Ontario sex-ed reform: When it comes to sex-ed, ‘yes’ matters

In September, Ontario Grade 1 students will start learning about healthy relationships, consent and a wider curriculum that deals with other issues. In third grade they’ll learn about the concept of same-sex relationships and the next year they will start learning about how to be safe online, as well as how puberty works. In Grade 6, they’ll be taught what masturbation is and about healthy relationships and consent, moving on to the hot-button topics of sexting, STIs, and oral and anal sex in seventh grade.

Under Ontario's new sexual education curriculum, Grade 1 students will learn about issues such as healthy relationships and consent. (Courtesy of Ged Carroll)

Under Ontario’s new sexual education curriculum, Grade 1 students will learn about issues such as healthy relationships and consent. (Courtesy of Ged Carroll)

As Canadian universities face pressure to address sexual assault on campus, the inclusion of the topic of consent in the curriculum is particularly salient. Between Dalhousie dentistry students, mattress protests, and pro-rape frosh chants, Canadian university students are seeing sexual assault and rape culture on campus finally become a national dialogue. They have a right to hope that introducing consent at an early age will create a safer campus for the next generation of students. Ryerson Students’ Union’s vice-president equity, Pascale Diverlus, says she is happy with the reforms. “I think the topic of consent needs to be talked about in every setting, but it’s amazing that we’re starting in classrooms.”

Ontario’s recent sex-ed reforms are a welcome change from the dusty 1998 curriculum. They acknowledge the pervasive role of technology in students’ lives and finally introduces conversations of consent.

Despite the inevitable backlash of some parents who feel that the curriculum introduces kids to sexual information at too young an age, this is ultimately a good step toward normalizing discussions of our bodies and how they smoosh together. These conversations naturally tie in with mutual respect and consent.

A 2012 British Columbia Sex Education manual for elementary school students contains no talk of consent, but instead includes a small section about “refusal techniques,” putting the responsibility of preventing assault on the victim, not the perpetrator.

A 2012 British Columbia Sex Education manual for elementary school students contains no talk of consent, but instead includes a small section about “refusal techniques,” putting the responsibility of preventing assault on the victim, not the perpetrator.

The province claims the reforms bring Ontario students up to speed with the rest of the country, and in many ways this is true, except in discussions on consent. A 2012 British Columbia sex education manual for elementary school students contains no talk of consent, but instead includes a small section about “refusal techniques,” putting the responsibility of preventing assault on the victim, not the perpetrator. The manual encourages students to “Say no and mean it!” and “Use assertive body language that says no.”

Quebec offers schools a guide for implementing a sex education program, which recommends discussions around sexual violence, but the province has no mandatory sex education curriculum. In many provinces, the topic of consent is rolled into a more general discussion of “healthy relationships,” and may not be discussed explicitly.

Discussions of consent should be considered as important as discussions of STIs. More women reported being sexually assaulted in 2011 than all reports of chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis combined. Many STIs can be cured, but the psychological damage of sexual abuse can last a lifetime.

No age is too early to start teaching children to respect each other’s bodies and boundaries. More time and space needs to be given to discussion of consent everywhere, but classrooms are a good place to start.

This is a first step, but there is a lot we still need to do. There needs to be discussions about consent everywhere.

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