There is nothing wrong in saying sorry & why sex education must be a necessary part of the curriculum in schools

For about two days, Ontario Progressive Conservative (PC) leader MPP Patrick Brown was criticized publicly and by some Liberal Party members about his letter sent to the constituents of the Scarborough-Rouge River. The said ward will have a by-election this Thursday, 01 September. In the letter that Brown sent to the constituents of this ward, it was mentioned that if the PC will be elected as the majority government in 2018 provincial elections, and if he be elected the Premier of Ontario, “he would scrap the controversial sex education curriculum”. You can read the initial news story here.

To give a historical and contextual background, this new Ontario sex education curriculum, which is part of the Health and Physical Education subjects in the school system, was the flagship of the Liberal government, particularly Premier Kathleen Wynne, in order to empower students of this generation about the concepts of sex, sexual activities, sexual preference, sexual identities and the respect for the diversity of these beyond the heternormative, among many others. The introduction of the curriculum was made controversial in 2015, when many parents felt that there was no proper consultation, especially with regard to cultural and religious sensitivities, when the “generic” sex education curriculum was prepared and implemented (or at that time, about to be). In ensuring that all students have access to knowledge and information about the salient things that this curriculum raises, all students regardless of social and cultural backgrounds are given such access, and for some parents and families, this is very dangerous. Parents boycotted this program with many children and students being out of the classroom for almost a month. You may read the story here. The main contention is that young students are not prepared for this generally accessible sex education curriculum that has no regard to one’s cultural, religious or cultural identity.

The general outrage was from religious groups who feel that there was no proper consultation among parents when the province and Ministry of Education decided on the sex education curriculum. Others, like the Catholic schools have tried to come up with programs specific to their own faith and somewhat sculpted a “new sex education curriculum” to align with their faith, called the Family Life Education Program.

Since the introduction of the sex education curriculum has been the flagship of Wynne’s government, it was heavily donned with political criticisms, with any question or challenge against the process of implementation and delivery of this curriculum as having a political slant. This made Brown’s initial letter controversial as it may have manifested that he is against the curriculum because it was the Liberal party who pursued it. However, two days later, Brown apologized and said that it was a mistake for the letter to have come out as it was not a true representation of his belief and that of his party. You may read the story here.

What can we learn from Brown’s apology? First, I thought it was a humble apology, owing to the fact that whatever will happen after the apology, i.e. maybe losing the election seat for the Scarborough-Rouge River by-election come Thursday, Brown still apologized because he made a mistake. What we can learn from Brown’s apology is that politicians still have this hope for rectification and admission of wrong claims, regardless of the outcome. I am not affiliated with any political party, but I thought Brown’s apology was humble and sincere.

Now on what made the claim “scrapping the sex education curriculum” provocative and debated, is another issue. As for the most parts of 2015, parents and families claimed that there was no proper consultation with them when this new curriculum was crafted. They were largely ignored to be important part of the process, as stakeholders and as significant adults in the lives of their children. While to a large extent this must have been true, Brown mentions in his apology that he aims to “strongly support an updated curriculum that takes into account changing attitudes and the world in which children now dwell. They are being asked to understand challenging topics in ways their parents were not. It is important to have sex education to combat homophobia, and raise important issues like consent, mental health, bullying, and gender identity. The world has changed and so should the curriculum.” In this instance, Brown may have completely understood the importance of this curriculum as it prepares the children, young as they are, to face the challenging times. However, Brown was careful not to invite the ire of parents who felt ignored when the new sex education curriculum was created. In his version or vision of an updated curriculum, he assures that it will be generated from consultation. I think this is a good point. Sex education, like any other part of the curriculum has been regarded and generated out of standardized aims, goals and methods of delivery. To a large extent, this standardization misses on the significant details, the part where cultural and social identities of the knower and the learner are really important to disregard. In matters where the sex education curriculum and religious faith, in particular, clash — it would be proactive that a sex education curriculum be aligned with the person’s, the learner’s identity, rather than having a “generic” one. Of course, I understand how these accommodations can be logistically challenging, but the education system has to do, what it has to do. After all, the system is dealing with diverse types of learners and not objects without identities and backgrounds. And one way to cope with the administrative and logistical challenges is to consult with the students as persons first, and as learners, and their parents and families.

One of the prominent critiques against Brown was that from the current Education Minister Mitzie Hunter. She said that by scrapping the sex education curriculum, we are actually putting the students and children at risk as they are come unprepared to face a much “sexualized” or sexually provoked or sexually violent world. I agree with Hunter to some extent. In a world where rape culture and sexual violence are so rampant, it is important for students and children to understand these concepts and contexts, so they have knowledge and become empowered, so that they can defend themselves and ask for help when necessary. However, the question is: do we do this at the students’ or children’s own terms? Should we? I think so. While the introduction of the new sex education curriculum is criticized heavily as the “rape of innocence or rape of childhood”, I see that there is nothing wrong in empowering students and giving them knowledge. It would be being complicit to sexual violence if we ignore and not equip students for the sexual and gendered violence they are to face. However, what we need to significantly consider is that when these things that students learn are not taking into account the positionalities and backgrounds of these students, it could also be very ineffective or be taken out of context as valuable learning. This is as dangerous as introducing a very generic sex education curriculum.

Furthermore, to see that the introduction of the new sex education curriculum resolves the social and criminal problems like rape and rape culture is a very narrow solution. While it may be true that this curriculum may help resolve the rampant rape culture but I think is it not the only solution to eradicate this criminal behaviour. Particularly, the government must understand how this kind of culture is thriving, i.e. how we normalize sexual violence or dominance of one sex or gender, every day. By this I mean, that rather than standardizing a sex education curriculum for all, we must also look into resolutions about the ferocious social attitudes about sex and gender in our society. Even if we educate our children and students, if the society maintains the same acceptance of violence as the sexual norm, the sex education curriculum becomes pointless.

With this, I still believe that sex education should be a necessary part of the curriculum in schools. However, proper regard for the students’ and children’s identities must be taken into account in the creation and implementation of this curriculum. This also means committing to respect the diverse kinds of learners as persons with different identities and cultural backgrounds.