Commentators have tended to focus on the light shone by the poll on Canadian attitudes toward sexuality counselling sought by and offered to adults – one of the serious points at issue in public discourse about the government’s intentions in the abominable Bill C-6 concerning “conversion therapy” (about which I have written extensively elsewhere).
The government admits that this Bill, if passed in its present form, would deprive consenting LGBTQ adults of the ability to pay for counselling available to other Canadians. The citizens of Canada, interestingly (but unsurprisingly), massively oppose such an idea. The Nanos poll reveals that 91 per cent agree or somewhat agree that all adults should have the right to get the sexuality counselling of their choice, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
What is equally striking about the survey, however, is the light that it shines on contemporary Canadian attitudes toward the guidance of minors when it comes to matters of sex and gender. Only 41 per cent of Canadians are willing to affirm that the parents of a child of any age should be permitted in law to “discourage the exploration of gender possibilities and encourage her to be comfortable with her birth gender.”
Those parents may well currently assume that it is their right and their duty to raise their children as they think best, in accordance with their own beliefs and values – but just under 60 per cent of their fellow citizens are not sure that they agree with them, or worse are completely sure that they do not.
A similar scenario unfolds when the question arises as to whether parents should be permitted to “send a nine-year-old girl exploring gender possibilities to counselling to encourage her to accept her birth gender.” Even fewer Canadians – 38 per cent – emphatically endorse that possibility. The parents may possess the firm conviction that such counselling is very much in the child’s best interests, both in the shorter and the longer term, especially if they know that – given appropriate care – “only a small number of children with gender dysphoria will continue to have symptoms in later adolescence or adulthood.” No matter. Fully 27 per cent of Canadians say that counselling should be illegal in such a case, and another 32 per cent say that they are unsure whether it should be illegal or not.
When we turn to the matter of sexual activity among minors, we encounter still further startling news. Only 39 per cent of Canadians believe that it should be legal for parents to discourage “their 15-year-old son from engaging in heterosexual activity (emphasis added).” Only 38 per cent believe that it should be legal for parents to discourage “their 15-year-old son from engaging in homosexual activity (emphasis added).”
The great majority of Canadians either believe that such discouragement should be illegal (29 per cent and 33 per cent respectively), or they are not sure whether or not it should be illegal (32 per cent and 29 per cent respectively). Many parents may well think that it is good and wise to discourage sexual activity among minors – at the very least, to delay such activity until two people are in a committed, adult relationship, and perhaps even to do so until those adults are married.
Canadian law itself places the age of consent to sexual activity at sixteen. There is, in fact, a general recognition in Canadian law of the limited capacity of young people to handle important matters optimally, which is why minors face other legal restrictions as well. In British Columbia, for example, one cannot drive a vehicle until the age of sixteen, voting age is eighteen, and the legal drinking age is nineteen, as is the legal smoking age. One cannot enter a casino until the age of nineteen, nor enter into a binding contract.
Yet a very substantial number of Canadians not only disapprove of parents discouraging sexual activity among minors, but are either certain that it should be illegal, or not yet sure what they think about this.
When we consider, finally, the question of pornography, we learn that only 38 per cent and 36 per cent of Canadians respectively believe that it should be legal for a counsellor to encourage a 17-year-old male patient to stop looking at heterosexual or homosexual pornography. Many of us might suppose that it is perfectly obvious that the viewing of pornography of all kinds is a major social ill of our times, reducing and objectifying other human beings in our imaginations and also, in the end, in the ways that we relate to others.
The massive, negative impact on our children is already evident in the way that substantial numbers of them relate to each other even at elementary school. So surely it is a good thing that I can receive, if I wish, counselling from a professional person that helps me to reduce pornography’s satisfaction? Surely it is obviously a good thing that such counselling is available for any minor or adult who needs it? Just under 66 per cent of Canadians disagree. They are either convinced that it should be illegal, or they are still thinking about whether it should be.
To be clear, this is not a matter simply of Canadians disagreeing with each other about sex and gender, about what good and bad parenting looks like, and about which kinds of counselling are preferable to other kinds. What this Nanos poll reveals is that a substantial percentage of contemporary Canadians support the criminalization of their fellow-citizens for guiding minors, including their own children, in ways that until very recently would have been widely viewed as loving and responsible – and that another substantial percentage possess no great convictions on these matters that are likely to cause them to rise up in defence of those offering such traditional guidance.
It is not merely that there is no longer a consensus in Canada on whether it is good to encourage minors to be comfortable with their birth genders, refrain from sexual activity until they have reached an appropriate stage of life, and avoid the viewing of pornography. I suppose that we all knew this already. What this Nanos survey shows, however, is that substantial numbers of Canadians would either support the legal suppression of such encouragements, or at least be likely not to oppose such moves.
What this says about the true character of “the True North strong and free” – so readily inclined to laud our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and to boast of our tolerance and pluralism – is of course a serious question. On the face of it, it appears that substantial numbers of Canadians do not really believe a word of it – at least insofar as it involves the rights of parents to raise their children as they think best, the rights of counsellors to counsel minors as they judge best, and the rights of the minors themselves to make choices about the kinds of counsellors they consult.
We would be wise to pay attention to this reality – for where public sentiment goes, the law very often follows. In such circumstances, we need to be like the men of Issachar who came to King David at Hebron – “men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32).
Our “times” are increasingly dangerous ones, and we must fully “understand” their nature. If we do not make the effort to accomplish this, we shall be in no position to know what to “do” in response to a steadily-worsening cultural situation in which minors, increasingly deprived of wise guidance from parents and certain kinds of counsellors, but robustly catechized by many other adults in virtual and non-virtual public spaces, will increasingly become “lost” both to us and to themselves.
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The challenge for a renewed conservatism that will have the authenticity and robustness to appeal again to the electorate will have the courage to avoid simplistic talking points and recognize that a healthy society requires a full range of social institutions to play their roles
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