Wednesday, April 28

Teaching Human Sexuality

So another uprising occurred last week in Canadian politics, but a fun one this time: Sexual Education.  I remember first learning about sex from my cousins when I was approximately 8 years old and thinking, "My parents are Mormon.  They would never do anything that disgusting.  They know a different way to have babies."  Oh the innocence of youth!  I still have a brother who believes he was born through immaculate conception (we just let him keep thinking this).  Eventually I realized that no matter the belief system, nationality or race, we were all created through sex.  Over the years for each of us, sex has become more appetizing and less shocking.

Each province and territory in Canada creates their own curriculum, available on the Internet for students, parents, teachers and the public to view (Ontario).  Despite the availability of this information the news of the proposed changes to the Ontario Sexual Education curriculum shared in January, did not make headlines until April.  The proposed changes would include children naming body specific body parts in Grade 1 and talking about gender identity and sexual differences in Grade 3.  As well more intense topics such at homosexuality and alternative lifestyles being introduced in Grade 6, rather than waiting until Junior High (Grade 7 -9).  These changes caused a mixture of an outcry and support from parents, guardians and the public about the range of topics and the ages of the children to which they would be taught (more outcry at this point).  In response to the nay-sayers, the Premier of Ontario, Dalton McGuinty's government flip-flopped their decision and announced the government would discuss with parents what they wanted to see their children learn before implementing permanent changes.

In my opinion, parents should have input into this curriculum, and as difficult as it is to think about one's own children as sexual beings, it is important for parents to understand that they can rely on educated people to provide sexual information to their children.  In Alberta, parents can opt out of classroom sexual education for their child, but once again it is a place where this information can be handed out and discussed in a safe and welcoming environment.  Other places where children receive information and messages about sex could include, but are not exclusive to, cousins, friends, playground chats, sleep-over parties, books, TV programs, Internet, advertising, conversations with relatives, etc.  Not all of the information received from these sources is accurate and this is one reason why sexual education provided in a safe, informative and interesting environment, such as a classroom, is essential for raising children who are prepared to make more educated choices regarding their sexuality. 

Other organizations are also assisting in disseminating accurate sexual education such as CFSHAVERTFree Child Project, and UNESCO.  There are groups and programs that teach abstinence before marriage which may help some teens who choose to remain sexually inactive: True Love Waits, Silver Ring Thing, and Free Teens.  Even if you are teaching your child about abstinence, she or he still needs to know about puberty, kissing, diseases, sexual dreams, sexual thoughts and desires, opposite and same-sex attraction, what the mechanics of sex looks like, pregnancy, parenting, personal responsibility, honesty, trust, heartbreak, etc.  You can teach it all, or you can rely on teachers like me to help you out.

Having taught in Alberta for the past 7 years, including teaching Human Sexuality within the scope of the Alberta Curriculum to Grade 4, 5 and 6 students for 5 years, it is one of my favourite times of year and one of the only curriculum's mapped out for teachers lesson by lesson (hand-outs, over-head, cartoon pictures and all).  Usually it is the topic saved for the end of the year when post-Spring Break hormones have been unleashed and are streaming through the body parts of 11 and 12 year olds.  Add to the mixture inquisitive minds who have, as I did, heard words, ideas and comments 'on the street' and you have a concoction of budding minds who want to know the truth about all things sexual.  I always tried to squeeze this information into one week but the amount of information and the number of questions often presented positive obstacles to my goal.

The first year I was petrified as I was raised in a religious environment with strong sexual messages, and here I was about to teach children where my own upbringing and values were to be personally scrutinized before teaching the assigned topics.  Experienced teachers told me to stand in front of a mirror and repeat the following terms over and over again until I could say them in absolute comfort:  vulva, scrotum, vagina, penis, masturbation, insert, breast, nipple, etc.  At first, I was all smiles and laughter, but I also practiced on family and friends where the laughter subsided into wanting to share the information in the prescribed curriculum.  Little did I know I was the one who was going to receive the education.

The challenge often came through the question box, where students could write down any sexual questions they had on a piece of paper, put them in the box, we teachers would review them, make sure we knew the answers (and sometimes I did not, nor did my co-workers), then the questions and answers would be discussed during the next class.  One year the questions were so interesting that we would gather the four teacher's in our hallway, read, laugh, ponder and debate sexual topics far beyond the required time for a teacher to remain after school.  From what I remember the best questions or comments included:

1)  What type of milk comes out of a woman's breast?  1%, 2% or homogenized?
2)  If a boy ejaculates in your ear, can you pregnant?
3)  Can a boy and a boy have sex together?  If they do, how do they do it?
4)  Teacher created question:  If a boy is prepubescent, can he get a girl pregnant?

When HS (our common term for Human Sexuality) would resume the next day our discussions with 56 Grade 6 children and 2 teachers created a space with one amazing discussion after another about bodies, diseases, choices, orientation, pregnancy, slang terms they had heard, etc.  The students were asking questions that required that we delve into sexual curriculum sooner than the official curriculum dictated.  They wanted to know, and we would ask them if they really wanted to know, and most of the 56 students said yes.  Those who where more skeptical about wanting to know did, at times, have a look of alarm or surprise pass over her/his face, but as classes continued our students inquired when HS was going to begin, they moved faster than lightening to put away previous work so we would have more time for HS, and the space we created for learning was honestly quite magical.  I was doing my job not because I had to or for the money, but because everyone was being inquisitive and everyone was learning.  Our students knew so much sexual information already and needed clarification about words, topics and choices that were confusing them.  In our classroom they learned that any question was OK and answers may include seriousness, laughter, inquisitive looks, and even a teacher-to-teacher comments like, "have you ever heard that word before?"  "No. You?"  "New to me."  The learning went both ways.

The question remains: at what time and at what age are children ready to learn about which sexual material.  Governments revisit subject-based curriculum's on a regular basis to decide what parts should be altered, adjusted, and improved.  Education specialists, child developmental specialists, teachers, administrators, parents, community representatives, government officials, should have their input and final decisions should be made by educators and government officials with the community input in mind.  If parents are not happy about the sexual curriculum, you can opt your child out, or perhaps public education is not the place for your child and you should search out alternatives (some are expensive, others not).  But know that your child is going to learn about sexuality somewhere; where do you want it to most likely occur when it is outside your home? 

Two More Stories:

#1:  In my classroom in Grade 6, during two different years, there were two students whose gender identity and general behaviour were somewhat opposite to what society traditionally sees as standard.  A classroom conflict arouse which included prejudice and judgement, and an entire discussion ensued concerning femininity, masculinity, differences, prejudice, acceptance, and appreciation of others.  Due to creating a classroom where we had discussed similar issues already, rather than waiting until Grade 7 or 8 as the HS curriculum dictated, the classroom conflict turned into a healthy discussion that resulted in us being able to return to more learning.  Parents need to understand that even with a prescribed curriculum, topics will be addressed in class on an as need basis.  Parents then have the responsibility to teach their own children what they wish them to know in addition to classroom learning after such discussions have occurred.  (Even with the new law, Bill 44 in Alberta, excusing children from sexual and religious topics, it is unreasonable to expect teachers to keep track of individual requests from parents, organize discussions accordingly, and remove and add children to the classroom repeatedly throughout the day.  It is a crap law about which no one bothered asking the teachers and which damages the understanding that knowledge provides people with an educated brain to make the best choices.  Withholding information does not.) 

#2:  I remember being 21-years-old and working with a young woman of the same age.  She was to be married through a parent arranged union the next year and did not know how babies were created.  My inner mind said the following things to itself: "I have a choice here.  I can let this young woman wait until the night before her wedding and hope that her mother, aunt, or someone tells her about sex, or I can tell her about sex now so that her honeymoon does not include rape."  I chose to tell her what I knew and her reaction was much like my own when I was eight.  She asked, "why would people do that?"  "Because it feels good and people like it, " I responded.  "Wow," she shared.  "How could she be 21 years old and not know about this?  Didn't she learn this at school? from a friend? Weird!" were my other thoughts.

In teaching students Human Sexuality I do not want them to forgo their innocence or childhood play too early.  I still don't think children age 13, 14, 15 or even 16 are prepared for the intimacy that sex can create between two people.  In having sex very young, I wonder if it changes people, their opinions of sex, their expectations of sex, or how it is used in individual lives.  These questions are part of my own values and upbringing, and at the same time the other part of me questions if there is good that comes out of a life which includes a freer attitude towards sexuality than the attitudes with which I was raised.
Opinions?  Ideas?  Is there a too young or too old for addressing sexuality or certain sexual issues?  How did you develop your own ideas about sex and sexuality?  What do you think about Bill 44?  Should different religious beliefs or parental attitudes affect public sexual education?


  1. Great post Tonia! In our family we've tried to give the kids some age appropriate information (what we think is age appropriate in any case), and then see how much interest they have... If they are interested we go into more detail... if not then we wait 6 months or so before checking in again.

    It was very interesting for me to get a teacher's perspective.

  2. I enjoyed this post Tonia!! I especially liked your list of other places where children could receive information and messages about sex that are less controlled. One place that should be added that provided much education for me and now my son is the School Bus. :)