Educate Me: On Canceling the Sex-Ed Reform

Submitted anonymously to North Shore

Only a few weeks into his time as Premier, Doug Ford has already moved on a key promise he made to social conservatives while securing the Progressive Conservative party’s leadership nomination. By canceling the sexual education reform and restoring the 1998 curriculum, Ford has provoked some significant popular anger. This is interesting because the level that people feel impacted by this is much more than at other moments around the same issue, for instance, in 2010 when Dalton McGuinty’s government proposed and then withdrew a very similar reform, or in 2015 during consultations by the Wynne government to write the new curriculum

In large part, this can be explained by Ford’s hateable face, but also by his willingness to hand wins to the religious right. That he is emboldening and bringing in the same groups that push an anti-queer and anti-women agenda more broadly makes this a much larger threat than just an issue of curriculum.

In this short text, I want to pose a couple of questions for us as we move ahead on this issue: what are the possibilities of a grassroots response? Is canceling the reform actually going to change anything? And how can we think about the groups behind the campaign that led to the cancellation? (For details about the reform and its cancellation, see links at the end)

There were already queers, radicals, and feminists organizing to plug into the sex-ed portion of the school curriculum. This wasn’t a mass effort, but there has been for a long time a constellation of volunteer and not-for-profit groups that support teachers in providing quality sex-ed content or talking about consent or LGBTq issues in schools. It sounds like many people are seeing the value and urgency of this work now and are trying to organize themselves to either get into classrooms or provide after-school programming or printed resources.

This is direct action and it’s a very positive step. However, the scale of the problem is very large and its unlikely that decentralized groups focused on service provision will be able to make a dent. In Ontario, there are 125,000 teachers working in almost 5000 schools with a budget of 23 billion dollars.

The Liberals and NDP (and their supporters) will point to this problem of scale when arguing that the only answer is to support them, in the Canadian tradition of social progress coming from the top. However, we can understand the problem differently and ask if we really accept a situation where the state has almost total authority to decide what children learn and how.

There is a lot that has been written in critiquing the mainstream, state-centric education model: that it is most concerned with authority and obedience, that it is homogenizing, that it seeks to make docile workers rather than well-rounded individuals, that it reproduces class society, that it is a key tool in cultural hegemony, that it breaks apart other forms of community and rebuilds us as a mass… This might be a moment to dream a bit bigger than just a pressure campaign about curriculum.

At times, there have been very interesting FreeSkools in Ontario, providing free (like freedom) and decentralized education, mostly aimed at adults. Like in many places, there are also large networks of parents unschooling or homeschooling their kids in response to critiques like those described above. Are there skills, tools, and analyses in these experiences that could be brought to bear alongside the specifically sex-ed work comrades have been doing that could provide a vision for what taking grassroots control over school, schooling, and education can be?

It’s also possible that the issue of sex-ed in schools is being overstated. Social movements in Ontario have very little autonomy from political parties and unions, which can make it hard to tell when an issue is actually critical and when its just being mobilized as a partisan wedge. After all, the new curriculum never came into effect, so Ford’s cancellation of the reform is a status-quo move. Definitely, there was real reason to be excited about the changes and having a provincial government that caters to reactionaries is a cause for concern. But materially, the situation around sex-ed is the same as last year. [NS Note: As the commentor below points out, it does seem that the sex-ed reform was implemented in the previous school year]

When I went through school, I started under the sex-ed curriculum that the 1998 one replaced: I got an explanation of what kinds of touching might be inappropriate in grade 3, the full anatomy lesson and where babies come from in grade 4, and discussion of puberty in vague terms in grade 6. In high school however, ostensibly under the 1998 curriculum, my whole school, in the public board, got abstinence-only education, anatomy that talked about the skeletal and muscular systems but not ovaries and testicles, and the only discussion of sex or dating was when the gym teacher put on a film about hockey bros hooking up with girls in Alaska.

All that to say that if teachers in my high school could fall so far short of the 1998 guidelines, then probably there were other teachers already exceeding it and teaching about how some people are gay, gender is complicated, consent is a thing, and that sex can be fun. And very likely individual teachers still are able to do so if they feel that they can get away with it and have the supports they need.

One aspect of this that’s particularly interesting is the composition of the movement against the sex-ed reforms. Although the movement is heavily and explicitly Christian, there is large and visible participation by conservative Muslims. Their campaign against the sex-ed reform has been ongoing since 2010 – it’s worth asking how much this multicultural alliance of religious reactionaries has been a factor in the far-right’s failure to import the kind of anti-Muslim organizing that has occurred in Quebec.

The only people involved in the anti sex-ed campaign in my life are Muslims and both of them were already pulling their kids out of the sex-ed classes under the old curriculum, as were some religious Christians (who also gravitated towards religious private schools). What do they gain by restoring a curriculum they were already boycotting?

Perhaps this campaign, through its truly shocking levels of dishonesty, managed to present the sex-ed reforms as so radical that families who had not objected to the old curriculum now do. The biggest wedge issue here is homosexuality – the movement against the reform is unapologeticaly homophobic, and much of their discourse claims that the curriculum is teaching children to enjoy anal sex. Certainly public acceptance of non-hetero couples has increased a lot in the past 20 years, so perhaps this is something of a last stand for social conservatives on this issue.

Understanding the composition and goals of the conservative religious movement that coalesced around sex-ed is important, especially if the coalition manages to hold together and turn its sights on other issues – are we likely to start seeing protests outside of abortion clinics again, which were banned under a year ago by the Wynne government? How about the protests that attempted to disrupt Pride events across South-western Ontario? Are they a continuation of the hundreds of rallies against the sex-ed curriculum? Some of those big signs about sodomy look pretty familiar…

Handing a win to this coalition of religious assholes is probably the biggest aspect of the cancellation. Finding ways to target and disrupt the groups behind the campaign will be important if Ford really does go ahead with fresh consultations and the drafting of a new curriculum.

The Doug Ford era is just getting started. Rather than rushing into each issue with urgency, it’s a good time to go slow and take stock of where we stand. The kinds of organizing that shut down the province against Mike Harris twenty years ago are a distant memory, so if we’re going to get ourselves in a position to actually stop anything Ford wants to do, we’re going to have to put time into building networks and deepening our analysis. Finding direct action responses to the sex-ed cancellation that go beyond service provision and that are independent of partisan politics is a great starting point. Turning up the heat on the religious right is another. But the opening shots are fired and we’ve got four years to go.

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3 thoughts on “Educate Me: On Canceling the Sex-Ed Reform”

  1. Thanks for this article. As a sex educator and anarchist I’m feeling, well, lots of feelings and choosing to breathe and move forward conscientiously. There has been a huge response to the announcement. From what I can tell, not a very intersectional response nor a response rooted in an analysis of power – with some really badass exceptions.

    I love what you are saying, but what does that look like?

    The 1998 curriculum is outdated, yes. And, it is an act of violence towards queer and trans people to erase our existence in the education system. Knowledge about bodies, gender and relationships, respect, consent and the fucking internet are essential. But I think in many ways this is a move that shifts the scoop of the conversation to a purely reactive place. Within my profesh community of educators we are scrambling to defend something that last year we were critiquing and trying to push further.

    The 2015 curriculum is far from perfect (it has been implemented as far as I understand.) Nor are the teachers teaching it. When I go into a classroom to deliver programming and am hit on and belittled by the teacher, it’s clear that curriculum is not enough.

    While the curriculum is an interesting thing to mobilize around – sex, bodies, consent, relationships can’t be separated from power and well, capitalism.

    I can’t tell you how many students ask me: but what if it’s my boss at my part-time job who makes inappropriate advances? OR what if I don’t feel like I can say no because they are _____ (paying my bills, my family, the only person who I think will ever desire my non-normative body)?

    Which is why I appreciate your article bringing in who this is enabling/pandering to – the christian right. I don’t know how to engage with this or what potential strategies we can take on, and hope this article sparks conversation.

    And as anarchists, queers and radicals what is our potential to, or responsibility to engage in rural areas, where the least alternative services exist and the most harm is likely to happen, and a lot of the christian right are based. The same areas that elected Ford. Is it not our turf? Do we not know how or not want to engage in those regions?

    Also, the obsession with butt sex (tho used as a scare tactic as you name) makes me lol every time, sorry, not sorry.

    1. Just a quick reply to say that a note has been added to the article with your correction that the reforms were in fact implemented.

    2. Your last question is an important one (the one before the butt sex) and I think brings up some big questions about engaging with politics as anarchists. What is our responsibility to people who live far from us, to the children of those who agree with the cancellation, to all those we will never meet or interact with?

      A commentor on reddit put this in blunt terms:
      “at present, if it were left up to them, significant parts of the population would not teach their kids about birth control and instead teach that being gay or trans is an abomination. Keeping the state out of it and leaving it up to “parents” and “communities” is exactly what people like Jordan Peterson are asking for, and it’s got some frightening implications for kids in those communities.”

      I’d say there is probably no anarchist way to answer that question (and further that obsession with issue politics is why there is little actual anarchist discussion on r/anarchism). I’m not trying to create a new totalizing system that everyone has to adhere to — I’m trying to open up space where extremely diverse forms of life become possible. Especially for forms that are liberatory, autonomous, emphasize equality, etc. But it does also mean I accept people will live in ways I find abhorent — maybe we’ll continue discussing, maybe we’ll be in conflict. But the idea that we need the power of the state because otherwise some peoples children will have the wrong ideas is so authoritarian that I don’t even know where to start.

      I like the questions you ask better – how do we go about engaging with regions outside of cities or even in pockets of our cities that we aren’t connected to (all those mysterious churches that dot the streetscape, what happens inside?)

      There are some interesting examples, like the ways folks in other cities in the western GTA have tried to support antiracist organizing in Brantford and Caledonia. Or the movement to support hunts under the Nanfan treaty in at Shorthills down in Niagara. Or projects like Diggers books and zines in Prince Edward County that provide a liberatory pole to discussions in the region. These either look like digging in to a certain area and creating infrastructure or finding individuals there with whom you share values and making firm commitments to show up and have their backs, which lets them be more assertive and visible.

      The Sex-Ed issue has some specific opportunities for this…

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