The Gordion Knot in Ontario Sex Education

In 333 BC, Alexander the Great came upon an ancient wagon, in what is now known as Turkey, on which the yoke was bound with knots so entangled it was impossible to use. Any man who could unravel the knots, it had been proclaimed, was destined to become the ruler of all of Asia. Alexander became obsessed with trying to figure out a viable, effective solution to the seemingly insurmountable challenge, for a very long time, without success. Legend has it he finally drew his sword, sliced through the knot with a swift single stroke, outsmarting all previous attempts at resolving the ancient puzzle, and went on to conquer Egypt, much of Asia, thus fulfilling the ancient prophesy.

There is a Gordion knot in the creation and delivery of an effective Sex Education program in Ontario and attempts by it to change the tide of the increasing numbers of teenage unplanned pregnancies. We need a courageous, and wise leader to solve this seemingly insurmountable twenty first century social challenge with the swiftness and decisiveness of an Alexander the Great!

Virtually all thinking adults in the developed world see the need for educating our young people about sex. But the ‘what’, the ‘when’, the ‘who’, the ‘where’ and the ‘why’, of it has been a Gordion knot for our leaders, for our teachers and for Ontario parents and youth for some time. In 2010, Premier Dalton McGuinty was forced to shelve an updated Sex education curriculum after three days because of public protests. Premier Kathleen Wynn tried again in 2015 with a revised version which met with both positive and negative reviews. Premier Doug Ford revoked that curriculum in 2018, and promised to have it reviewed and revised attempting to satisfy every voter in the province. He delivered on that election issue and after input from reportedly over 72,000 sources, and after just under a year of consultations, research, discussion and debate, recently released one more effort at an effective Sex Education curriculum to Ontarians.

This curriculum absolutely and unequivocally needs to address one of the worst life occurrences I can think of for a teenage girl in Ontario. Perhaps it is among the worst thing that can happen to a teenage female living in any place in the world. And that problem is an unplanned pregnancy.

I spent over 30 years working in Child Welfare and Adoption as a social worker. I counselled hundreds of girls and women, some as young as 13 years of age, who were confronted with an unplanned pregnancy and needed my help to make a plan to deal with it. I heard about one as young as 9, and was involved with sexually active girls who were of middle school age who were playing with fire. It was truly most difficult to see a naive, sweet young girl in her teenage years, frightened, disillusioned, confused and usually alone, having to wrestle with the consequences of what usually began as a few pleasureable moments. Those moments were in an activity that is hard wired into the human species, a normal relational act with another human being to whom she was attracted, while simply growing up.

Once an unplanned pregnancy is in play, for a teenage girl, the game options are four. None of them is pretty. None of them is easy. None of them is free of emotional overlay, social repercussions or expense. Every one of them dramatically affects the choices of the female involved going forward and her shot at a solid, positive, fulfilling life.

Marriage could be option one. Few of us in the educated modern world could support an adolescent who has an incomplete education, is financially ill prepared and emotionally not mature herself, to commit to another, usually equally immature and ill prepared partner, in a lifetime marriage contract, and become a child mom. Coersion into marriage and motherhood under these kind of circumstances is a poor choice, almost always.

Abortion could be option two. Access and acceptability to this choice has improved in the general culture over time for Ontarians. I know this is true in Ottawa, where a first term abortion can be arranged possibly quicker than a dental appointment. Statistics Canada numbers confirm this observation, but the accuracy of data, and the validity and reliability of those statistics is difficult to guarantee because they only reflect the number of abortions where administrative records are available and reported. While seemingly a fast and possibly simple and best solution, those who elect this option rarely do it lightly and may have long term sadness, regret and on occasion physical and fertility problems as a result. As well, despite lots of females being comfortable with this choice, there are scads of women from certain ideological, religious or cultural groups who are not. Finally, some unplanned pregnancies are only discovered or denial of its reality obliterated, at a point where the abortion option may not be chosen for many, many reasons.

Adoption is option number three. W5 ran a documentary entitled “Taken” on CTV on March 24, 2019 which chronicles the dreadful practices in adoption of the past where women were shamed, shunned, abandoned, hidden away and forced to relinquish their infants at birth for social reasons. Thank heavens practice has changed and Birth Mothers are generally supported, assisted, educated and totally involved in choosing a good family for their child. They can often be welcomed to participate in their child’s life while he/ she is growing up and celebrated for offering their offspring parents who are ready, willing and able to raise their baby into adulthood. Maintaining a relationship with one’s child in an Open Adoption is usually available and encouraged by progressive professionals in this field. But even this choice is tough sledding for teenage girls and emotional and social overlay is to be expected.

The fourth option is single parenting as an immature, uneducated, financially challenged teenager totally ill equipped to do the job. The research is clear that this role in life changes the positive trajectory for our female children incredibly compromising their choices and opportunities going forward. Their children do less well on many variables and the cost of supporting this kind of family is enormous to our society. While the odd girl can do it with plenty of support from her own competent parents, it is clear in the literature and it was clear in my career as a social worker, that love is definitely not enough. No one should ever want this option for their daughter, encourage a teenager with an unplanned pregnancy to embrace this option or think this is a positive solution to our problematic teen pregnancy rate. It too, is rarely a good choice.

Teen pregnancy rates in the USA lead the world and Canada is not too far behind. ‘The Toronto Teen Survey Report ‘ by Planned Parenhood of 2009, reported that among 18 year olds, 65% had engaged in vaginal or anal intercourse, 7% had been involved in a pregnancy and many were unsure they were involved in a pregnancy. ‘A Canadian Community Health Survey’ in 2005 reported that 43% of teens aged 15-19 said they had had sexual intercourse at least once and the numbers were higher in Quebec. Statistics Canada data from 2005 confirms this statistic which in 1997 was 47%. Among 18-19 year olds 66% were non virgins and in Quebec the percentage was 58%. In Nova Scotia it was 40%, a rise from 31% only 9 years before. In a study entitled ‘Teen Sexuality and Pregnancy in Nevada’, USA has the highest rate of teen pregnancy in the world and 34% of teen girls in that country are becoming pregnant at least once before turning 20 years old. Statistics Canada reports that teen pregnancy rates in 1997 in our country were just under 50 pregnancies per 1000 teens aged 15-19 in Ontario, and varied by province with the North West Territories reporting just under 125 pregnancies per 1000 in the same age group. Since 1974 there has been a decline in live births but and increase in abortions according to available collected data. The same source reported in 2014, “ that teen pregnancy has been on the rise since 2013”.

The Wikipedia website on teenage pregnancy is replete with facts, figures and findings by innumerable researchers and respectable studies on this social problem, why it is occurring and the attempts to solve this global issue confronting virtually every country. The success of those efforts or lack thereof is clear. If our parents, our teachers, our trustees and our leaders will listen, perhaps we can cut the Gordion knot on unplanned teenage pregnancies in Ontario.

Quoting far too many studies to mention here, the Wikipedia site explains that the USA, under several presidents, focused the country on the alarming prevalence of teen pregnancies and then spent a fortune putting in place policies, practices and programs emphasizing abstinence. While it was acknowledged that many things affected the birth rate among under 20 year old moms, such as education and poverty, abstention was the gold standard everyone could buy into. Leaders hoped that placing an emphasis on this for our young people would work. And so they gave it a try.

The Wikipedia site research found that the evidence was definitive. One study found that the research does not support the effectiveness of ‘ abstinence only’ in sex education in the reduction of the unplanned pregnancy rate among teenagers. It does not decrease rates of unplanned pregnancy when compared to comprehensive sex education. It does not decrease the sexual activity rates of students. According to the studies looked at internationally, the reduction of pregnancy rates is directly related to the kind of access to information and services teenagers want/ need, assurance of confidentiality and non judgemental care and whether contraceptives are free or very low cost.The bottom line seems to be that young age at first intercourse and lack of use of contraceptive methods correctly, or at all, seem like the biggest factors in unplanned teen pregnancy. And yet another study states that “In the USA free access to a long acting form of reversible birth control along with education, decreased the rates of teen pregnancy by around 80% and the rate of abortion by more than 75%”.

In my practice I counselled girls/women of every race, every religion and from all kinds of cultural groups. They were from all different economic levels and they cut across the spectrum on educational level, social status and intellectual
capacity. It seems that we all like having sex! It also seems that the average female in Canada chooses to have her first sexual intercourse experience at age 17 and according to Stats Canada findings in 2005, “90% of adolescents feel that most young people have sex before they really ready.” And the number one biggest reason for an unplanned pregnancy I heard from my clients and confirmed in the literature available on this subject, was the failure to use contraceptives, the failure of the contraceptive they did use or the incorrect use of that contraceptive.

So what do we do to keep our daughters and young girls protected from the dark roads ahead for them if they are unfortunate enough to become pregnant too young? How do we stem the tide of unplanned teen pregnancies in our increasingly sexualized culture in which our youth are living and by which they are so highly influenced? Unless we are planning to raise our girls in a double walled medieval castle built in the seclusion and wilds of northern Ontario,, and allow them access to only classical piano music, reruns of ‘ Father Knows Best’ and academic reading material preparing them to be research scholars on the Environment, we had better accept the facts.

Parents, teachers, trustees, and our leaders in Education must point to the research, the realities of our teens increasing earlier expression of their sexuality, and their need to be know about and have access to contraceptives if and when they choose. While some religious or cultural leaders may advocate for the gold star standard of abstinence until marriage and natural family planning methods only, they must come to see that that high moral standard is an ideal most of us flawed human beings cannot achieve and maintain consistently for our adult lives. All of us can continue to desire these standards but we must provide a safety net for the vast majority of our kids who cannot , will not, may not and who will choose not to do so!

Schools and school systems that allow ‘abstinence only’ education for its children need to cut the hypocrisy lurking in this public stance because a large number of Ontario children who get an overall excellent education in them otherwise, will be denied the salient information they need, to grow up without ever getting pregnant before they are ready, willing and able. The Catholic school system is a well known example of schools in which this is the approach and I will use it for illustrative purposes.

A 2018 article entitled, ‘Catholic schools and human rights: a deep contradiction’, by Rosemary Ganley, speaks to the prevailing hypocrisy of the teachers who disagree with the required official teaching in Catholic schools, yet cannot risk losing their jobs by teaching their students about artificial contraceptives while supporting this approach themselves. Another 2018 paper called” How Catholic Women fought against the Vatican’s prohibition on contraception”, reports the data on contraceptive use among American Catholic Women – 1955 – 30%, 1965 – 51%, 1970 – 68%, and in 2018 – 74.8%, virtually no different than the rate for non Catholics. In Latin America , where most residents identify as Catholic, the rate of use is 72.7% as well. The entire continent of South America where most people identify as Catholic now has an average family size of two or three where it once was 7 or more. The author writes as she analyses this data,”The theologians dissented, bishops raged and popes dug in their heels, Catholic lay women and their partners made their own family planning decisions, as they had for many years and would for decades to after.”

My own life experience has totally reflected this analysis as well, having been raised Catholic, having been educated in Catholic schools, having taught in Catholic schools as a professional and having known all kinds of Ontario Catholics in my family, extended family, and as colleagues, clients, friends and neighbours. I am hard pressed to even think of anyone in my generation who identifies or who did identify as Catholic, who did not make their own choice about family planning and use artificial contraception during some periods of their lives.

Why then do Ontario Catholics allow and support policies in their schools which they themselves so obviously do not or are not able to follow themselves, and which leave their very own children vulnerable to such a dreadful occurrence as an unplanned pregnancy as a teenager?

What if all the adults in our province, irrespective of culture or religion, who use contraceptives now, who used them in the past or who wished they had, got real, authentic and truthful about their own behaviour and real beliefs and practices? What if all of us in these categories openly supported comprehensive sex education, including information and access to effective contraception for all boys and girls old enough to possibly need it? What if all thinking Ontario parents, teachers, trustees, religious and cultural leaders and our legislators and policy makers, faced and studied the facts of increasing sexuality in our culture, the consequential impact of that on our children, our future grandchildren and the entire society, and the current trends in our young people’s sexual behaviours? What if that truth was accepted and applied in legislation and our Sex Education curriculum? Why not use our intelligence and help our young people bypass unplanned conceptions by using the best current sociological research and supporting evidence we can garner?

Whether one personally agrees with the practice of this knowledge for oneself or one’s own child , or whether one does not, should have absolutely no bearing on what our young are taught in Ontario schools on this subject in my opinion. The greater good of fewer unplanned pregnancies in our under 20 population going forward, should take precedence. It is a woman’s issue, it is a children’s issue, and it is a societal issue.

Catchy slogans like ‘Butt Out’ used to diminish cigarette smoking, or “We Recycle” which built successful awareness of pollution issues, and “Me Too” which has exposed some dreadful male behaviour and resulted in societal change, are understood everywhere and continue to impact behaviour and our culture positively. How about a slogan like “Double Up or Don’t” to encourage both males and females to each use a contraceptive every time they have intercourse or refrain from engaging in the activity at all? Such a slogan would support abstinence for idealists and those who are likely candidates for sainthood, with the “Don’t”. The use of two contraceptives all the time for the rest of us flawed mortal couples with less than perfect control would be supported with the “Double Up”. How about a massive, all out, well funded campaign to understand, teach and practice what such a slogan means so every fertile male and female takes full responsibility for not being part of any unplanned pregnancy, ever? How about we make the ‘ Double Up or Don’t’ approach to sex the norm, expected by everyone and very, very cool? How about we sell the joys and privilege of becoming a parent only when we are ready, willing and able, and help all couples make that happen for themselves and our young people?

Together we could actually cut the Gordion knot entangling the solutions to unplanned teenage pregnancies, by insisting comprehensive education and easy access to information about both the benefits of abstinence and the benefits of effective contraception, be provided in every classroom, every school, every health care clinic, every doctor’s office , every pharmacy, every public washroom, every community centre program and every place of worship, for all children.

May the concerned adults in Ontario cut the Gordion knot surrounding effective sex education alongside our leaders. Let us fully support all efforts to promote a province wide mentality and practice of ‘Double up or Don’t’ education, which will reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies and all the negative repercussions which results from them. Only then can our youth responsibly choose the best path for themselves, from all the available paths, when they decide to take that complex individual personal journey, meander down that beautiful road of sexual expression and become parents when they are one hundred percent ready.