Illustrations by Maia Boakye

When We Say #SexEdSavesLives, We’re Talking About Our Own

Hear us (and our communities) out on Ontario’s sex-ed changes

By Farah Mustafa

Content Note: sexual assault, homophobia, transphobia, death

When I say, “Sex Education Saves Lives,” I mean it. Good sex education introduces young people to essential knowledge and skills to develop healthy relationships with their own bodies, each other, and respect for diverse sexual experiences and needs. Without good sex-ed, we miss an important opportunity to intervene and educate people on what sexuality and sexual health can look like, which may potentially save lives.

Think of what normalizing different types of sexualities and gender expression could do for queer youth, who face 14 times the risk of depression and suicide from internalizing messages of homophobia, a risk that heterosexual youth do not face. Think of what teaching consent and boundaries might do to help people navigate intimacy and connection in respectful ways and equip them with the vocabulary to talk consent with partners. Think of how sex education could help teach young folk how to recognize emotional, physical and sexual abuse, be it perpetrated by a partner, a stranger or even family. Think of the women who have told you about the times they couldn’t speak up when their uncles crossed the lines because it’d destroy the family dynamic, the working class women and the BIPOC who said #MeToo, and those of us who don’t see ourselves ever saying #MeToo because we’re not ready, we don’t identify with those most vocal in the movement, or we just don’t want to.

An advanced sex education curriculum may not remedy every issue, but would certainly equip more (young) people with effective tools and knowledge to address homophobia, transphobia, abuse of power, sexual harassment, intimacy, relationships and more. This has been one of the scariest and deadliest years for women and nonbinary people, and the 2SLGBTQ+ community, yet the reformed 2015 sex education curriculum, which included more material that addressed consent and the spectrum of sexualities and genders, has been deemed unworthy of survival.

What stings about the Ford government’s decision to repeal the 2015 sex education curriculum is that the brief progress made by the Liberals gave me hope that I’d finally see even a part of myself and my experiences, and those who matter to me and their experiences, represented in the lessons today’s kids would absorb in school. It puzzles me why 40% of the province voted against a reformed curriculum by voting for a political candidate who is publicly sexist, and fails to support queer people, amongst other destructive qualities and actions.

The things I learned in school were rarely relevant to my life beyond the playground. My grade school sex education, courtesy of the 1998 curriculum, consisted of basic reproductive biology, basic understanding of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), and long lectures about the perks of abstinence. This was often the shortest unit, and even science classes shied away from the subject. Perhaps fewer teenagers would giggle during discussions of sex if it didn’t make us all so uncomfortable at the time. This knowledge was vital, and we didn’t take it seriously enough because of how shameful the topic seemed to be throughout our grade school experience.

Learning that our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of, are what we define them to be, and are ours to own — and ours only, are all lessons we should have learned when we were young.

I wish I had understood why a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at my school was needed as much as a student council. I wish I had not enabled homophobia as a teenager and stood up for the GSA when my friends made fun of how small the club was.

I wish I knew how to get help when my periods didn’t seem right, when I felt pain unlike before.

I wish I learnt how to have conversations on consent with a new partner so I could better understand myself and how healthy relationships work.

I wish I knew how to support my friends during their toxic relationships, and known how to guide them better when their boyfriends didn’t take ‘No’ as an answer.

I wish I had known how to say no, how not to be afraid of standing up for myself, and how to have a better understanding of the experiences of those I grew up around.

I also wish I had learned how to say yes with confidence, and how to build self-awareness that would allow me to determine what I was comfortable with.

I wish we had learned those things to protect ourselves and to protect others.

But we didn’t, and the deaths we have witnessed this year, and the years past, could have been prevented with better education. Now, the Ford government’s decision to perpetuate ignorance, stigma, homophobia, transphobia and misogyny will further cost us our healing, our dignity and our lives.

As former Nuance Writing and Community Fellow Shriya Hari notes,

“Ford’s decision to roll back the curriculum will deprive youth of a fuller understanding of their bodies, their sexual selves and what that means for their own sense of agency, empowerment, and support, and their peers’ changing bodies. Ford’s decision will ensure that women and gender minorities in particular will face challenges in understanding how to stand up for themselves and their needs in negotiating sexual situations, and will leave them more vulnerable to sexual assault, rape, low self esteem, and toxic masculinity.”

When kids do not see themselves or the things they are going through represented in school, they think their personal matters are not valid. They internalize these harmful messages, they develop shame, and they hide.

The 2015 sex education curriculum was supposed to be different. It would open doors to new ideas for young impressionable students whose at-home, media or culture-based teachings could finally be challenged. Kids would learn their boundaries, what is inappropriate and what is not, how their minds will change, how their emotions will differ through the years, how to navigate digital spaces, what healthy and unhealthy relationships are, what gender identity is and more. This decision by the Ford government hurts more because we were so close this time. I am exhausted by the ways we are invalidated.

What’s funny is how the anti-sex-education community has weaponized pockets of (im)migrant communities who are against the curriculum, without hearing out from the rest of us who also identify as first or second generation. Communities in Toronto like Thorncliffe Park have been labelled as being incredibly anti-sex-education because some parents initially pulled students from classes amid the 2015 curriculum roll out. While we cannot deny the culture of stigma and misunderstanding around sex-ed across various communities, we can say our (im)migrant communities have been thus-far represented through a purely monolithic lens.

School will always have an important role to play in sex education, particularly for first and second generation (im)migrant communities. Even though the sex-ed I received from school was limited, it was more education than what I received at home. For many young (im)migrants, school continues to be one of the best channels to receive sex-ed and may well be one of the only channels where they are receiving science-based information. In our 2016 Needs Assessment, sexual education at school was cited as a primary source of information after “internet searches”.

But that doesn’t mean we settle for just having the bare minimum. At the end of the day, the sex education I received in class didn’t always speak to me. Cold, medical information about STIs and getting pregnant didn’t feel like it applied to me, especially when the videos that were shown and the teachers who delivered the information, didn’t look like me. Young (im)migrants are curious about sex and desire representation, destigmatized care, and information. Our needs are different due to our diverse lived experiences and complexities of having to navigate multiple contexts and identities. The reality is these needs are unfulfilled due to the lack of resources and conversations in mainstream media and school systems that focus on the intersections of (im)migrant experiences and sex.

The longstanding existence of organizations like the Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP) and Asian Community AIDS Services (ACAS), for over 29 and 24 years respectively, are proof that (im)migrants have been seeking information and support in independent organizations beyond the school system. This is the very infrastructure that Nuance seeks to build upon — to continue giving people like us voices and examples of other paths we can take when it comes to navigating sex, sexuality, relationships, and gender identity.

We asked and you answered

In line with creating a platform for our voices when there was none, we did our own due diligence and sought to give our communities the representation they deserve on this issue beyond what’s seen in mainstream media. Our communities responded to a survey we conducted in late summer 2018, with various perspectives on the proposed changes to the sex education curriculum. We simply asked how they felt about the revisions to the 2015 sex education curriculum and to share any sex education resources that would help support others seeking information. A total of 60 people responded, the self-reported demographic breakdown can be seen to the left on desktop and above on mobile.

While the sixty answers we received were all unique, it’s important to note that from the responses the majority were against the roll back to the 1998 curriculum, but two respondents were in favour. Reasons for this were either not provided or unclear. Through our analysis, we observed three major themes, all of which were either directly or indirectly referenced in every response: Relevance, Safety and Identity.

Relevance

20% of our respondents found the 1998 curriculum outdated, and believed it would not, in any way, support the needs of youth today with respect to issues of the internet, gender identity, consent and safety.

  • With the internet’s increasing accessibility, digital safety is important for young and old alike. Dating apps and websites make meeting strangers a lot easier, and even if interactions are not in person, dangers and complex situations can still persist online. In 1998, dating apps and websites weren’t this prevalent or accessible to youth. Now, they are. It’s important for youth to know their boundaries, what’s appropriate and not, and how to seek help if they feel they are in danger or being exploited in any way.
  • Aside from the digital component of the 2015 curriculum, reformed sex-ed would have also brought in discussions of gender identity and sexual orientation. These conversations were heavily stigmatized in 1998, even if discussed in the mainstream. Western society is more inclusive of non-heterosexual and non-cis identities in 2018 than it was in 1998, albeit not perfectly. This curriculum needs to reflect societal progress towards inclusivity for all. Furthermore, knowing what language to use and being comfortable with discussions on gender and sexual orientation can help youth who may be questioning feel validated and allow youth who have already established their identities feel seen.
  • Former Nuance Writer and Community Fellow, Shriya Hari, shares:
“Ford’s decision to roll back the sex ed curriculum to 1998 is a terrible idea. The curriculum did not cover key issues such as:
a) queer/LGBTQ representation as valid sexual orientations
b) consent and clarity on what it means to form romantic relationships in a respectful way
c) sexual assault
d) names of sexual and reproductive organs and body parts at age appropriate levels
e) sexting safety and agency — and the legal consequences for distributing nude photos without consent
The 1998 curriculum was outdated even in 1998 and did not provide enough context for children and teens’ changing bodies, and their understandings of themselves as romantic and sexual agents in their own lives. The old curriculum did not provide age-appropriate resources on developing healthy relationships, understanding gender equity in the context of relationships, or center women’s empowerment in any meaningful way. […]
As someone who works in sexual health, it is incredibly disappointing to me to see our government take such a regressive step regarding access to education and information for our youth on their bodies […].”

Safety

25% of our respondents highlighted the need for better understanding of consent — knowing how to respect the boundaries of others, as well as knowing your own boundaries.

  • This reciprocal understanding applies to digital spaces, physical bodies and emotional relationships.
  • The #MeToo movement has taken the spotlight when it comes to current conversations on consent. The backlash behind #MeToo, the apologists, and the arguments supporting some of those accused of sexual harassment are all proof that there is confusion on what consent means in different situations. We need conversations on how to establish consent, for example: Consent can be revoked. Consent is needed even in relationships. Consent does not have to be verbal. Consent can not be accepted when under the influence.
  • These are lessons that need to be taught to everyone, but especially youth who are physically and emotionally vulnerable.
  • We want to thank the respondents who shared their personal experiences with us and how they feel education on consent and safety could have kept them from harm’s way. Of these responses, Jen shared:
“I was groped twice in a weekend at 12 years old by a visiting relative, because nobody told me I could say no to someone groping my thigh and stomach. Luckily I figured out something was wrong about a week later before the perpetrator [sic] had a further opportunity to up the ante, but if I’d had better education surrounding consent and predator “grooming,” I’d have put a stop to it at the first touch.
We also learned nothing about diversity of sexual orientation, gender, family composition, or embracing of differences and the damage of bullying, only clinical aspects of heterosexual sex.
I heard through the rumour mill in high school that a girl had sex with her brother and father. All people did was gossip about it. Nobody thought of it as abuse that should be reported to an adult. I still wonder what happened to that girl. I feel lessons of consent and against bullying in the current curriculum would have helped this girl if the rumours were true.”

Identity

25% of respondents indicated the importance of a 2SLGBTQ+ — inclusive curriculum and how representation could reduce homophobia, transphobia and stigma around gender identity.

  • I wish I had been a better ally, or had even known what it meant to be an ally at a younger age. By learning about gender identity and sexual orientation, we build the foundations of understanding and acceptance, which can address some of the roots of bullying.
  • While the province is quick to have one-offs like Pink Shirt Day, these tokenized celebrations mean nothing unless we are doing more in the everyday to support students and build inclusive classrooms. The fact that the Ford government wants to remove the element of learning about gender identity and sexual orientation in classrooms shows that they think these topics are not worth learning about or understanding.
  • The irony of all of this is that Ford’s government has built a platform on increased mental health support in the province, yet has made decisions that will severely impede the mental health of 2SLGBTQ+ students across the province. Erasing identity from the curriculum erases the experiences of countless students. An anonymous respondent had this to say:
“Ford is being ridiculous, changing things back to an old outdated curriculum that doesn’t touch on any of the topics that are so important to today’s youth. My parents never talked to me about LGBTQ topics or sex in general, and left me to figure it out myself, with great shame. If I was taught in school more than just the very very basics, I would have been able to understand myself a lot better, leading to a lot less shame and self hatred. I think it’s very important that a new updated curriculum be used to help today’s kids learn more about themselves and the world.”

Throughout this week, follow along on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as we explore more of what our community had to say about Relevance, Safety and Identity. Each day, we will explore these themes in greater depth and highlight what our community shared. As we share the thoughts of our community, we encourage you to check out our Resources below for a compilation of organizations and projects supporting sexual education for all. As one of our respondents named Joy said, “Supporters of the curriculum should continue to engage politicians and community members to push back.”

As Nuance mentioned in a previous statement, our existence as a publication and as part of an organization that supports the well-being of young (im)migrants, means that Ford will never defeat us or the community we represent. We encourage you to support us now more than ever by contributing, sharing our content, or donating. Your support will allow us to continue amplifying the voices in need.

This conversation matters to us and the community we represent because when we say, “Sex Education Saves Lives,” we mean ours, too.


What can you do?

Save sex education by contributing to these campaigns:

  1. Support the creation of a series of 2015 curriculum sex-ed videos created by Nadine Thornhill, a sexuality educator and parent living in Toronto
  2. Email your MPP this letter written by We Have Your Back
  3. Email the Education Minister your demand to #SaveSexEd

Book a sexual health workshop:

  • Sex educator, Nadine Thornhill, offers a variety of workshops geared towards parents, teachers and youth
  • Bad Subject offers activities-based workshops on consent and relevant topics to youth, educators, and professionals
  • SeXT: Sex Education by Theatre is a workshop and performance program that engages youth on topics relating to sexual health and education.

Check out some of our favourite sex-ed resources:

  • Scarleteen a long-standing, thoughtful, and comprehensive website on sex, sexuality, and sexual health catered to young people
  • What’s My Body Doing a web-series about sexuality, relationships, birth control, and sexual health from a sex-positive, anti-oppressive, and evidence-based lens
  • Teen Health Source, a program by Planned Parenthood Toronto, talk to a trained teen volunteer or check out their vetted online resources to get the sexual health facts you need
  • Sex and U: information on sexual health from the Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada
  • Sexplanations: quick and entertaining educational YouTube videos on all sex topics

Support community programs and see what they offer:

Share your Nuance, and read ours, too.

(Im)migrant: we have modified the term immigrant to be inclusive of migrants and others who may not necessarily have status in this country or who may be of marginalized status (refugees, temporary visitors etc), however still face similar experiences when interacting with Canadian systems and complexities in navigating multiple cultures and identities.

BIPOC: refers to Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour


This article and subsequent social media campaign would not be possible without the contributions of our community and the specific efforts of Eleni Han, Elizabeth Wong, Emma Burgess, Maia Boakye, and Shriya Hari. Thank you for all your support.


An earlier version of this article did not mention the number of respondents for and against the 1998 curriculum. This has been updated on September 17, 2018.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the percentage of respondents that identified as 1st and 2nd immigrants in the “Respondent Breakdown” graphic. This has been updated on February 2, 2019