My own education about sex came from a variety of sources, as I’m sure most of ours did. Back around the time I started laying Barbie on top of Ken for murky reasons (Were they sleeping? Doing yoga? Checking each other for ticks?), I came across the book, Where did I come from? at a friend’s house. I have such a clear memory of that moment: I sat cross-legged on the orange shag carpet at the bottom of the basement steps, flipping through page after page of cartoon characters asking questions that hadn’t even occurred to me, until I arrived at the illustration of some pale, doughy figures hanging out in a bathtub with a toy boat. The accompanying text said something about how the two people fit together like puzzle pieces, and everything suddenly clicked for me. From then on, Barbie and Ken didn’t just lie there together on their pink Murphy bed—now they had a job to do.
As the years went on, I continued to glean additional bits of info about sex here and there. The bus rides to and from school were particularly enlightening, an all girls’ breakout session in elementary school provided the necessary details about the dreaded topics of menstruation, body odor, and hair in strange places, and a high school health teacher demonstrated the old condom-on-a-banana trick, leaving me to wonder what Mr. F would have done had he left his fruit at home that morning. At various points in time, my mom checked in with me, making sure I had all the necessary information about sex in general, and safe sex in particular. I’m not sure whether she was relieved or horrified to find out that I’d learned the specifics from that picture book way back in first grade, but I’d guess she was a little of both.
My own son is seven years old now, and I keep waiting for him to uncover the whole sex thing (well not the whole thing—we can probably keep the Fifty Shades of Grey stuff quiet for at least another decade). He has circled the drain with some of his questions; he knows that boys and girls have anatomical differences, and we’ve explained to him how babies are born. But it doesn’t seem to occur to him to wonder how babies are actually made.
While I appreciate his innocence and naïvete, I know it’s only a matter of time before his friends start sharing stuff they’ve learned from older siblings, or from one of a thousand screens. And since elementary school kids tend to get their facts mixed up (no, Liam, your head won’t explode if you cross your eyes and sneeze at the same time), I’m hoping the teachers at his school will be able to help set the record straight. I also think my husband—who will likely be point man for the sex talk with our boys—would say he’d take all the help he can get.
But not everyone believes school is the place for children to learn about human sexuality, as a group of parents in Toronto has demonstrated over the past few months. When the province of Ontario recently adopted a new health curriculum, parents at some schools were so enraged they refused to send their children to class. At Thorncliffe Park—the largest elementary school in Canada—nearly 2/3 of students and their families boycotted the curriculum at the beginning of September; as of mid-October, more than 100 students still had not rejoined their classrooms. Parents who spoke against the new curriculum cited concerns that it would cause their children to become “more sexually oriented,” and some said they were worried about “homosexuality books.”
Initially, these students did not transfer to other schools. They did not attend Thorncliffe during classes unrelated to health, such as reading or math. Instead, they held their own school sessions in a nearby park, relying on volunteers to teach them and parents to hold tarps above their heads on rainy days. Despite the boycott, school officials continued to defend the new curriculum and, in mid-October, the group finally discontinued their meetings at the park. But the 100 Thorncliffe students still have not returned to the school, and a parent spokesman for the group reported they are now all being home-schooled or have enrolled in private institutions.
In the case of Thorncliffe, the vast majority of protestors are non-native to Canada, and many of them practice the Muslim faith. While their religious background is cited as the main reason for their outrage, the Muslim families in Toronto are not the first group to protest sexual education in the schools, nor will they be the last.
According to Newsweek’s 2009 article, “A Brief History of Sex Ed in America,” sexual education first emerged within the military after WWI due to increased STD rates, and was adopted by schools shortly thereafter. Organized protests against the lessons began in earnest in the 1960s and 70s. While the protests ebbed in the 1980s and 90s as a result of the AIDS pandemic, protests continue to take place in developed nations across the world today. At the current moment, it just so happens that protesters of Muslim faith are the most vocal.
School officials face a difficult dilemma when making decisions about sex education. On one hand, sex is a highly personal topic, and beliefs about premarital sex tend to be heavily influenced by religious and cultural factors. On the other hand, schools have a moral imperative to keep students safe, and to provide them with facts and information. And since decades of research have shown that comprehensive sex education leads to a decrease in risky sexual behavior among adolescents (while encouraging abstinence does not), we know the best way to keep kids safe from STDs and unwanted pregnancy is to educate them about sex.
Still, families should always have a choice. They should be allowed to opt out of health lessons related to sex, and their children should be provided an alternative curriculum to work on during those times.
But I can tell you now that my own kids won’t be opting out of sex education. No matter what they their school teaches, it’s gotta leave fewer scars than this: