What's abstinence got to do with it?

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Photo: flickr/rjp

Recently, an article about a sex education program being offered in some Edmonton public schools called Wait! Let’s Talk Sex came across my twitter. The program is a Christian-inspired, abstinence-based program modelled on curricula currently in effect in many parts of the U.S.

My reaction: Wait, let’s talk public education!

Abstinence education in Canada

How is it that abstinence-based sex-ed is being taught to kids in public schools in Canada? 

Oh, of course, the program is being offered in Alberta, part of Canada’s so-called Bible Belt and birthplace of the Reform party. Such a program wouldn't pass muster in Ontario, home of the sex-positive Toronto District School Board. Or would it?

The answer is complicated.

Ontario is in the throes of its own controversy about sex-ed. Its current elementary program, written in 1998, is not overtly abstinence-focussed; neither is the updated version, written in 2010 but as yet unimplemented. In fact, the "Human Development and Sexual health" portion of the revised 2010 Health and Physical Education (H&PE) curriculum was deemed so "radical" in its teachings about sexuality and gender that the McGuinty government capitulated to religious minorities’ demands that it be withdrawn.

The Wynne government has chosen to defer its implementation indefinitely, a decision that has the Ontario Physical and Health Education Association (Ophea) in a lather. The organization recently renewed its campaign calling on the government to release the revised sex-ed component once and for all.

Ophea’s frustration is understandable. After all, the 1998 sex education program, currently in effect across Ontario, is sorely out of date: it was written before widespread internet access, social media, texting and sexting and online bullying.

Ontario parents share Ophea’s frustration; a sizable majority, according to an Environics study, would welcome a health and sex education curriculum that reflects our diverse, Internet-saturated culture.

It's hard to understand why the previous government heeded minority objections to such seemingly innocuous revisions as the introduction of proper names for genitalia in Grade 1 and discussions about gender and sexual orientation starting in Grade 3 among other things.

The "further consultations" promised by education minister Liz Sandals need to be had because when it comes to sex-ed, it turns out that the new curriculum is not as different from the programs being offered in Edmonton as one might think, or hope.

Let's talk about sex baby! Or, wait no...

The 2010 section about adolescent sexuality, like its 1998 predecessor -- and like the Wait! Let’s talk Sex program -- rests on an assumption that abstinence is best.

The 1998 curriculum encouraged seven-graders to "explain the term abstinence as it applies to healthy sexuality" and eight-graders to "explain the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents."

The presence of such an assumption is perhaps somewhat understandable in the 1998 curriculum, given the politically and culturally conservative era. 

South of the border it was the era of purity balls, abstinence pledges and chastity rings. North of the border, newly elected Mike Harris represented a milder, Canadian version of the same cultural zeitgeist. And so the term "abstinence" re-entered the sex-ed lexicon in Ontario.

But how to explain the persistence of this normative, politically freighted term in the province’s "progressive" 2010 H&PE curriculum?

Consider, for instance, one of the new "expectations" for Grade 7:

explain the importance of having a common understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity until one is older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from having oral-genital contact) ...

A suggested "teacher prompt" acknowledges the term’s ambiguity: "[A]bstinence can mean different things to different people. People can also have different understandings of what is meant by ... having sex ..." But in the accompanying student prompt, a presumably ideal student responds:

It’s best to wait until you are older to have sex because you need to be emotionally ready, which includes being able to talk with your partner about how you feel, being prepared to talk about and use protection against STIs or pregnancy ...

The revised human development and sexual health sections contain many such sections about the potential negative consequences of sexual activity. Which is not to imply that they are misplaced: scientifically accurate information about STIs, pregnancy and abortion is clearly an important component of a 21st Century sex-ed program.

However, wouldn’t a progressive program aim for balance in its discussions of the negative and positive aspects of sex? It is true that amidst warnings against unwanted pregnancy and STIs, the 2010 curriculum includes one or two sentences about the pleasure of sex. It is also true that this is an K-8 program, and that the (unreleased) secondary curriculum may take a different approach.

Nonetheless, it is fair to question the appropriateness of the moralistic tone running throughout this introduction to sex education.

It is concerning that 14-year-olds might emerge from such programs with the impression that sex is mainly a dangerous, unfun activity that is best delayed indefinitely. It is concerning that the emphasis on abstinence seems to have usurped any substantive discussion of a far more important concept: consent.

If consent can be accepted as the linchpin of healthy sexuality, especially in a culture of technologically enhanced sexual possibilities (both good and bad), it follows that the concept of consent, not abstinence, should predominate in a contemporary, secular sex-ed curriculum.

Perhaps that is a bigger "if" in Ontario then assumed.

Keep calm, implement and continue to carry on 

It seems Ophea is right to protest the Wynne government's failure to fully implement the 2010 Health and Physical Education curriculum. Despite the program's echoes of abstinence programs such as Wait! Let’s Talk Sex, the curriculum is a far more culturally relevant document than the 1998 version currently in effect. 

Its inclusive approach to gender and sexual orientation, and its acknowledgement of technology’s effect on adolescent sexuality are much-needed improvements. But improved does not mean perfect. 

Cultural understandings of sex and sexuality are fluid and subject to negotiation and change. The 2010 Health and Physical Education curriculum should be implemented in its entirety, but its implementation should be seen as a continuation of the conversation about sex education in Ontario, not the end. 


Katie Lynes is a freelance writer and parent of 14-year-old twin girls. Her work has appeared in This Magazine, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, Utne Reader and a defunct magazine or two. She lives in Toronto, blogs about educational issues at Parenting is Political, and tweets all manner of nonsense as @StepfordTO.

Photo: flickr/rjp

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