Message for Ontario’s sex ed naysayers: Ignorance is far from bliss

Commentary by Aparita Bhandari  on the need for sex education and a reminder of some of the culture behind opposition to sex-ed:

I was around seven years old when I was told I was impure. It was at a family get-together in India that involved a religious ceremony. My mother had her period at the time, and had been segregated to a cold, dark room. I had no idea what was wrong with her, only that I never wanted to have what she had. I was impure by association. I was told I needed to take a purifying bath if I wanted to sit with my cousins. Eager to please, I splashed cold water on my shivering body. But I couldn’t wash away the sense of shame.

As a teenager in New Delhi, I hated taking public transit. Men would press their erections into my backside or try to cop a feel as I squeezed my way off the bus. But I did not know how to talk about it to my mother or anyone else. What words could I use? So I kept quiet, and avoided using public transit.

But it’s hard to stay quiet now when many parents in Ontario are removing their children from classrooms to protest the revised sex ed curriculum introduced by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government. They cite cultural concerns and family values but, as far as I’m concerned, a culture of shame and silence is more dangerous. And given the possibility that many of these parents aren’t going to talk to their kids about sex, it’s even more important that their children receive sex education that’s well researched and takes into account the access young people have to sexual information (and misinformation) today and includes topics such as sexual consent.

Since I attended a public school in Australia from Grades 5 to 8, I happened to learn about menstruation, puberty and my developing body through a mixture of books, sex ed classes and educational films that I caught on TV. But I never learned about sex from an authorized source. Back in New Delhi, there were exactly two pages devoted to reproduction in my Grade 9 biology class, which our Science teacher more or less skipped over. The main take-away was that we should know how to draw anatomical diagrams of male and female sex organs for our annual school examination. Any practical education came from romance novels and whispered conversations with friends.

I never had “the talk” with my parents, but I was repeatedly told by the women in my family that I had to watch what I wore, how I acted. I was warned, “Rape bhi ho sakta hai (You can get raped).” Nobody even told me what rape was, although Bollywood movies at the time had frequent scenes that suggested men sexually assaulting women.

Message for Ontario’s sex ed naysayers: Ignorance is far from bliss – The Globe and Mail.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

4 Responses to Message for Ontario’s sex ed naysayers: Ignorance is far from bliss

  1. gjreid says:

    Creating shame and fostering ignorance are huge methods of social control, and that control is often used for ignominious ends. Thus the obsession reactionary religious and political authorities often have about sex. Terrify people and you can do with them what you will. I see that in Iran a well-known cleric has just declared that immodestly dressed women cause earthquakes. Who knew the fashion industry was so powerful? Seismology has been overturned. In our own past, here in Ontario, ignorance reigned supreme until recently. What I learned from my parents about sex was minimal – one casually delivered sentence about ‘not touching yourself’ – but, aside from that, nothing, zero, zilch. What I learned in high school, from our brutal and ignorant phys ed teacher, in an all-boy class, was worse: very scary, just plain wrong, and absolutely stupid. We boys screamed in protest. Essentially masturbation or premarital sex would cause your precious attribute to rot and fall off. The guy was so over-the-top stupid it was comic. Today’s protesters are, whether they realized it or not, urging a return to the age of ignorance and infamy – and, of course, patriarchal control. This will produce a lot of tragically confused, mixed up, isolated and, quite possibly, suicidal kids, as well as fostering those wonderful old feelings – shame and guilt.

  2. Marion Vermeersch says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Andrew. It really resonated with me as, in the course of work with child sexual abuse victims (groups), I saw too many very young children who had wanted to tell someone but couldn’t because they did not have the language, seldom not knowing the names of body parts and being disciplined for trying to mention such things. They often somehow sensed the abuse was wrong, but often assumed it was they who were at fault. The whole process would, I feel, never totally be forgotten or resolved entirely at some level. Surely it would be best to have an open, frank discussion in the school setting, where all would learn the same information.
    We have excellent staff in our public health units in Ontario who were a great resource in the area of sex education both in the area of prevention and in dealing with the aftermath of child sexual abuse. Has there been any consideration of having the PHN’s, once again used to provide correct information for children? Children are often more comfortable with a specially trained nurse than the teacher who perhaps is more comfortable imparting knowledge of other subjects.

  3. gjreid says:

    PS: I agree, Andrew. Thank you for this: I think Aparita Bhandari’s article is very brave, eloquent, and fantastically to the point. I hope other people will speak up in the same way. In my fairly long life I have know quite a few people tortured by sexual guilt – and by ignorance, sometimes fatally. And often lifelong unhappiness is the – predictable – product of ignorance, shame, and guilt, as people are afraid to share their needs, their yearnings, their fears. Such solitude makes ‘love’ very problematic and often fatally infects it with lies.

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