The Toronto Department of Public Health starts off each year with a campaign aimed at youth to promote what they call healthy living. Advertisements are strategically placed in subways and bus shelters, often outside of secondary schools. Past years have heavily encouraged condom use and the “emergency contraceptive pill,” otherwise known as the morning-after pill.

In early 2000, the department will be using a different strategy. Instead of focusing on contraceptive use, they plan to run an advertisement called, “What’s the rush?” The Interimwas made aware of this campaign because a few of these posters were recently spotted around the north end of the city. The Toronto Transit Commission donated the advertising space for a trial run of the ads during the summer.

The advertisement reads, “What’s the rush? Maybe everybody is thinking about sex, but not everybody is doing it. Why not wait? You can have fun without having sex.” It contains a photograph of some teenagers laughing and enjoying life.

At first glance, the advertisement could give the impression that the Department of Public Health has taken a new approach to sex education. Pro-family advocates might be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief. The reality, however, is not so simple.

The “What’s the rush?” campaign has its origins in changes introduced by the Ontario PC government last year. In June 1998, former education minister Dave Johnson introduced a new health and physical education curriculum for Grades 1 to 8. The curriculum required that all publicly funded schools teach animal and human reproduction in grade three, puberty in Grade 5, the prevention of STDs in Grade 7 and the prevention of pregnancy in Grade 8.

Of interest to many was the specific requirement that abstinence now be highlighted, even if a school chooses to teach about contraception. The curriculum states that students in Grade 7 must be able to “explain the term abstinence as it applies to healthy sexuality.” It further states that in Grade 8, students must be able to “explain the importance of abstinence as a positive choice for adolescents.”

In the glossary of terms attached to the document, abstinence is defined simply as “a conscious decision to refrain from sexual intercourse.”

Education ministry spokesperson Dave Ross told The Interim this summer that individual school boards are permitted to implement the curriculum in any way they see fit, as long as they consult with parents and the community. Thus enters in local public health departments.

A common practice in several secondary schools currently is to invite trained public health nurses to teach sex education in the classroom if teachers feel uncomfortable, or if there is a high pregnancy rate in the school. Unfortunately, the Toronto Public Health Department’s definition of abstinence is simply a decision to “postpone” intercourse. It does not mention anything about saving sex for marriage.

Barbara McPherson, R.N, health education consultant in sexual health, told The Interim that the “What’s the Rush?” advertising campaign is geared at informing the under 18-year-old group that sex is good, “but that you don’t have to have sex right off the bat.”

This message is supplemented by teaching on alternatives to sexual activity on dates, including problem-solving games aimed at encouraging young people to think about the whole question of “how far is too far.”

While it may seem strange to hear an abstinence message from a public health department (most of which tend to be very liberal in their views about sex and morality), it shouldn’t be surprising, in light of mounting evidence of an alarming rise in teen pregnancy rates, in spite of widespread “sex education.” According to a Statistics Canada report in January 1998, currently about 50 out of every 1,000 women become pregnant during their teen years.

Moreover, it’s possible there’s more than a little self-interest in Toronto Public Health’s apparent shift in emphasis. Some “safe sex” advocates are on the defensive, concerned about the public perception that sex education has actually been counter-productive.

“The Harris government wants this included,” McPherson said. “He seems to think we are encouraging young people to have sex.”

It seems clear, however, that this new form of abstinence-based sexual education is nothing more than an attempt to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, all the while teaching that other methods of what Public Health calls “showing affection,” such as “outercourse,” are alternatives.

Outercourse essentially means mutual masturbation. McPherson defined it as, “any kind of sexual activity that occurs outside the body which could be anything from hand holding to reaching orgasm outside the body.” She denied the necessity of teaching the risks about this type of behaviour, even though several STDs can be transmitted outside the body and a woman is still able to become pregnant without having actual intercourse.

What can parents do?

Parents can and must make themselves aware of the methods and materials which are currently being used to instruct their children in the area of sex education. Don’t be afraid to ask to see lesson plans to find out the context that sexuality is taught in.

Help teachers to provide wholesome chastity education by introducing them to solid, morality-based materials, and talented, experienced speakers. Marilyn Bergeron, president of the Canadian Alliance for Chastity, says that many educators are simply unaware of the true meaning of chastity and need parents to help them understand.

Speak with school administrators about any concerns you have. The Ministry of Education requires that schools consider exempting students from particular units, if the students’ parents wish to withdraw them from specific classes.

Find out if any outside organizations are being brought in to teach sexuality in the school. Many organizations are directly connected with the distribution of contraceptives to teenagers and referrals to abortion clinics.