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The key role of community-based education in sexual health 

By: Ahlam Yassien, Contributor 

Education and promotion of sexual health are just as important as the education and promotion of nutritional and physical health. However, conversations about sex education often occupy little space in homes or classrooms as this topic is still seen as taboo.  

Despite this, many believe it is the responsibility of schools to teach kids about sexual health. In 1979, an overwhelming percentage of sex educators argued parents were not providing their children with the right sex education, with just under half believing this education was properly supplemented in schools. While the data obtained in this survey is reflective of the opinions on an outdated curriculum, it is also indicative of a larger pattern — the constant battle between parents and schools about the responsibility for sex education.  

Flash forward nearly 40 years and parents have protested and threatened to pull their children from classes due to the introduction of a newer, more focused curriculum. While studies indicate that family-centred education programs reduce poor health outcomes and shame, conversations on sexual health are still too often ignored, usually treated as something you should already know and never ask about. Additionally, when considering the implications of different cultural and religious values, these conversations can be uncomfortable and daunting for both parents and children.  

Like many other second-generation immigrants, I did not have these conversations at home. However, in 2015, when Ontario announced it would be updating its sexual education curriculum for the first time since 1998 to include conversations about explicit content online and gender identity, my mom was among many who insisted these conversations could be taught at home.  

Despite this, I still went to class and learnt about consent and internet safety. I engaged in discourse with my classmates and teachers and then came home, assuring my mom that we were not watching explicit content in class.  

While I learned about sexual health at school, this education was supplemented by that enforced by cultural perspectives taught at home, both of which have grown to hold an important place in the ways I choose to go about my personal health.  

They have also served to reinforce the importance of having these conversations at home, at school and between classmates. I had not realized it then, but I had been actively engaging in discourse with various people from different communities and these discussions helped frame the ways I approach conversations with people holding opposing beliefs.  

I had been deeply embarrassed by my mother’s disproval and immediately sided with those who called parents too conservative. However, I, along with those who took on this view, had been actively ignoring the role social and cultural determinants played in the introduction of sexual education in many households. The importance of diversifying education and considering these perspectives has become immensely clear to me. By considering these perspectives, we can reframe the conversation and the ways we view the various actors in these conversations, particularly those we might consider “too conservative.” In many cases, the term “too conservative” itself ironically appears too conservative and narrow to encompass the perspectives and thoughts of the individuals in question.   

I had once believed sex education was a responsibility of the curriculum while my mother believed it was a parental responsibility. Now, I am not sure it is either.  

In thinking about the continuous disagreements between educators and parents, I noticed the importance and responsibility of healthy eating and exercise are not something commonly debated between parents and teachers. I knew the dangers of smoking and doing drugs before I learnt about the importance of consent. I learned about the value of consistent oral hygiene before I had learned about vaginal hygiene.  

But if I were asked to pinpoint where I had learned all these things I would not be able to give a definitive answer, mainly because these principles had been swiftly introduced and reinforced by various actors in my life. From family members to teachers, I had been taught about these things by the communities around me. As a result, I can make decisions regarding my health with these lessons in mind. Similarly, I think the goal for sex education should be to implement a curriculum not only taught at school or at home but also consistently enforced and endorsed by the community at large.  

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The recent change to the Honours Life Sciences curriculum tops what has been a year of many changes for the program. The current curriculum draws in students looking for flexibility in course selections. Despite graduating with the same degree, students in the program have taken a variety of courses such as biology, psychology, ecology and more. The reasoning behind the changes in curriculum arose from concerns surrounding whether the flexibility ultimately held students back from developing the necessary skills that they need to progress past graduation.

For Biology professor Kimberly Dej, this is a major concern. “We knew that students appreciated the flexibility but we also worried about what students ended up with when they graduated. Whether you’re in health care, politics and policy – you have to think like a scientist … And what we found is that by fourth-year students were still taking a group of courses that were very broad and they were still experimenting with courses. So there was no progression upward through the years.”

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A committee made up of all the contributing departments and two student members was assembled to revise the curriculum. While in the past, required courses were grouped by year level of the course, the new curriculum groups required courses by broader skill sets: research skills, communication skills and an experiential component. Courses that were mandatory before are conserved under this system, but are organized differently.

Under the umbrella category for research skills is the living systems laboratory course that aims to introduce students to novel research techniques. Making statistics a required course was done as a means of ensuring that students in science are able to understand and interpret data presented in research. Past analyses showed that most students take Genetics, so making it a required second year course was not considered to be a big change.

 

The communication courses ensure that students have the necessary skills to hold their own symposium, hold a debate and develop other skills necessary in the scientific field. Finally, the experiential component features a thesis or project course in third or fourth year, a placement course, community engagement course or peer-mentoring course.

“It’s a real shame if you graduate with a science degree and you’re never in a lab and all you do is fill in multiple choice bubble questions. I think we are letting down the students if they spend four years doing that, so we wanted to think about how they can apply these skills in really meaningful ways,” said Dej.

The number of electives that students are able to take is conserved in the new curriculum, meaning that there is no loss in flexibility to do a minor or to take courses outside of science.

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Students currently in their second year of Honours Life Sciences and higher will not be affected by these curriculum changes. Students currently in level one of a gateway program that plan on entering into the Honours Life Sciences stream will take courses as per the new curriculum but will have the same admission requirements as the previous years. The following year will also see changes to the courses requirement for entry into the program, with math, biology, chemistry and physics being required.

“What we found is that by fourth-year students were still taking a group of courses that were very broad and they were still experimenting with courses. So there was no progression upward through the years.”

The next step is to develop subplans, or specific smaller sets of courses within Honours Life Science that allow for a greater variety of interests. Students will be actively involved in the development of these subplans, as they were involved in the development of the curriculum through surveys and a public discussion.

Students with questions or concerns are encouraged to reach out to the administrative department, as well as those who are interested in being involved in the creation of curriculum changes.

Photo Credit: Kareem Baassiri/ Photo Contributor

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By: Eva Clark-Lepard

The Ontario sexual education (sex-ed) curriculum has not been updated since 1998. At that point in time, “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion topped the charts and butterfly clips were actually fashionable. This was six years before Facebook, eight years before Twitter and 13 years before Snapchat. This was two years before current ninth graders were even born. This curriculum included information on body parts, STDs and puberty. It advised teachers to mention abstinence and decision-making skills.

This September, a new health and physical education curriculum document has been introduced to classrooms all around Ontario. This curriculum includes new additions, such as the mention of gender identity, sexual orientation and a focus on diversity. The curriculum consists of required material complemented by various teacher prompts, so as to assist teachers in answering any questions the class may have.

Despite the similarities between the two curriculums, the 2015 sex-ed curriculum has certainly caused a stir. While there are a large variety of complaints with regards to the curriculum, the recurring complaints are the following: that the curriculum’s inclusion of the topic of consent will allow children to consent to sex, that the topic of gender identity will cause children to question their own gender and become confused, that the curriculum will encourage LGBTQA+ identities rather than regarding them as “sinful” and that the inclusion of the words “oral sex” and “anal sex” in regards to STD/STI transmission will cause rampant promiscuity.

These grievances and many others have been the driving force behind many public acts of protest. These include various rallies at Queen’s Park with signs emblazoned with the phrases “Kathleen Loser” and “Let kids be kids—just say no!” More recently, only half of the students at Thorncliffe Park Elementary School in Toronto attended class on Sept. 8, while graffiti bearing the phrase “Shame On You” appeared on the school days later.

The resistance to the new sex-ed curriculum is multifaceted. Many are simply misinformed, believing some of the statements described above. Others believe that sex and homosexuality should not be discussed at all. Furthermore, some believe that the values represented in the curriculum do not represent those of their family. As an individual who wants to teach sex education and research reproduction for a living, I’ll try and address these three areas of complaints.

Firstly, to those parents who believe that their children will be learning how to perform oral sex in grade eight, I beg of you to please look closer than what your friend told you or what you read in a catchy 140-character tweet. The entire curriculum is online, please read it and realize that this curriculum is only going to help keep people safe and healthy. Just to clarify, this is what Health and Physical Education Curriculum does say about oral sex: “engaging in sexual activities like oral sex, vaginal intercourse, and anal intercourse means that you can be infected with an STI. If you do not have sex, you do not need to worry about getting an STI.” It goes on to say that students thinking about having sex should seek out healthcare professionals who can provide important information about protection.

Secondly, to the Ontarians who are sex-negative (the belief that sex is harmful or shameful) or homophobic, I’m sorry that the government of Ontario is trying to help raise your kids to have more meaningful relationships, less shame about their bodies and less hate for the members of their communities. Hopefully the kids that don’t skip those lessons will still create a community that celebrates diversity and body positivity for your child to grow up in.

Lastly, to those who believe that the sex-ed curriculum goes against their beliefs and values. I respect that Ontario is a diverse province with different religious and cultural belief systems. I respect that these systems may classify homosexuality as a sin and condemn various types of relationships and sexualities.

However, the values infused into the sex-ed curriculum are not random; they are the values of Canada. It has been legal for LGBTQ+ individuals to get married in Ontario since 2002 and there are Gay-Straight Alliances in middle schools. This curriculum is founded on the basis of kindness to our neighbours and the celebration of diversity—diversity of sexual orientation, of hair colour, of religious affiliation. In the words of Edward Keenan, “those values remain worth teaching.”

Photo Credit: CBC

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