Cross Country Checkup

Dan Savage says Ontario's sex-ed repeal puts children 'in danger'

The sex and relationship advice columnist thinks Ontario's decision to revert back to a 20-year-old sex-ed curriculum is a bad decision.

The sex advice columnist says the decision puts kids at risk of unplanned pregnancy, STIs and abuse

Dan Savage appears onstage at the 15th Annual Webby Awards in New York. Savage was on Cross Country Checkup to comment on the Ontario government's recent decision to revert back to a 20-year-old sex-ed curriculum. (Charles Sykes/The Associated Press)

Dan Savage is calling the Ontario government's decision to go back to a 20-year-old sex-ed curriculum "an enormous mistake."

Savage is a podcaster and author best known for his internationally syndicated sex and relationship advice column, Savage Love. As a gay man and activist, he said his biggest concerns with this decision is what it will mean for kids in the LGBTQ community.

"We know we need to provide kids with comprehensive sex education," he said to host Duncan McCue, during Cross Country Checkup's episode on sex-ed.

"We have better outcomes, not just for queer kids or LGBTQ kids when they're included in sex-ed and anti-bullying policies in schools, but also for straight kids."

Savage's biggest concerns include anti-gay bullying and the fact that queer students will not be acknowledged in sex-ed programs.

He pointed to studies from the University of Illinois that show a lack of sex-ed in schools leads to higher rates of abuse of girls and higher suicide rates.

Education Minister Lisa Thompson says just because the PC government is scrapping the modernized sex-ed curriculum the Liberals introduced, doesn't mean students won't learn about issues like consent this fall. (CBC)

Whose responsibility is it?

​Earlier this month, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced that the sex-ed curriculum taught in classrooms this fall will be from 1998, not the updated and controversial program introduced by the Liberals in 2015.

The new curriculum sparked controversy among social conservatives because it mentions same-sex marriage, gender equality and masturbation. Many also said that sex-ed should be the responsibility of parents, not schools. 

But following criticism from advocates and politicians from other parties, Education Minister Lisa Thompson went back and forth on what concepts will be taught, telling media last week that not all parts of the new curriculum will be taken out.

Later in the week, Ford said the Ontario government is planning consultations on a new sex-ed curriculum, which will mean visiting all 124 electoral ridings across Ontario to compile parental feedback.

It's sort of Ward and June  Cleaver-y  to think that all parents out there should and do provide their kids with comprehensive sex education, but they don't.- Dan Savage, sex and relationship columnist

However, Savage disagrees with the notion that parents should be the only ones who teach their kids about sex.

"It's sort of Ward and June Cleaver-y to think that all parents out there should and do provide their kids with comprehensive sex education, but they don't," he said.

How are students feeling?

But not all students are in agreement with an updated and modernized sex-ed curriculum. Julia Bisonette, who attends a Catholic school in Caledonia, Ont., said she felt so uncomfortable with the 2015 curriculum that she had to ask to be excused from one of the classes.

"I don't think it was appropriate for Grade 9 students at all," the 17-year-old told Checkup. "I know my friends who [were] in that class didn't feel comfortable either. It was very shocking for us."

Bisonette said the topics discussed included sexually transmitted infections, which she found helpful. But mentions of sexual positions such as anal sex and tethering were things that made her feel uneasy.

Because of this, she feels the Ontario government made the right call to revert back to a 20-year-old curriculum. 

She added that sex-ed should be a parent's responsibility.

Julia Bisonette, 17, attends school in Caledonia Ont. She says she disagrees with newer sex-ed curriculum and is happy with the Ontario government's decision. Meanwhile, 19-year-old Gachi Issa, who lives in Hamilton, found the newer curriculum valuable. 12:39

Meanwhile, students like Gachi Issa, 19, found the new curriculum included valuable information because it included topics like sexual violence and consent.

"Unfortunately, the reality is that a lot of people are affected by sexual violence and even in high school, people are having intercourse," she told Checkup.

Issa, who recently graduated from high school in Hamilton, is Muslim. She understands that some people have been opposed to the updated curriculum because of religious beliefs. However, she said she didn't personally find it offensive, and instead saw it as important.

"People are complex. We have nuance," she said.

"To kind of expect that having a conversation about sexual health, sexual violence and consent would in any way affect my religious beliefs, I think is negating the fact that I'm a whole person with different experiences, that will have experiences in the future."

Parents protest changes to the sex-ed curriculum outside Queen's Park on July 19. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

How do we move forward on the sex-ed debate?

Savage understands that not everyone will come around to a modernized sex-ed curriculum overnight.

"People wish that kids didn't even think about sex until marriage and that's just not true. It's always amazing to listen to adults talk about children and sex who seem to have forgotten who they were at 15 or 14," Savage said.

He noted that misinformation is still being spread among certain groups about sex and gender identities.

However, he said the way to move forward is to keep having debates and discussions about what children should be learning. At the end of the day, he argued, topics like masturbation, same-sex relationships and becoming sexually active cannot be avoided. Suppressing the issues even further will only cause more harm, he added.

"It puts children who don't get sex-ed in danger of unplanned pregnancy, of sexually transmitted infections of sexual assault or sexual abuse."

Written by Samantha Lui with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Erin Pettit.