Sex Ed Reform to Challenge Social Norms

Can Quebec be as Bold as Ontario in Remaking its Sex Ed Curriculum?

  • Graphic Jennifer Aedy

If you haven’t already looked at Kathleen Wynne’s comprehensive proposal for sex-education reform, I beseech you to do so.

To have such social progress just a province away is refreshing. Although it is attracting harsh criticism, this is an influential and empowering milestone for education in Canada.

At first glance, the ambitious Ontario premier’s proposal may seem bold. The new curriculum will introduce sex-ed to relatively younger age groups than before, but it appropriately reflects the complexities of our current society on the matter. For example, topics such as consent, sexting, sexual orientation, and the relationship of sexuality to the internet/technology will be taught to students at the elementary school level.

This is a significant step forward in education considering these topics are the least talked about, are usually misunderstood and thus create problematic social barriers. The proposal also outlines an explanatory curriculum for high school students covering the customary subjects of sexual activities and STDs in greater detail.

Consent demands more awareness. We’re all accountable for being informed on the deep nuances of consent, as it involves more than “no means no.” It is essential that someone feels loved and desired, certainly not overpowered or uneasy during sexual activity. Consent establishes the appropriate way to behave, even after engaging in sexual activity is mutually agreed upon. Society should educate individuals at a younger age on the layered complexities of consent’s role in sexual activity.

The initiatives to create awareness that already exist have certainly been helpful for us to understand what consent truly necessitates: communication, respect and tacit rules for engagement. I’ll admit, up until recently, I didn’t understand the full extent of the meaning consent bears. We must take responsibility for our and others’ lack of information, correct our outlook if necessary and spread the message. Consent education is a never-ending process—there is always more that I could learn, you could learn, we could learn.

Furthermore, the consequences of sexting are prevalent. We encounter an increasing rate of news stories covering incidents of inappropriate behaviour by young people using their phones in a sexual context. Most of them are not aware or don’t understand the severity of the implications sexting can have. As our society evolves technologically, the interaction between such mediums and sexuality needs to be constantly surveyed and explained.

Moreover, too many of us are unofficially “educated” about sexuality through pornography, which deeply misinforms us about reality. This source of information needs to be counteracted with substantial education reform such as Wynne’s proposal in order to properly inform youth about the true nature of sexuality.

Therefore this reform, which will renew a curriculum dating back to 1998, is not as radical as many have made it out to be. If striving to improve society makes a politician bold, then Quebec’s national assembly embodies mildness when it comes to education. Quebec’s curriculum hasn’t been updated since 2001 for elementary and 2006 for high school. I’m not an education professional, but this certainly seems alarming. Ontario has changed considerably in 17 years, to say nothing of Quebec in the last nine. Perhaps I should give our representatives the benefit of the doubt—it’s difficult to accomplish anything with five education ministers in five years.

My concern is how poorly our curriculum covers sexual education. Aside from introducing the body parts to early elementary students, the word “sexuality” is vaguely thrown into the targeted competencies section for grades 5 and 6. High school introduces the risk of STDs and teaches sexuality further, yet the latter is also vaguely outlined in this curriculum. Quebec needs to properly educate its youth on the matter. If what we learn in school is supposed to inform us about our society and our place within it, then it needs to effectively reflect that society. As it stands, our sex ed program does not.

Quebec should take an equal initiative towards reforming education because it is the source and solution for many of society’s problems. Ontario’s reform extends further than teaching sexuality: it seeks to break down deep-rooted social barriers on gender and sexual orientation. I’m under the impression that a larger extent of our knowledge than we are aware of is crafted by a system of social construction.

Put simply, our respective societies prescribe the norms for our existences. But how truthful and representative are these norms? How much of what we know have we questioned? To what extent are these norms detrimental to the well being of our societies and its individuals? Norms continuously misrepresent, marginalize and harm individuals, notably women, visible minorities and the LGBTQ community. Education, as a driving institution of norms, can be quite damaging if misemployed. Society is only as ignorant as its education dogmatic and its individuals unquestioning.

The philosopher Hilde Lindemann once wrote, “gender is a norm, not a fact,” which had a profound effect on me as I was prompted to question everything I thought I knew about the social institution. I realized that most of my identity, relative to my sex, is a by-product of social construction. How I should behave, how I should dress and what my interests should be amongst other personal characteristics are largely determined by the social conventions of gender. But why? Introspection is crucial to reveal the extent to which we are conditioned by the rigid and rather arbitrary customs of our culture.

The LGBTQ community endures some of the most severe social barriers and too often faces unnecessary challenges. In a previous article, I wrote that any debate on diversity boils down to whether someone’s identity affects you. Another individual’s sexual orientation or the way in which they define their sexuality, gender, sex or identity truly doesn’t. When will society cease constraining individuals into “standardized” boxes that just don’t fit?

We have no will or influence over this until we begin to question the imposed norms that we think define us. Some will sadly never gain such empowering agency unless education teaches us to develop it, instead of how to unknowingly conform to ill-conceived norms.
Let Kathleen Wynne be an inspiration for us to muster the courage to say what needs to be said and continue to break down Quebec’s social barriers.

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