By Mackenzie Claggett & Martyna Siekanowicz
Governments mandate sexual education because they recognize that sex is a normal component of life, and that healthy sexual relationships and perspectives, are not only important to maintain people’s well-being, but actually save people’s lives. In a modern, progressive society, we understand that healthy perspectives on sex prioritize consent, safety, and diversity, and that for people to hold these perspectives they must have access to accurate information at an early age. This is why OUSA strongly supports comprehensive sexual education, as it prepares students with the knowledge they need to responsibly enter sexual relationships during their post-secondary career if they choose to do so.
Recognizing this fact, in 2015 the previous Ontario government updated the health and physical education curriculum to provide students with information on consent and non-heterosexual sexualities for the first time. Why were these updates so important? First, the updates marked a recognition that consent is a necessary component of sexual relationships and that the status quo on sexual violence is unacceptable. Second, the updates signified that we recognize queer sexuality and nonconforming gender identities as valid and valuable aspects of society that children need to learn about and respect.
In terms of sexual violence prevention, sexual education is critical. Over the last year with the onset of the #MeToo movement, the topics of consent and rape culture have been at the centre of many discussions, both globally and in our province. In this past academic year, post-secondary students in Ontario had the chance to participate in the first ever province-wide survey on campus sexual violence. This initiative was a critically important step to further elucidate that an epidemic of sexual violence exists on post-secondary campuses. We know that there is a code of silence on campuses. We know that when asked, 1 out of 3 Canadians said they didn’t know what consent means. We know rape culture exists when social media platforms, student spaces, and chants are used as opportunities to promote sexual violence, and when these actions are presented as “isolated incidents” rather than manifestations of an ongoing, societal problem.
Early outreach and education are essential components to ending this ongoing epidemic of sexual violence. Progressive, comprehensive, sexual education that emphasizes consent can promote cultural and attitudinal change. Various studies have shown that the best educational programs are the ones that teach children at an early age so that consent becomes their norm. As a province we need to address the current reality and invest in the educational techniques proven to work.
Yet, even though the #MeToo movement demonstrated the need for more open conversations about sexual violence in our society, there has been significant pushback against this progress. Such pushback is reflected in policy choices and beliefs that both question the existence of rape culture and dismiss discussions on consent and inclusivity. This pushback also manifests itself through people’s silence, which suggests that they view the topic of sexual violence as not urgent enough to take action on. The move by the Ontario government to repeal the updated sexual education curriculum, whether intentional or not, is another example of pushback against the fight to end sexual violence.
Sexual education is also critical to achieving LGBTQ+ equity and inclusion. In 2015, OUSA surveyed LGBTQ+ post-secondary students and asked participants, “What actions can university administrators or faculty take to improve the university experience for LGBTQ students?” the top two answers were ‘resources’ and ‘inclusion.’ Such a response is unsurprising when one considers that these students’ sexualities and gender identities were erased from most of their childhood education. The previous sexual education curriculum was cis-heteronormative, and deprived LGBTQ+ students of vital information about themselves and the dynamics of their future sexual experiences.
There are multiple negative consequences with this erasure. First, LGBTQ+ youth turn to the internet as their primary source of sexual education where misconceptions, stereotypes, and outdated information is prevalent. Second, without exposure to gender nonconformity and queer sexuality, students are not encouraged to resist homophobic and transphobic prejudices that lead to pervasive violence against LGBTQ+ students. In Canada, 68% of trans students, 55% of female queer students, and 42% of male queer students reported being verbally harassed about their gender identity or sexual orientation at school. Likewise, 49% of trans students, 33% of lesbian students, and 40% of gay male students have experienced sexual harassment in school. These experiences contribute to a situation where over half of LGBTQ+ students in Canada consider suicide.
Sexual education is one of the most important learning experiences in the development of children. They deserve the most accurate and comprehensive information available to ensure they can make healthy decisions in the future. It is our hope that the government focuses on the themes of consent and LGBTQ+ inclusion as they consult the public on the new sexual education curriculum. We also hope the government acts fast to implement a new curriculum. The lives of students are at risk.