Saskatoon StarPhoenix

The slip­pery slope of sex­ual ed­u­ca­tion


It was a moment of preschool im­petu­os­ity. At a birth­day party re­cently, an ac­quain­tance of my son’s sud­denly took a no­tion to pull down his pants and ad­dress his mem­ber with a friendly, “Hi.” Em­bar­rassed chuck­les en­sued all around, while the young ex­hi­bi­tion­ist was hus­tled off to the side­lines some­where to re­think his party trick.

It’s ironic that, in the fall, this child could en­ter Grade 1 — pre­cisely the de­mo­graphic On­tario ed­u­ca­tors were tar­get­ing for ex­plicit in­struc­tion on gen­i­tal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion (“pe­nis,” “tes­ti­cles,” “vagina,” etc.) un­der a pro­posed sex-ed cur­ricu­lum that thank­fully ap­pears to have been put on ice.

That’s not to say, how­ever, that the pres­sure to move to such a cur­ricu­lum — which also en­vis­aged teach­ing Grade 3 stu­dents about sex­ual ori­en­ta­tion and grades 6 and 7 stu­dents about auto-eroti­cism, vagi­nal lu­bri­ca­tion and anal sex — is ex­clu­sive to On­tario.

In Saskatchew­an, where health ed­u­ca­tion is in the process of be­ing re­formed, Grade 5 stu­dents al­ready learn the “cor­rect ter­mi­nol­ogy” for the re­pro­duc­tive sys­tem and in Grade 6, dis­cuss “stan­dard pre­cau­tions and strate­gies to pre­vent the trans­mis­sion of in­fec­tious dis­eases.”

Should they? “Sex ed­u­ca­tion is al­ways con­tro­ver­sial,” said Dr. David McKe­own, Toronto’s med­i­cal health of­fi­cer. “But kids need clear, un­bi­ased, age-ap­pro­pri­ate in­for­ma­tion and par­ents need the sup­port of­fered by a strong sex­ual health pro­gram in schools.”

Said an­other pro­po­nent: “We don’t have par­ents de­cid­ing whether or when to teach math, so why are we so apolo­getic about this topic?”

You can imag­ine, how­ever, the po­ten­tial for er­ror at the Grade 1 level, for ex­am­ple.

If, say, one child — newly ed­u­cated in sex­ual aware­ness — touched an­other’s pri­vate parts, what should the teacher do? If a stu­dent was un­will­ing to iden­tify him or her­self gen­i­tally, should the teacher as­sist them? If so, could he or she be crim­i­nally li­able?

Sex-ed in high school is one thing. But be­fore chil­dren reach ado­les­cence, they sim­ply aren’t very sex­ual. Sig­mund Freud be­lieved sex­u­al­ity should re­main la­tent un­til about 13. He called the pre-ado­les­cent pe­riod (usu­ally be­tween 10 and 12) one of “rel­a­tive psy­cho­sex­ual calm and un­par­al­leled re­pres­sion of sex­ual de­sires and eroge­nous im­pulses.”

I re­mem­ber, around 11, con­fi­dently declar­ing to a friend that some shorts in a store were “def­i­nitely men’s” be­cause they had (titter, titter) “that pocket.” Turned out that pocket was a change pocket and dis­tinctly off to one side.

My friend still chuck­les about it. But be­ing a bit of a green “tween” hardly scarred me for life.

To date, there are ap­par­ently no ex­ten­sive, peer-re­viewed stud­ies that have found in­struct­ing pre-teens in sex­u­ally ex­plicit ma­te­rial and in­for­ma­tion has any no­table ben­e­fits.

Nor do the sex-ed cour­ses cur­rently on of­fer ap­pear to be do­ing much to im­prove teen self-es­teem, lower rates of sex­u­ally trans­mit­ted dis­eases such as ch­lamy­dia, pro­mote a greater sense of hon­our and re­spect in sex­ual re­la­tions or, for that mat­ter, teach teenagers much about the ex­ploita­tion of women in the porn in­dus­try.

Pro­po­nents of the new On­tario cur­ricu­lum pointed out that in this age of In­ter­net “mis­in­for­ma­tion” — and porn — stu­dents need a com­mon-sense coun­ter­bal­ance. As On­tario Premier Dal­ton McGuinty in­gen­u­ously put it: “We live in an in­for­ma­tion age, (so) why wouldn’t we try to present this in­for­ma­tion in a thought­ful, re­spon­si­ble and open way?”

But again, should that start at age six? And just be­cause sex is so ubiq­ui­tous, is the so­lu­tion to ex­pose chil­dren to more sex-clinic lingo, right down to “vagi­nal lu­bri­ca­tion?”

Come to think of it, why does ev­ery­thing have to be expressed in lan­guage that’s so blunt and ba­nal?

Take this pas­sage, for ex­am­ple, on “gen­der dif­fer­ences” in the up­dated Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, by Dr. Robert Needl­man.

“A lit­tle girl needs ex­tra re­as­sur­ance be­cause it’s nat­u­ral for her to want to have some­thing she can see (in this case, her brother’s pe­nis). It will help her to know that her mother likes be­ing made the way she is. This may also be a good time to ex­plain that girls when they are older can grow ba­bies of their own in­side them and have breasts with which to nurse them. That’s a thrilling idea at three or four.” Hmm. I se­ri­ously doubt that. Why rush na­ture with such ex­plicit in­for­ma­tion? As for sex, surely in­tel­li­gence should be acquired grad­u­ally, with room for some in­no­cence, love­li­ness and mys­tery built in.

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