Sex ed is finally catching up to the digital age

With the advent of free porn tube sites like Pornhub and image-friendly apps like Snapchat, it’s easier than ever for pubescent youth to get their hands on NSFW images. Porn is everywhere, and starting in September, schools in Ontario, Canada will adopt a new sexual education curriculum that addresses sexuality in wildly more comprehensive ways.

According to the proposal, the new curriculum for students in grades 1-8 will address such concepts as active sexual consent, sexting, cyberbullying, and masturbation. What’s taught in classrooms will vary depending on the age of the students. Students in first grade, for instance, will learn the appropriate names for their anatomy, while students in seventh grade will learn about anal sex and oral-genital contact. 

After the new curriculum was unveiled, the right-wing activist website LifeSiteNews began rallying parents to sign a petition that accuses the new curriculum of “promot[ing] a radical sexual agenda that can only be described as physically and morally treacherous.”

But advocates and sex educators are thrilled that the curriculum, which hasn’t been altered since 1998, is finally getting an update. The Internet is ubiquitous, and we can no longer avoid previously taboo conversations when teens and adolescents can so easily access explicit materials.

Farrah Khan, a counselor and advocate who has worked to raise awareness of gender-based violence and issues of “consent culture” for the past 16 years, is thrilled with the new curriculum. “Who do you want to teach your kids? Porn? The random folks they meet through social media? Or the government school curriculum?” she tells the Daily Dot. “They’re going to learn these things either way.”

Khan believes that the advent of non-consensual porn, ephemeral messaging apps, and porn tube sites like Pornhub are forcing educators to address Internet sexual safety issues. “We need to move beyond just penis-vagina conversations,” says Khan. “We need to keep updated…If people don’t talk about desire and don’t talk about sexual health, [terrible] things happen.”

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look too far back to figure out what these terrible consequences might be. The 2013 bullying and suicide of the Canadian teenager Reteah Parsons, for instance, was prompted by a photo of her being gang raped, which went viral on social media. Khan believes that such tragedies could have been prevented with proper online educational and safety tools in place.

“We have to use harm reduction,” Khan tells the Daily Dot. “We have to ask [ourselves], ‘How do we teach people precautions, so that when anyone uses the internet to date or connect we make sure we reduce the amount of harm that can happen?'”

Wazina Zondon, a family life and sexuality educator in Brooklyn, New York, agrees. She says it’s “essential” that students be taught about the dangers of social media as early as possible. 

“Starting in first, second, and third grade [kids] will talk about bullying,” she tells the Daily Dot. Because much of this bullying takes place online, if sex educators “start with talking about bullying and aggression and then move on to technology, you’re part of the normal fabric of what kids experience.”

Starting in third grade, students will also learn about same-sex relationships. In sixth grade, the curriculum will address gender identity. While critics of the new curriculum see this as problematic, Zondon disagrees whole-heartedly. 

Studies show that isolated LGBT youth are likely to seek out other members of the community online on platforms like Tumblr. While the Internet can be a great resource for at-risk LGBT youth to find information and meet like-minded people, they’re also more vulnerable to falling prey to “online risks” such as cyberbullying. 

Zondon, who speaks openly about sexuality in her project “Coming Out Muslim,” says that students who develop healthy gender and sexual identities at an early age will use technology more wisely.

“Having a healthy sexual and gender identity has a direct influence on how kids will use the internet and technology,” she explains. “Sometimes I worry that young people think they’re connecting [online] and in fact can end up in a really vulnerable situation… But technology is also a really great tool for asserting their boundaries through texts. So it’s sort of a blessing and a curse.”

The new curriculum will also teach adolescents about the dangers of sexting. Starting in second grade, students will also learn the value of affirmative consent, learning the importance of phrases like “no means no.” (As the Huffington Post explains, however, the curriculum for second graders won’t focus specifically on sexual consent, but the broader concept of consent in general.)

Considering that the 1998 curriculum failed to mention such crucial issues, the new Ontario sex ed curriculum represents a massive upheaval to what’s been taught in schools for nearly two decades. And with technology developing faster than educators can keep pace, we’ll likely need many more adjustments to come.  

“Technology is forcing us to have better sexual education,” says Zondon. “Technology has always influenced us, but this technology is way faster. So I tell parents, ‘If you don’t want to talk about [sex with your kids], somebody else is going to. And that’s always been true…but now we’re just [experiencing] it at a different speed.”

Photo via Maurizio Pesce/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay

Nayomi Reghay is a frequent contributor to the Daily Dot, covering body positivity, feminism, sex, relationships, and gender. She is also the author of the advice column “Swipe This!” A former New York Teaching Fellow, her writing has been featured in Reductress, Rolling Stone, Mic, Someecards, and more.