Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2015 (2426 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
What do you remember from sex ed?
I remember the Grade 5 girls being sequestered to talk about periods, pads and tampons, to much giggling. There was a particularly scarring animated video that featured, I swear, winged noses that morphed into penises -- to illustrate, that, like noses, they come in many shapes and sizes. We were shown an illustration of a girl who had just found out she was pregnant, a single tear rolling down her cheek. I remember a unit on the Consequences of Sex. One of the listed consequences was "ruined reputations." (Gee, I wonder whose reputations they were worried about.)
Traditional sexual education does two things well: teaching kids where babies come from and how not to get diseases. Discussing human sexuality as something healthy and pleasurable? Not so much.
We live in a society that's reticent to talk frankly with young people about sex -- not just the mechanics of it, but the emotional parts of it. A lot of the information young people receive -- if they are receiving it at all -- is cloaked in shame and fear, the concern being, I suppose, that if word gets out that sex can be fun and satisfying for both parties, kids will go wild -- even though it's a well-established fact better sex ed and improved accessibility to birth control leads to fewer pregnancies and STIs.
Sex ed -- a modern, inclusive, straight-talking sex ed -- has the potential to be an important, empowering tool to help young people make informed decisions. It could also be a powerful tool in dismantling rape culture -- an umbrella term that describes all the ways in which our culture accepts, condones and even encourages sexual violence through its attitudes about sex, sexuality and gender, which, of course, are informed by everything from TV to religion to cultural norms.
Sex ed, then, could be useful in shaping healthier attitudes about sex, sexuality and gender. Tessa Hill and Lia Valente recognized the untapped potential of modernized sex ed. They're the 13-year-old Toronto powerhouses behind the We Give Consent campaign to get the topic of consent written into Ontario schools' health curriculum. The antidote to rape culture, they say, is consent culture.
"We want health education that teaches our peers 'Yes means Yes,' " the girls wrote in their Change.org petition. "We want education that shows us that there are many ways to say no."
Almost 40,000 signees agreed and, last Monday, the girls stood beside Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne as she announced Ontario schools would indeed start teaching consent come September, with students learning about how to read facial expressions, for example, as early as Grade 1. Ontario's sex-ed curriculum hasn't been updated since 1998; an attempt in 2010 was shelved after objections from religious leaders.
These new changes have also been met with pearl-clutching and moral panic. Dr. Charles McVety, president of Canada Christian College, sent out a news release titled: "Teaching Six-Year-Old Children to Consent to Sex is Abhorrent." That's disingenuous; the new curriculum would actually be teaching six-year-olds respect for others' personal boundaries and how to read social cues, laying the foundation for further education on how that relates to sexual consent later on. Consent, of course, doesn't just happen in a sexual context. Equipping kids with the skills to ask, for example, "Can I give you a hug?" or say "I don't want you to hug me" -- and then respecting them for that decision -- are small (and completely age-appropriate) things that can make a big difference in their development as sexual beings later on.
Here in Manitoba, the government's Growing Up OK! puberty booklet, aimed at children in grades 4 through 7, was published in 2013 as a support tool for parents and teachers. It contains up-to-date information on gender, sexual feelings, masturbation and technology. The section on personal safety mentions consent, but doesn't deal with it explicitly.
It's been almost 20 years since the Canadian Federation of Students first rolled out its No Means No campaign, and many young people still don't know what informed consent looks like -- or, for that matter, what sexual assault looks like. No means no -- but there are nuances within that. Silence also means no. "Maybe" means no. "I'm not sure" means no. "I changed my mind" means no. If someone is incapacitated, that definitely means no: It's a crime -- an intoxicated person is legally unable to give consent.
Many activists and sexual-health experts are moving toward a Yes Means Yes model of teaching, which highlights enthusiastic, affirmative consent. After all, as many people have written before, consent is the presence of yes, not the absence of no.
Vycki Atallah of Teen Talk, the youth health education program at the Klinic Community Health Centre, is a big believer in affirmative consent. "Our approach is that if they are at the place where they are hearing no, they've already encroached on someone's personal space," she says. "It's about getting consent prior to sexual contact."
Teen Talk delivers workshops to 14- to 19-year-olds in a variety of settings, including high schools, after-school programming, alternative youth programming and treatment facilities. Teen Talk educators give practical examples of how to ask for consent; ask, listen, respect is their mantra.
This isn't exactly breaking news, but teenagers have sex. In Manitoba, one-third of Grade 9 students and more than half of Grade 11 students reported having had oral sex at least once. Nineteen per cent of Grade 9 girls (23 per cent of boys) and 46 per cent of Grade 11 girls (40 per cent of boys) reported having sexual intercourse.
Teens are bombarded with hyper-sexualized images and messages every day. Porn is ubiquitous. The pressures are immense. We can't just cross our fingers and hope young people will emerge as comfortable, in-control sexual beings on the day they turn 16. If we want to keep them safe and capable of healthy sexual relationships when they are ready -- something we all deserve to have -- consent has to be part of the conversation. Ideally, that will be conversations, plural. The classroom is a great place to start.