Impact of new sex-ed curriculum goes beyond elementary school

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The introduction of Ontario&rsquo;s new sex-ed curriculum has been met with a lot of controversy. The conversation has centred on whether or not it&rsquo;s too early to be teaching kids certain components &mdash; such as oral sex &mdash; of the new curriculum. However, absent from the debate is how much of an impact teaching kids in Grade 3 about same sex couples and sexual consent from a young age will have on campus life in universities across the province 10 -15 years down the road.</p>

Dean Mizzi, Glow’s education director, told Imprint that he thinks the curriculum is “going to work wonders” in addressing sexual consent and attitudes towards same-sex couples, which are hot topic issues on campuses today. 

“When we talk about things like same-sex couples, we talk about things like consent … You’ll see a much more worldly student entering university after they exit this curriculum,” Mizzi said. 

In contrast, Dr. B.J. Rye, an associate professor in the psychology and sexuality, marriage, and family studies departments who welcomes the new sex-ed curriculum, thinks the curriculum will have some impact in dealing with these issues at the university level, but it won’t be as far-reaching as some expect.

Although Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government has been met with some controversy for re-introducing a revised version of the proposed sex-ed curriculum drafted back in 2010 when Dalton McGuinty was still premier, the new curriculum has also been met with overwhelming support.    

In an email interview, Gary Wheeler, a part of the Ministry of Education’s communications branch, said that the update to the curriculum was needed to “help ensure the health and safety [of students] in this technology-driven world.”

“The current curriculum has not been updated since 1998,” Wheeler said, “Long before the widespread use of social media and smartphones, and students today are often accessing information from unreliable and inaccurate sources.” 

Mizzi agreed and said the old curriculum is no longer relevant because it doesn’t address the impact of dating/hookup apps like Grindr and Tinder, and it doesn’t address current legislated realities.

“We grew up in what was a fairly progressive curriculum for the time, but by the mid-2000s was already outdated,” Mizzi said. “It’s more fact-based than ideology-based … We’re teaching children what reality is. Same-sex marriage has existed in Canada since 2005, and in Ontario since 2003. It’s about time that we updated this curriculum.”

Rye said, “It would be wrong not to teach about it,” when asked whether or not she thought it was too young to teach about same sex couples in Grade 3.

The government and many proponents of the new sex-ed curriculum believe the inclusion of same-sex couples will help normalize alternative, non-heteronormative family structures.

“All children and young people, including those of all sexual orientations and gender identities, should be able to see themselves in the curriculum,” Wheeler said. “Enhanced learning about sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression is included in the curriculum so that all students see themselves and their families.”

Mizzi believes it can also eliminate stereotypes and have an impact reducing negative attitudes towards same-sex couples on campuses — where some same-sex couples still fear holding hands in public.

“One thing that eliminates stereotypes is this idea of the ‘contact hypothesis’ — when you’re exposed to people that are different from you, you don’t believe the stereotypes as much,” Mizzi said. “I personally believe education is an extension of that … You’re going to combat those stereotypes and you’re going to cut them off at an early age.”

It’s about combating negative attitudes with education, Mizzi said, “As opposed to saying ‘no you’re wrong’ … Being a heterosexual person is only one aspect of sexuality, and that other identities exist, and if you identify with one of those other identities there is nothing wrong with you.”

Rye believes the curriculum will have some impact in normalizing same-sex couples, but will not remove the need for student groups on campuses like Glow and gay-straight alliance groups in high schools. It will not fully remove all stereotypes and discrimination, and these groups will still be needed to create a safe space.

“I hope you come back to me in 15 years and say ‘boy you were wrong.’ I think there will always be need [for groups like Glow] at least in my lifetime,” she said.

However, Rye said, teaching these kids about sexual consent can have an impact and remove some of the ambiguity, but it’s hard to predict how it will affect the conversation surrounding sexual assaults on campus and whether or not it will address the problem of underreporting. 

Wheeler said the new curriculum is important and will have an impact because it emphasizes, that “relationships are a two-way street.”

“It is not only one person’s responsibility to ‘say no’, but it is also the other person’s responsibility to listen and respect individual choice,” he said. However, Rye believes the only way the curriculum could have a greater impact is if it teaches the more ambiguous cases of sexual consent.

The new curriculum will come into effect fall 2015. Though it’s unlikely that the debate will end, only time will tell the real-life impact of the new program.