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sexed-fullBy Jonathan Farmer

A week before the government of Ontario released its reformed Health and Physical Education curriculum, my local member of parliament – Larry Miller– spoke out against it. In an interview with a local radio station he claimed that the government was sticking its nose into parents' business by discussing sex related topics with young people. He said that he supported sex-ed but opposed discussions of oral or anal sex (among other topics) at the ages proposed, although he didn't specify the ages. He claimed that children already lose their innocence too early because of sex and violence on television and that they shouldn't lose it in their classrooms too. I was surprised and angry to hear my member of parliament speak out against education. I was confused that a member of federal government would speak out on a provincial issue. So, I did what younger democracy-aspiring people do all over the world, I tweeted him.

I hoped that he could help me figure out why he opposed the curriculum and that I could explain why I think opposing education is problematic. To his credit, he accepted my invitation to call and after a week of telephone tag we finally spoke. During our conversation I tried to focus on why discussion and dialogue are necessary for kids' physical and emotional health, and why normalizing diversity is necessary to prevent bullying, isolation, and suffering. Our conversation was disappointing. Reflecting back on it, I realized that this goes beyond sex education. We need to teach children how to engage in healthy dialogue on every subject because dialogue is the mechanism that propels democracy and if we can't bring diverse opinions and perspectives together, then we have no hope for an equitable society.

Sexual taboos are as persistent in our culture as they are dangerous. Even forty years after the sexual revolution, stigma prevents some people from openly discussing sex, sexuality and the natural diversity among them. We acknowledge that people might prefer different types of ice cream but talk of varied sexual flavours can still elicit dirty looks and visceral discomfort. So, many people avoid the topic. Curiosity persists whether or not we have a conversation, however, and information is easy to find. Accurate, non-oppressive information is unfortunately harder to come by.

Personally, I didn't get much of a sexual education. Jokes aside, my parents pretty much avoided the topic and the little I remember from school consisted mostly of fear mongering. "These are the diseases," they told us, "avoid them and pregnancy." I don't remember learning about consent and I don't think non-hetero or non-cisgendered identities were considered at all. Instead, I learned through my peers and the Internet but it has taken me years to begin to grasp the complex relationships between sex, sexuality, and gender. In the time between, I hurt people through inadvertently sexist and homophobic comments and actions. I didn't know how to be supportive when friends confided that they had been sexually assaulted, and my ignorance harmed them again.

Larry claims to support sex education and points out that he received some in school. The implication is that "we got it and we turned out alright." The problem is that we did not turn out alright. In fact, we're in a bad place. Rampant sexual assault and gender based violence are only beginning to gain the attention they deserve but the culture of stigma and taboo surrounding sex prevents us from discussing it openly. When we mix sexual taboos with the internet we get limited opportunities for constructive conversation and unlimited access to libraries of misogynistic pornography. We can't control children completely so the exposure isn't going away. But we can prepare them with the tools to embrace diversity, reject violence, and have rational dialogues. As a society we can move to a better place but the path to it leads directly through topics that some still find uncomfortable. We can't afford to let discomfort limit our actions. We can't afford to not change.

As much as we disagree, Larry and I are aiming for a similar destination. We just don't agree on how to get there. We both want children to be safe and healthy, and understand how to keep themselves and others healthy as well. Neither of us wants people to come to harm. We even agreed, although only in passing, that dialogue is essential to the democratic process. Unfortunately, our conversation was not a dialogue. We didn't have the time for that. I was walking to work down busy streets and Larry was in Ottawa. He repeated his talking points and I tried to explain how his use of language like "LGBT agenda" is problematic and why it is important for kids to learn about diverse family structures in a non-judgmental way. I asked Larry how he could be opposed to even talking about things like anal sex and he told me that, "I just am." We were at an impasse. I could outline our conversation in greater depth but the specifics are beside the point. Larry believes there are things that schools shouldn't talk to kids about. I believe schools should help young people talk about everything, in intentional and non-oppressive ways. We send children to school hoping to prepare them for adulthood. As adults within a democracy they must understand that diverse peoples with varied opinions are still people, not threats to be guarded against. Together we face large and uncomfortable challenges and if we do not give young people the tools to find mutual understanding – or at the very least empathy – then they will be unable to meet those challenges and we will have failed them.


 

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