Monday, 2 March 2015

School is a proper place to learn about sex

If you want to start a heated discussion among people of faith, just say one word.

Sex.

That’s all it takes. You can approach sex from any angle. You can take any position on the issue. But start talking about sex itself and you get instantly heated conversation.

It came as no surprise to me to receive an e-mail from a person of faith about the new sex education curriculum in Ontario schools. It was strong in opposition to the current government and connected the leadership race of one of the other provincial parties to the sex education issue.

What did surprise me was that when the e-mail came, the curriculum had yet to be made public. I don’t mind opinions but let’s base them on fact, not emotion.

Having had a chance now to review the curriculum (well, at least part of it; it’s a big document), I can appreciate how much work has gone into it and just how much has changed since I was in school.

Back then we got “the talk” with black and white movies from our Grade 9 phys ed teacher. That was it. Boys got their “talk” in one classroom and the girls got their in another.

Most of us knew it already. Some were having sexual experiences (or said they did). Sex education in the school was earnest and somewhat embarrassing.

Nearly fifty years later, the world has changed. Sexting is common. Sexually transmitted infections have much more specific names. HIV/AIDS is real. Consent matters. None of this was discussed when I was in school. Much of it, like the internet and HIV/AIDS wasn’t even recognized.

When I first started in ministry in the early 1980's, we did a session on sex and relationships with the church youth group. We had parental permission and we had a young doctor in the community, active in the church, as our guest. He was excellent. But I remember his telling us about something he had seen in his internship in Montreal hospitals that was yet to be identified. They thought it was spread by sexual contact and it could not be cured. He was speaking, of course, about the early cases of HIV/AIDS.

His words left a deep impact on all of us on how our actions could have serious consequences.

I believe those who say that sex education should be left to parents alone are misplaced in their thinking. Talking about human reproduction with your children is not easy. That’s where the school comes in. The school system can give the facts and the biology. And yes, I believe it is appropriate to talk about this in early grades. But parents have a role, too. Parents can talk about values they hold and offer positive modelling of relationships. But none of us is perfect. And when other factors like alcohol, mental illness or family dysfunction are mixed in, sex education can be complicated and complex.

If schools can offer safe places for our young people for conversation about sex and are in dialogue with parents, then sex education can and will work. It’s a partnership.

I remember telling one of our high school principals that one of my children told me that they were watching porn movies in school at lunch time on someone’s cell phone.

The principal, quite aghast, didn’t believe me at first. But to their credit, they did do some investigating and the school became more aware of the risks that cell phones offered.

I support the new sex education curriculum in our schools. But it has to be a partnership with parents. For our children’s sake, if no one else.

Rev. David Shearman is the minister of Central Westside United Church, Owen Sound and host of Faithworks on Rogers TV - Grey County.