education will be sabotaged by the curriculum's relatively matter-of-fact discussion of sex. Freedom of religion is properly upheld as a fundamental Canadian value, but it has never entailed being protected from hearing any contradictory viewpoints. Ours is one of the most pluralistic societies in history. This is why sex education focuses on the birds and the bees without stigma or sanctimony, and leaves it to parents to attend to their children's spiritual lives.
In fact, except for suggesting that sex should be consensual and advising teenagers against posting naked pictures of themselves on Instagram, the curriculum is agnostic on questions of sexual morality. And if what remains is offensive to some, then it is an offence that forestalls a much larger one. We live in a liberal democracy, not a theocracy, as the protesters' energetic exercise of their right to dissent reminds us.
Unfortunately, some protesters have been disseminating misrepresentations about the content of the curriculum, making a mockery of the government's good-faith efforts to provide accurate and accessible information in many languages. They grossly exaggerate the prevalence of explicit instruction about sex and insinuate a gay conspiracy to recruit their children. Productive civil debate does not arise from fear-mongering and fallacies.
Further, withholding students from school as a means of protest is ironically miseducative. It uses children as pawns in a feud over how to avoid using children as pawns. It denies them not only sex education, but also every other subject, so long as their parents are on the street shouting about precisely the offensive content from which they hope to protect their kids. And what better way is there to ignite adolescents' curiosity than to make it apparent that their parents want them to remain ignorant? The parents do protest too much.
With some classrooms half-empty, the radical response to the curriculum is drawing all students into the fray, communicating that education is only about imbibing what your parents believe, and since different families believe different things, students must be fractured into ideological silos. The promise of public education is lost when parents insist on their own doctrines over a commitment to shared principles.
Education is supposed to prepare children for a world in which their parents cannot, despite their best intentions, always protect them. The outcry against Wynne's sex education curriculum is an outcry against education itself, and our children will pay for it.
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