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“Yes, No, maybe…I’m not sure…let’s talk about it…”

February 8, 2015

As a long-time community sex educator who has spent a career working with 12-24-year-olds it was heartening to read in the newspaper last week that some Grade 8 young women  in Ontario are asking that they be included in formulating the new Ontario public school sex ed curriculum – and that they would specifically like to see the issue of “consent” be included in the new curriculum. And they want consent to be more than just about sex. It is also to be about language, how we talk to each other, how we agree to co-exist in society.

I applaud their demand – and say “good luck”.

I’ll try to maintain my optimism that they will be a) heard; and b) included – but I won’t hold my breath.

Ontario may be one of the more “progressive” school boards in North America, but that is really only in Toronto, and even then at the discretion of Principals and Teachers.

And when I say “progressive” I mean this strictly as a relative term. Canadians are much more closely aligned with American puritanical notions of sex ed than we are in sync with the European approach, which starts in kindergarten. Most of us, even now, get little more than the most basic of basics in sex ed classes.

Teachers, as a group, are one of the more conservative groups in society, and few are comfortable with their own sexuality, little own talking to a bunch of horny budding eighth graders about it.

Although I think any new sex ed curriculum would find it hard not to talk about consent after all the national attention that has come about after Rahtaeh Parsons, university rape chants, and the Dalhousie Dental School scandal. Not to mention the fundamental fact that a woman is sexually assaulted about every three minutes in this country.

That “consent” has to be taught does boggle the mind – and says a lot about how fathers talk to their boys, how our society represents sexual relations, and who benefits from the current model.

As a society Canadians are a prudish bunch when it comes to sex. In theory we allow for same sex marriage, public nudity, and sex shops. And a whole range of sexual behaviours.

But it doesn’t mean that most of us do any of that. We are a notoriously non-sexual bunch. Statistically speaking, only the Americans and the Japanese have less sex than we do. And Stats Canada informs us that we are having less and less sex all of the time. Our teens only have half the sex we did in the seventies. But that’s another topic all together.

So what is “consent” and how hard is it to understand?

Well, I would argue that understanding consent is not the real question. By Grade One we know what consent is.

Consent: 1) verb: to permit, approve, agree; 2) noun: permission, approval, agreement.

The real question is this: Why do men (mostly men – and when I say mostly men I mean 99% men) not care about sexual consent?

I have wondered about this a lot over the years. I have worked with many victims of sexual violence – many of whom have asked why do men do what they do.

Because we can, is the best I can come up with. On average men are bigger, stronger, more aggressive. What’s the first thing that happens when societal norms break down? Rape and pillage. Because we can.

In long-running campus surveys, 70% of males say they would rape a female if they thought they would get away with it. So, we do know what consent it. But we prefer to say fuck it – when we can. Because we can.

Does this mean we shouldn’t teach consent in schools? Absolutely not! Every sexually budding Grade 5 boy who has been tempted to touch some woman’s ass on the subway out of pure curiosity, needs to know that it’s wrong. And they need to know why it is wrong.

They need to hear from the girls and young women in their classes why it’s wrong, how it makes them feel, what the punishments are for not respecting consent.

And everyone – boy/girls, men/women – need to start on the same page as to what consent is – what it means as a concept, what it is related to within the context of sexual decision making, and how to negotiate it while in the throes of passion.

But like I said: good luck. Once the education bureaucrats are done listening to parents and churches and various other special interest groups (students might be listened to as a “special interest group”) the curriculum may well include an afternoon discussion on “consent”.

Squeezed into that very uncomfortable week in Grade Nine Phys Ed class – after the boys have been told they have a penis, and the girls have been told they have a vagina.

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