The Ford government's recent decision to remove Ontario's existing elementary sex ed curriculum and replace it with an older version while it seeks feedback on a new version has generated plenty of heat in the province. Amid this outburst of attention, however, we should recognize that both the old and new versions of this document suffer from the same fatal flaw. Neither makes any effort to educate about marriage—in fact the word is never mentioned-- as a significant social institution or the end point in a logical progression of love and sex. The next version needs to fill this gap.
Is marriage so irrelevant to discussions of love and relationships? Discussing healthy relationships without mentioning marriage is a bit like trying to teach about healthy eating without discussing what nutrients are in various foods. It’s a crater of an oversight that does a disservice to our children and youth as they grapple with issues of connection, sexuality, stability, attachment, love and family. And, of course, marriage. Our youth grapple with the idea of marriage, and many of them would like to get married one day.
Some have noted (and condemned) how Ontario’s sex ed is low on talk of love. Take this one step further. Where life-long love is a goal, marriage is the gold standard. Yes, it’s an ideal. No, it’s not for everyone. But teaching marriage is the logical continuation of any discussion of love and relationships, and we are cutting the conversation short.
Marriage is not merely a recognition of intimate, personal love. Marriage is an important social institution that fuses sex, intimacy, economic cooperation, and parenthood into a permanent relationship. For all its flaws, marriage remains a goal for many. In spite of high divorce rates, marriage breaks up less frequently than cohabitation.
The success sequence of finishing school, getting married and only then having children is a near guarantee against poverty, routinely acknowledged on the left and the right.
This is not a religious crusade to promote any particular definition of marriage. We have hit an ironic point: The Canadian federal government legalized same-sex marriage because it’s a critical institution to which sex must not be a barrier – only to stop talking about it altogether.
In fact, we have every reason to keep talking about marriage. A significant body of research points to just how much good can come from healthy marriages.
Children raised by their married parents do better in school, are more likely to graduate and, following that, to get a good job. They’re less likely to use drugs and more likely to delay sexual initiation. Married parents are more likely to share finances, making more resources available to children. The success sequence of finishing school, getting married and only then having children is a near guarantee against poverty, routinely acknowledged on the left and the right.
Marriage is good for adult health, too. Medical research shows that in contrast with those who are single, cohabiting, divorced, separated or widowed, people in a good marriage have a 20 percent increase in cancer survival rates, improved mental health and reduced chances of having a heart attack. When men marry, they’re more likely to care for their children and stay involved in family life. Fatherlessness is a critical social problem, and one solution includes nurturing respect for marriage.
Institutions, including marriage, are essentially bundles of rules that help us live ordered lives without government intervention or completely unwieldy legal contracts. Marriage understands shared existence, including the economic, spiritual, social and sexual aspects of our lives. Consider the thorny topic of consent. No one will dispute that consent is critical in sexual relationships. But who actually believes a “sexual contract” actually ensures safety? And is mere safety our goal? What of intimacy, connection and attachment?
In our “limitless” world, honouring the ideal of marriage (always uncoerced) offers sanctuary from the tyranny of endless choice, at least in relationships. “Til death do us part” will signal some amount of hardship to which no marriage is immune. That said, in an uncertain world, it’s also a gift to know that we can know and be known, and accept and be accepted, in spite of our flaws. A good marriage makes for greater meaning, success and health in life. A bad marriage can be a person’s undoing. Why wouldn’t we educate our young people on this, the most critical and – when done right – most lasting decision of their lives?
Marriage isn’t for everyone. People can live fulfilled lives in other ways. But where support, safe sexuality, poverty reduction, health and child outcomes are important, marriage is the most effective solution. If a sex ed curriculum can’t mention the very best solution for safe and consensual life-long love, it’s wise to ask the question: What is it actually teaching?