While sex educators laud the revised sexual health education curriculum in Ontario as an important step forward, they stop short of touting it as a gold standard – like other sex-ed teachings around the world, it’s playing catch up with material students have been consuming on their screens for well over a decade.

Critics suggest this modern sex ed primarily highlights fear once again. It’s part of a long tradition with school-based education to emphasize the negative: Where we used to mostly worry about teen pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections, we are now concerned about rape culture and cyberbullying.

“There’s a heavy emphasis on preventing problems. That’s good and that’s important,” says Alex McKay, executive director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. “But we hope to see – particularly in the way that teachers present it – that this is within a context that sees human sexuality as a positive, healthy part of life.”

Ontario’s curriculum was last updated in 1998, before the advent of smartphones and social media. The new reforms tackle such issues as online safety and the perils of sexting, as well as affirmative consent. Experts suggest the new guidelines bring Ontario up to speed with many other provinces, if not put it ahead of the game. They commend the current teachings for providing factual, up-to-date and developmentally appropriate information about gender and sexuality that young people can use to make good decisions.

But before September, experts are recommending a better balance between elucidating the risks and teaching that other thorny concept for parents, teachers and administrators – that “sexuality and sexual expression within relationships is a positive part of the human experience,” Mr. McKay said. “As long as that’s being acknowledged throughout the curriculum in a developmentally appropriate way, then students and young people, as they grow into adults, have much more of a sense of being empowered around their sexuality and taking action to promote their own health.”

In British Columbia, “We teach from a sex positive perspective, which includes discussions of pleasure,” insists Kristen Gilbert, director of education for the Vancouver-based sexual health agency Options for Sexual Health. “As an educator you won’t hear me say to students, the only reason why people have sex is to make babies.”

While it doesn’t devote much ink to what precisely constitutes a healthy sexual relationship, the new curriculum does a strong job of dovetailing classroom teachings with conversations meant to happen at home in its new “parent guides,” experts say. Advocates say the public often misunderstands the roles of parents and schools in “having the talk”: One isn’t intended to usurp the other. “The school’s role is to complement what the parents have been communicating around values and behavioural expectations with the factual types of information that in most cases, the parents simply don’t have: biological information, information about sexually transmitted infections, risky behaviours and how to reduce risk,” Mr. McKay said.

As for what else is missing, Ms. Gilbert cites the 2006 Corren court agreement in B.C., which enshrined that all types of families and sexualities would be represented in that province’s curriculum: “That’s something that Ontario could work more toward.” (Same-sex relationships are discussed in Grade 3 and gender identity and orientation in Grades 7 and 8 in the new curriculum.) For his part, Mr. McKay is curious to see how schools will actually teach affirmative consent: “You need to balance ‘no means no’ with ‘yes means yes.’ That is an important part of empowering young people.”

While the new curriculum is intended to help kids critically interpret what they’re seeing on the Internet – sifting through “what’s credible and what’s not” as Mr. McKay puts it – the job of keeping up with technology is an ambitious and daunting undertaking. Online pornography, for instance, is mentioned once in the high school curriculum and omitted from the elementary guidelines altogether.

“In the 20th century, one of the main themes in the history of sex ed has been the effort by schools to try to challenge or alter or fight or somehow advise what the kids are seeing on screens,” says Jonathan Zimmerman, professor of education at New York University and author of the forthcoming book Too Hot to Handle: A Global History of Sex Education.

“Sex ed is always trying to counsel or challenge or control all these scary things that are happening in the mass media, but the kids are already so inured and accustomed to them that the schools are playing catch up and can’t catch up. … I don’t begrudge them for trying, but the screens are so powerful and ubiquitous that schools are always going to be one or two generations behind.”

In his comprehensive research into sex ed around the world, Mr. Zimmerman found one commonality: “Students generally think that sex ed is a joke, everywhere – that it’s behind the times.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Monday, Feb. 23 2015, 9:01 PM EST
Last updated Monday, Feb. 23 2015, 9:03 PM EST