In May, as temperatures across the province rose to a delightful +28c and Ottawa’s first tulips began to bloom, tempers flared and arguments ignited online over Ontario’s new comprehensive sexual education curriculum. I saw the ridiculous signs in the photos (here), read the articles and comments (here and here), followed the #supportsexed feed on Twitter (here), and talked to friends privately and on Facebook. Today, I feel compelled to speak out further, because the issue is just so freaking important.
Sir Francis Bacon said it first, but most of us have heard and made use of the expression, “Knowledge is power.” For some, like me, this concept hits closer to home than for others. As a woman who has returned to get a formal education after decades spent struggling against a legacy of pain and trauma left in the wake of childhood sexual abuse, date rape at 17, and several instances of domestic violence, I can say with absolute confidence that knowledge—learning—has changed the entire trajectory of my life. It has enabled me to evolve and expand my mind and my worldview, articulate my thoughts, and piece together my place in the workings of the universe. I have finally found my voice.
As parents, our job involves preparing our kids for life as it is, not as we may wish it to be. It is our duty to encourage each one to find their own voice, independent of us, and authentic. We are the co-educators of our children, not their sole instructors, hence the familiar expression, “It takes a village to raise a child.” While it is our responsibility to keep an open dialogue about everything they are dealing with, discovering, or seeking to explore, it is not our job to teach them every single thing they need to know. In fact, it simply is not possible. I often say parenting is an ongoing conversation that begins the day you first gaze at one another and never ends. But it should not be the only conversation.
Sexual education is a vital aspect of a well-rounded education.
Every day, we send our kids to school to learn from trusted teachers and educators who provide a considerable amount of the information they will need in order to thrive as healthy adults and contributing members of society. Some might argue, a vast majority of what children learn is gleaned at school, whether in a classroom or on the playground. We trust educators to teach our youth, not only how to read and write, add and subtract, but also how to gather information, think critically, and apply the skills they have learned to their everyday lives. At school, kids learn about themselves, their bodies, each other, and the world we live in. A world they will inherit sooner than we want to believe.
Human sexuality is one of the most complex aspects of life. Even for adults, it is a complicated, messy, difficult to navigate journey, rife with challenges, obstacles, and quite frankly, perils. Any assistance and information that can be utilized to make it less complicated, less confusing, less traumatic, less dangerous ought to be provided. Human bodies and their functions are not dirty little secrets. It does not make sense to restrict children’s access to information that could save or, at the very least, improve their lives in the future.
Not all parents are created equal.
Some kids go home to a cozy house full of creature comforts and a loving family, whatever form that takes, a warm dinner that fills their small bellies and hearts, and a goodnight kiss. Others do not. Some children leave school for an empty house, or a violent one, where nobody pays much attention or even gives a damn about what they need, want, think, or feel. There are countless variations. Sadly, for some kids, the new curriculum will be the only real sex education they receive. Yet, all of them will one day grow up and be adults living in the world together, God-willing. As both a mom and a survivor, it matters deeply to me that every single one develops a healthy understanding of human sexuality and consent, in order to avoid the perpetuation of sexual assault and rape culture for future generations.
And please do not forget about the LGBT youth, who often face being ostracized, bullied and/or rejected, among other things, not only by their peers and other members of the community, but also by their own families. Homophobic and transphobic parents can raise LGBT children, and those kids need to be informed as much as anyone else. In addition, higher rates of teen suicide within these groups evidence the relentless struggle such youth contend with, and the lack of available information, social support networks, acceptance, understanding and empathy they receive. Equal representation is vital in an equal society. It hardly seems fair to further disadvantage kids who have already been disadvantaged.
It may also be worth noting that, despite a parent’s best intentions, there are times when it may be more comfortable for a child to sit in a classroom full of other kids, giggling and twittering behind the teacher’s back while absorbing the information, than to sit through an awkward conversation with Mom or Dad. I know, it sucks, but better they hear it from Mr. B. than from a buddy in the schoolyard. Right?
Knowledge is power.
An intelligent and well-rounded individual typically collects information from multiple sources versus one singular—often subjective—source. Yes, parents should be encouraged to maintain an open dialogue with their kids about matters related to sexuality and sexual health, in the same manner parents should be aware of everything their kids are learning in (and outside of) school, discussing subjects which have captured their interest or posed a challenge. But they should not be gatekeepers to facts that can save lives. Like it or not, between social media and the internet, tv and movies, music and magazines, children already have access to a world of information at their fingertips. As parents, we have to remember that we may not always be able to be the first one to introduce a subject to our child, but even so, we can do our best to be sure that the information they receive is derived from a reliable source, and then build upon scaffolding already set in place.
All children, as human beings, should have the right and freedom to access an equal education with non-stigmatizing information, based on contemporary science and solid evidence supported by child development professionals, regardless of parental belief systems, biases, or prejudices.
Denial of reality is a defense mechanism, not successful child-rearing practice, and pretending things do not happen will not make them not happen. Studies have shown that sexual education can delay the onset of sexual activity, reduce the frequency and number of partners, and increase contraceptive use, as well as reduce the risk of HIV/AIDS, STI’s, unwanted teen pregnancy, and other unhealthy, negative sexual health outcomes. In addition, there is evidence to support the idea that a comprehensive sexual education program can be a valuable weapon in the fight against sexual violence, as it empowers kids to set boundaries and victims to speak out, rather than hide in fear of being shamed or blamed. In this era of violence against women and children, that can only be a good thing.
Get the facts.
If you have concerns, I urge you make an appointment to discuss the new curriculum with your child’s principal, teachers, and formal educators. Ask questions. Be informed. Talk frankly and openly with the goal of achieving the best possible outcome for everyone. Do not be afraid to feel uncomfortable, as discomfort is often a sign of movement and growth, and remain open. Allow empathy—the superpower that is going to change the world—to move throughout your body. Human sexuality, and other issues surrounding sexual orientation and gender identification, may seem complicated and unfamiliar at first, but refuse to allow your discomfort to cloud your ability to reason or to love. Look for the common ground.
Read some books, do some research, and build up your own knowledge-base, so you can provide honest, accurate, non-threatening answers to your children when they come home full of questions themselves. There are countless agencies and organizations available to inform and advise you. And remember, sexual education does not involve an encouraging How-To-Do-It class which details explicit positions, nor does it have anything to do with child abuse, as several opponents of the program have naively suggested (unless you are speaking specifically of prevention).
You can find up-to-date, accurate info about Ontario’s new sex education curriculum (here).
Friends, the days of fear, guilt, pain and shame over our bodies are coming to an end.
These strong, beautiful, life-giving, life-living, life-loving instruments that carry us throughout all the days of our lives deserve to be cherished, respected and valued, and the best way we have found to do that is through shared knowledge. For far too long, the standard for sexual education has been centered on middle-class, cis-gendered, heteronormative individuals who come from traditional, patriarchal, nuclear families. Large segments of the population have been excluded or underrepresented. Now that we are aware of so many wonderful variations, among individuals and within the family unit, it only makes sense to include everyone, so every child knows that he or she or they has a solid place to stand in this world.
Despite all the subjective scripture that gets tossed around, it’s important to remember that the original definition of sin has to do with the crimes one commits against oneself. As far as I am concerned, one of the greatest errors we have made has been to feel ashamed of ourselves, who we are, what we look like, who we love, how we choose to express ourselves. We break our own hearts, sell ourselves short and essentially kill ourselves, all in the name of being ‘normal’ and accepted. Everyone gets hurt. But, as far as I can tell in my 39 years on this planet, nothing and no one is normal. And that is okay. Maybe it means we are already perfectly acceptable as we are. And, perhaps, love and acceptance are our best chance at survival.
Grey areas exist in life, not everything is black or white, and many aspects of our identities fall along a spectrum rather than at one end or the other. We have to stop teaching and believing in dichotomies and polarities. Duality is an illusion. We are not binary beings, either/or, one thing or another, and we never have been. We are multi-faceted and intersectional, each and every one of us, by way of our identity (gender, sexual orientation, race, class, age, religious beliefs). None of us is only one thing, yet within all the things that we are, we can find multiple connections to others. And, after all, isn’t connection exactly what we have been looking for?
In the end, it is our responsibility to leave a better world for our children than the one we inherited, and education is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal, so let’s use it.
(Note: In my haste to complete this piece, I may have overlooked a point or two, so feel free to leave comments. But please be kind for the sake of other readers. Thank you.)
*This post first appeared on Living the Dream blog*