Do you know how I first found out about sex? I was eight years old and a Muslim classmate from Pakistan, who was also eight, told me.
It had nothing to do with her being Muslim or from South Asia. She was just the one who happened to see her neighbours having sex in their backyard.
When I was 11, I got my period for the first time. I told my father and his face flushed red; he quickly left the room, muttering under his breath.
I went to my mother and asked about sex. l could tell she would rather be on the moon than having that conversation with me.
Those parents who think that schools have no role in sexual education and that kids should learn only from their parents must realize three things: first, not all parents are comfortable talking about these matters with their children. Second, not all children feel comfortable asking questions of their parents. And third, your kids will probably learn about sex from the Internet or their friends before they ever hear about it from either you or school.
Not all parents are comfortable talking about these matters with their children.
My father’s approach — saying nothing — did not help me. My mother’s approach, stressing that sex should only happen in marriage and that women must submit to men (her words), did not protect me. I was sexually assaulted when I was 17.
The person who did this was going to university, was from a “good family”, and I was not alone with him — there were other people around.
My mother never prepared me for situations of coercion. After it happened, I didn’t feel I could tell her about it, as her whole approach to the issue was one of sexual morality.
The importance of Ontario’s sex ed curriculum
Perhaps as a result of my experiences, I went on to work in the field of violence against women and children. I have met many adults who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, people from all cultures and walks of life.
The one thing a majority of them have in common is that the abuse was perpetrated by a family member, a family friend or a person in a position of authority, including religious authorities. With almost all of them, they were too ashamed or embarrassed to tell anybody about it at the time or the person had threatened to hurt them or a family member if they told.
The Ontario sex ed curriculum is based on research about what helps to protect kids and teens from sexual abuse and sexual assault. The curriculum aims to teach them that their private parts are indeed private and no one has the right to touch them without permission. If anyone does, the child should tell a trusted adult.
We live in a hyper-sexualized culture.
Parents who think that withdrawing older kids from the curriculum will somehow stop them from going into puberty, developing sexual feelings, and being curious about sexuality will be in for a big surprise. The United States has the fewest sex ed programs and consequently the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world.
We live in a hyper-sexualized culture. Our kids see it on TV, in the movies and on the Internet. Even if you try to shield your kids from the culture around them, they will experience it by speaking with their peers. When school curricula stress that sex isn’t just pleasure, that it comes with responsibility, young people tend to delay sexual activity and are better prepared to protect themselves when they do engage in it.
In Québec, the fact that these matters of human rights and respect are embedded in the sex ed curriculum is so important that parents are not allowed to withdraw their kids from those classes on religious, cultural or any other grounds. However, in Ontario parents may withdraw their kids if they so wish. Many times when they choose to it is a result of confusion over what the curriculum actually says.
Support from the majority
The biggest hurdle for parents who oppose the curriculum is getting it overturned because the majority of Ontario parents support it, including Muslims for Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum. It’s very difficult for parents in some neighbourhoods to imagine, but there are no protests taking place outside most Ontario schools.
The latest poll shows that 49 per cent of Ontarians approve of the revised curriculum, while about a third disapprove (37 per cent). Approval is higher among mothers of kids under 18 (54 per cent) and higher among the most highly educated (60 per cent).
I want my daughter, who is in Grade 6 in an Ontario school, to learn what she needs to know.
Recently, parents on both sides of the issue have been presenting petitions and holding protests. There was also a letter from 144 Ontario health agencies in support of the curriculum, which they confirm is based on solid research.
Canada has a history of supporting human rights, both for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender (LGBT) persons as well as for racial, ethnic and cultural minorities. The health curriculum, of which sex ed is a small part, is an extension of this.
I want my daughter, who is in Grade 6 in an Ontario school, to learn what she needs to know to prepare herself for the modern world, life in Canada and all the challenges she will face. That is why she will be in the classroom learning.
Dr. Marika Morris is an Adjunct Research Professor in the School of Canadian Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa. Her father was Greek from Egypt and an immigrant to Canada, and her mother was Catholic from a fishing village in rural Québec. Dr. Morris grew up in small towns in Québec, in Montréal and outside Canada.