Sunday, July 29, 2018

Sex Ed: Private Lessons

Four weeks into the Ford government in Ontario, it's been hard to read precise meaning into official pronouncements on the Education file.

Perhaps because very little thought has been put into them.

In the space of two weeks, Education Minister Lisa Thompson appeared to walk back a repeal of the Human Development and Sexual Health curriculum, saying that consent and "gender appreciation" will be taught; although  the latter is not in the curriculum. She also reassured reporters that the Ministry will be looking carefully at a section on "developing sexual relations," which also doesn't exist. Thompson's parliamentary colleague Lisa McLeod fielded questions in the House, prompting more confusion while the Education Minister was out of town. Deciding to do her own stunts, Minister Thompson faced the media for the first time in days with the assurance that students would be taught according to a 2014 curriculum -- which also does not exist.


Deputy Premier and former Tory leadership contender Christine Elliot attempted a rescue mission: "The requirement is that the [1998] curriculum be followed but, of course, there’s lots of student questions that come to teachers every day and, of course, a teacher is able to have a private discussion with a student to answer their questions."

This, of course, is all kinds of wrong. Teachers and union leaders have spoken out against this proposed practice. There have been calls to the Ontario College of Teachers for a response:

 
Silver lining: Mark this down as the only moment in eight years when Ontarians opposed to the curriculum and those in favour found common ground.
As absurd as the Deputy Premier's proposition sounds, it underscores how critically misunderstood the curriculum is, and why it is so important that we teach it to all students.

Let's Talk About Consent

Perhaps the most under-discussed item in the 2015 curriculum is that of consent. In the era of #MeToo, we are in the midst of a rethinking of relationships in every aspect of life, including schooling, and it's a been very public conversation -- which is why it may be working. Interestingly, the topic of consent in the Ontario health curriculum was brought to the fore by two young women, middle-schoolers Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, who produced the 2015 film Allegedly: Rape Culture in our Society as a school project.


While others were protesting the impending release of the 2015 curriculum, Lia and Tessa organized a petition in support of it, which garnered over 40,000 signatures, as well as an assurance from then-Premier Kathleen Wynne that consent would be part of the curriculum. The announcement gave Charles McVety of Canada Christian College, a new talking point -- that young children were being taught to consent to sexual advances of adults. Quoted in an article by the Toronto Sun's Joe Warmington, Mr McVety had this to say: 

“We abhor the premier announcing that Ontario’s teachers will be forced to teach little children how to give permission for that child to engage in sex” and “I don’t think it is legal to advise a child before the age of 16 on how to give sexual consent.
“To do so would be aiding and abetting a criminal activity, a child under 16 having sex.”
Of course, Mr McVety is talking nonsense. Consent, as taught to primary students, is very different from what is taught to students in intermediate grades, or secondary grades. However, if we do not teach children at a very young age that they have the right to enforce their own boundaries and the responsibility to respect other people's, we lack the foundations for later discussions, which can include sexual consent. It's not a conversation that should be delayed, or hidden from view.

Which brings us to a recent student-led protest in defense of the curriculum, March for our Education -- SAVE SEX ED, T&R. Co-organizer Rayne Fisher-Quann delivered an open letter to Premier Doug Ford:

My sister needed that curriculum when kids spent two years bullying her for her sexuality. They grew up thinking that being gay was wrong, and our school board never taught them otherwise.

I can’t even count the number of non-binary and trans friends who needed that curriculum so they could have given a name to what they were feeling so much earlier - so that they wouldn’t have felt alone and confused and scared for so many years of their lives.

You know who else needed that curriculum? The two hundred and seventy-five thousand Ontarian teenagers who were cyber-bullied in 2015. How could a curriculum created before MySpace possibly teach them anything they needed to know about the Internet?

I can go through my blocked list on instagram and show you exactly 284 boys who needed that curriculum to teach them the meaning of the word “no”. If that’s not enough for you, follow me down the street for an hour, and I’ll show you about 10 more. The first time I was sexually harassed by a classmate was in grade seven, and if you’d asked 12 year old Rayne what she thought, I’m sure she would have wished we’d learned about consent a little bit earlier, too.




So now we return to the Deputy Premier's preposterous idea that discussions that exceed the boundaries of the 1998 curriculum should be held in private. Not only is stigmatizing for students and risky for teachers; it prevents other students from hearing what needs to be said aloud. Imagine a classroom space in which young women like Rayne can share their truth. Where others can listen and relate, perhaps sharing their own stories. Where other still can re-examine their own behaviours and relationships.

What Ms Elliot, Ms Thompson, Mr Ford and others need to understand is that the outsourcing of consent solely to parental discussion at home, or private conferencing at school, means that many children who need to hear the stories of Rayne and her friends never will.



 

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