Evaluating Ontario's New Sex-Ed Curriculum


By Scott McClare

Whenever the subject of public-school sex education comes around, you can expect a reaction. Earlier this year, the Ontario Ministry of Education released its Health and Physical Education curriculum, updated for September 2015. It includes units on sexuality as well as healthy living and physical fitness.[1] Critical reaction was swift and often knee-jerk: anonymous letters circulated that outlined the supposed lurid details of the sexual practices to be taught to middle schoolers.[2] When a former deputy minister of education was connected to the curriculum after being convicted of child-related sexual offenses, it only threw fuel on the fire.

Last month, I attended a parents' information night at my church about the new curriculum. It included speakers representing the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, and others. I found the session informative and helpful for separating fact from sensationalism. Though the curriculum applies to elementary and high school, the presenters limited their comments to grades 1 to 8. This article reflects many of their observations as well as my own.

Most of the new curriculum is very good. The majority of its content is straightforward health education, stressing the importance of physical fitness and making healthy choices; sex education comprises only a fraction. The parts that have caused the most controversy are actually example prompts that a teacher could optionally use in a classroom discussion, not mandatory lessons. The curriculum does not encourage early sexuality; rather, it discusses reasons to delay sexual activity. It teaches the importance of clearly communicating consent to sexual activity and saying no to any other unwanted behaviour. Students are taught to recognize bullying or exploitation, and what to do about it. Respect is taught for people who differ, an important lesson in an increasingly multicultural and diverse society.

Arguably, the most significant addition focuses on the safe use of technology. The current curriculum dates from 1998, when everyday technologies such as broadband Internet, smartphones, and social networking were virtually nonexistent. Now the curriculum teaches students about Internet privacy, evaluating unreliable information, the risks of exploitation and cyberbullying, and the dangers of "sexting" (taking and sending inappropriate pictures by cellphone).

Grade by grade, here is what Ontario's Health and Physical Education, 2015 curriculum will teach concerning human development and sexual health:

Grade 1: Names of body parts
Grade 2: Basic stages of human development
Grade 3: Respect for those who are different
Grade 4: Onset of puberty
Grade 5: The reproductive system, emotional and personal issues related to puberty
Grade 6: Physical and emotional changes related to adolescence, building healthy relationships, stereotyping, consent
Grade 7: Delaying sexual activity, preventing STIs and pregnancy
Grade 8: Making healthy sexual decisions, relationships and intimacy, establishing boundaries, consent, contraception, gender identity

All the presenters were chiefly concerned that the sex-ed portions are "too much, too soon." When it comes to sex education, school is still secondary. Parents are children's primary sexual educators, and the lessons they teach and the boundaries they set have an effect on a child's sexual involvement. Children learn at different rates and will have different questions; parents, not teachers, are in the best position to decide what is appropriate for them.

Surprisingly, nothing is said about pornography. Despite a needed focus on the risks of using the Internet, this curriculum is completely silent on its most obvious risk.[3] Some experts estimate that 30% of Internet data traffic consists of porn.[4] Pornography presents an unrealistic portrayal of women's bodies and their willingness to engage in sexual activity. It presents humiliating, deviant, and violent sexuality as normal and desirable. Worst, it is practically unavoidable and freely available to anyone old enough to use a computer or iPhone.

The Ontario Curriculum also makes no mention of marriage as the context for sex. Terms like "wedding" or "marriage" do not occur at all, while "husband" or "wife" are only used as examples of terms to be avoided rather than make assumptions about someone's relationships. "Love" occurs only in the sense of enthusiasm for activities such as reading or team sports. Pregnancy is only a hazard to be avoided as an unintended side effect of sexual intercourse. In other words, the Ministry of Education has no room for the traditional Christian worldview in which pregnancy and children are a natural, desired consequence of a sex act committed out of love by a husband and wife. Teaching students not to make assumptions about people's living arrangements is good, as Canada's sexual ethics have loosened considerably in the decades since I was an elementary-school student. However, a majority of teens still desire marriage, and arguably live in a traditional household. Why ignore this entirely?

Although the curriculum rightly teaches the importance of consent to sexual (and other) behaviour, it says nothing about the legal definition of consent or the legal age of consent. Consenting to sex does not mean that someone is ready for sex or that he or she is in a good relationship. (Ironically, none of the children being taught this material are legally old enough to consent to anything.)

Apart from the necessity of consent, in fact, we have no consensus anymore on sexual ethics in our culture. Thus, the Health and Physical Education curriculum tries to be morally neutral. This assumption of moral neutrality is evident in the teaching of tolerance and respect for others whose lifestyle is different. In one example interaction between a sixth-grade teacher and student, the student says:

Not everyone has a mother and a father—someone might have two mothers or two fathers (or just one parent or a grandparent, a caregiver, or a guardian). We need to make sure that we don't assume that all couples are of the opposite sex, and show this by the words we use. For example, we could use a word like "partner" instead of "husband" or "wife." We need to be inclusive and welcoming.[5]

That is, there is no moral difference between a father and mother, two fathers or mothers, or a single parent, and so we need to be tolerant, in the sense of accepting all kinds of sexual relationships equally. This is a fallacy. Morality cannot be neutral, and sex itself is an intrinsically moral activity. Even its absence is not neutral: try recommending abstinence education and see how some people react! Genuine tolerance does not mean suspending judgment about moral differences. It comes from acknowledging those differences with a fair mind and sound judgment. John Patrick writes:

Neutral values do not exist but we do need the tolerance they would seek to protect to adjudicate the conflicts which arise in our attempts to translate the unchanging but only imperfectly known truth into the working ethics of daily living. . . . Neither is the refusal to accept every opinion as equally valid truly intolerant; rather those who would demand such things are intolerant of logic.[6]

Health and Phsycial Education, 2015 states repeatedly that parents remain their children's primary educational influence. Parents need to be informed about what their kids are being taught in school, which may mean reading the curriculum for themselves rather than relying on secondhand, often sensationalist and inaccurate, information. They can cultivate a relationship with their children's school, especially with teachers, and hopefully a more meaningful one than merely protesting a contentious sex-ed program (for example, by volunteering at unrelated school events). Ask for assurances that advance notice will be given of controversial topics. The clash of authority between teachers and parents can hurt children, as one of my colleagues at Faith Beyond Belief remarked as I was writing this post: "This conflict within my kids has caused them a certain level of discomfort. . . . It has been moderately problematic in their lives. Because the schools are not morally neutral on sexuality, my kids suffer as a result, along with our relationship." Parents have the right to exempt their children from offensive topics that might conflict with what they learn at home. Christians have a voice in the public square, and we should speak up when it comes to policy-making on such a fundamentally moral topic as sexuality.

The church also has a role to play. We need to develop a robust theology of sexuality. Too often, Christian teaching on sex is reduced to rules without an understanding of the rationale behind them. I would suggest starting with a study of God's original intent for sexuality, making human beings male and female (Genesis 2:18-25), Jesus' teaching on divorce, which requires sexual fidelity between husband and wife (Matthew 19:1-12), the significance of marriage as a picture of Christ's relationship with the church (Ephesians 5:22-23), and the practical benefits of marriage, but also singleness and sexual abstinence (1 Corinthians 7). Other biblical passages also provide guidance, but these four are a good starting point for the foundation of Christian sexual ethics.

I am not married and don't have children. However, who says that in six or seven years, I won't have children entering school? I will have to evaluate then whether classroom teaching about sex, from this revision of the curriculum or the next, is conducive to the Christian worldview they will learn at home. We need to think about issues like sexuality calmly when we have the opportunity, so we don't have to react to them emotionally when the situation becomes more urgent.

[1] Canada, Ontario, Ministry of Education, The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education, 2015 (Queen's Printer, 2015). http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/curriculum/elementary/health1to8.pdf.

[2] See, for example, "Fact-checking 10 Claims Made by Parents Against the Ontario Sex-Ed Curriculum," Toronto Star, May 4, 2015, accessed May 6, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2015/05/04/fact-checking-10-claims-made-by-parents-against-the-ontario-sex-ed-curriculum.html.

[3] The corresponding curriculum for secondary schools only mentions pornography once, in passing. Canada, Ontario, Ministry of Education, The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 9-12: Health and Physical Education, 2015 (Queen's Printer, 2015), 102.


[4] For example, see "Porn Sites Get More Visitors Each Month than Netflix, Amazon and Twitter Combined," The Huffington Post, May 4, 2013, accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/03/internet-porn-stats_n_3187682.html.

[5] The Ontario Curriculum, Grades 1-8: Health and Physical Education, 2015, 177.

[6] John Patrick, "The Myth of Moral Neutrality," Christian Medical and Dental Society, accessed May 6, 2015, http://www.cmdscanada.org/my_folders/Documents/MythofMoralNeutrality.pdf.