Doctor Mom is a physician who lives in Ontario.
A little while ago my sons – who were in grade 5 and grade 8, respectively, at the time – came home deep in a discussion that had begun on the school bus after Son #2’s first sex ed lesson.
I listened to them talk. You couldn’t really fault the accuracy of the information received. Male human… female human… different-but-complementary body parts, the names of which were correctly recalled…sperm, egg, uterus…
“But how do the egg and the sperm get together?” asked Son #2.
I decided to wade in and help Son #1 out. “Well, Honey, the penis goes in the vagina and then….”
“I know THAT, Mom!” [with eye-roll] “But how does it get IN there and how does the sperm GET OUT and get to the egg, because the egg is in the UTERUS?”
“Umm…It swims there…”
And I realized, as I had when Son #1 had come home with similar questions three years before, that some key information isn’t in Sex Ed 1. The essential elements of attraction, arousal and desire appear not to be imparted at this foundation stage. I guess it’s possible that he just didn’t remember the part of the lesson about how a penis gets to be erect, but frankly that’s unlikely.
So I explained about erection and ejaculate. As I described these aspects of a sexual encounter I was conscious that I was making it all sound a bit clinical. Evidently, I did not do a good job of explaining sexual desire because, at the end of my explanation, #2 said, “That sounds like a lot of work. It must be very hard to get pregnant.”
Not just a not-good job. Essentially, a failure.
To be rectified. Immediately.
I’m afraid I may have overdone it after that in my attempt to underscore how very NOT difficult it is for a sperm to fertilize an egg. I made much of the overwhelmingness of desire and I emphasized, repeatedly, that barrier contraceptives should always be used and contraception is the responsibility of both parties.
At which point Son #1 said, “It’s okay, Mom. Really. I think he gets it.”
After that I thought quite a bit about the difficulties involved in educating young kids about sex. Son #1 got a full description of the facts at age 7, when he asked me what was inside his scrotum. I told him it contained his testicles. He wanted to know what those were and why he had them. It was difficult to give him an answer to his questions without explaining sex, because one vague answer would just lead to another question. I didn’t want to give half answers and let his imagination fill in the gaps. Other parents might think that was too much information too young, but my own experience drove this approach.
I was 8 when I asked my mom how babies were made. She told me that Daddy gave Mommy a seed and she grew a baby. My 8-year-old brain reckoned she probably swallowed it. That was the sum-total of the sex ed I received from any adult until grade 10 biology lessons. I was the kid who ‘didn’t know’ when friends discussed sex not long after. It was embarrassing. Overall, my parents’ approach to enlightening me about sex was indirect, comprising firmly-articulated opinions about appropriate attire and warnings ‘not to behave like that around boys’. It instilled in me a sense that sex was somehow dirty, shameful and not something decent girls thought about or considered doing. It did not, I believe, set me well on a course to experience “sexual health” in its broader sense. From adolescence through my mid-twenties I felt my way around in a very dark room of sexual ignorance. Goodness knows how it went for my older brothers; I’ve never asked them.
I want my sons to start exploring their sexuality with a lot more light. So I’ve always been curious about the sex ed my boys receive and whether there are any gaps that need addressing.
But how to broach the subject without being, “OMG, Mom, you are so weird…”?
One day, not long after the incident described above, Son #1 and I walked to the mall to buy a pair of trainers. Walking is good for having tricky conversations, I find, because you are not required to make eye-contact on a walk. (Taking my teen out to lunch to talk about mental health worked much less well.) It was raining and we were huddled together under an umbrella, which seemed to help rather than hinder the conversation.
“Do you remember that conversation that I had with your brother after he came home from his first sex ed lesson at school?” I said.
“Well I was a bit worried that that’s all you guys learn….just the mechanics, you know…and, because I’m a doctor I’m keen to know that sex ed teaches you about the importance of having a healthy sex life…”
“You mean how to avoid getting a STI or getting pregnant? Yes, we learned about different types of contraception and how effective they are and that condoms also protect against STIs, and Mr P. said that the only 100% effective way to avoid pregnancy or a STI is not to have sex.”
“Oh. Okay…did you learn that sexual expression is a normal part of life and that it’s meant to be enjoyable for the people doing it?”
“Well, we watched videos about consent and about how you shouldn’t hurt someone by sharing personal pictures.”
A little more recently, the #MeToo movement prompted me to discuss consent again with my teen. He told me that a recent grade 9 sex ed lesson had involved watching and reflecting on a video adaptation of the ‘cup of tea’ metaphor for explaining consent.
We’ve also had several conversations about LBGTQ+ issues and he reflected out loud on where he thinks he might be on the sexual orientation spectrum (…not sure yet…and I made sure to tell him I don’t care as long as he’s happy).
So up to now I’ve been mainly concerned that Ontario school sex ed leans too much towards a biomedical sexual health model, that is, emphasizing all the BAD STUFF you need to AVOID. Disease. Unwanted pregnancy. Rape charges. Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for drumming into kids’ heads the importance of sexual respect and non-violation, and how to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy. But where’s the part about sex being a normal part of healthy life…when do they learn about the importance of healthy sexuality to one’s overall experience of well-being? Up to now it’s bothered me that, for all the information that’s provided, the bottom line of modern-day sex ed seems still to be just this: “The best way to avoid [whatever] is to abstain.”
I say, “up to now,” because this morning was the dawn of ‘Ford Nation’ in Ontario, and Doug Ford and the Progressive Conservatives campaigned on a platform that included, among other things that would harm health, a promise to roll back the province’s sex ed curriculum to the pre-2008 iteration (which did not include teaching about consent).
NOW, I find myself more concerned that my Son #2 won’t get the comprehensive sex ed that his brother has had.
Reflecting on all the talks Son #1 and I have had about sex over the last few years, I can say that school sex ed provided a good foundation that made those conversations easier and much less awkward than I’d anticipated. I guess I will have to be prepared to initiate lots more of those conversations with his brother in years to come. Perhaps, in the end, it is really primarily the role of parents to teach and to model ‘sexual well-being’.
Dr Sarah Kennea
Brilliant article loved this reflection and gave me lots to this about with my two boys!
Dr. David Opper
Sorry, but I respectfully disagree. I am NOT a Ford supporter, but I fully agree with “moving back” re sex ed and the way it has been presented.
My wife and I have been quite successful in teaching our 7 boys about sex without the school doing it.