Hey Canada, Consent Should Be Sex Education 101
Consent should be a staple of every and all sexual encounter. So why aren’t we teaching kids about it?
There's far more to consent than "no means no" — not that you'd know it from what we're taught in sex ed. Canada's curricula has long glossed over this crucial part of every sexual encounter. It's time we say yes to talking about consent, in all its forms.
I remember two things from my public-school sex education in the early aughties: a graphic and grainy VHS of a vaginal birth; and the vague insinuation that if I slept around, I was probably definitely going to get an STI. These are some of the things that I don’t remember learning: That when someone unbuttons your jeans, even after you tell them you’re not ready, it’s not okay. Or how to respond when a guy friend grabs your ass in a club and grinds his groin against your body. Consent just wasn’t a topic of conversation in the classroom or the cafeteria back then.
Today’s students aren’t much better off. In Canada’s piecemeal sex education system, in which some kids may be lucky to have a sex-positive teacher who cobbles together an inclusive curriculum while others are taught by a Coach Steve type who insists sex is a thing that happens between a married man and his wife, only to procreate, there’s one startling consistency: We still aren’t talking enough about consent.
Consent should be a cornerstone of our sex education and a staple of every and all sexual encounter, and yet more than two-thirds of adult Canadians say they are still fuzzy on what it means to give consent. (On-going and enthusiastic physical and verbal communication during sex that can be withdrawn at any time.) According to a 2021 study of 1,425 people in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. about the future of sex ed, Refinery29 found that consent was by far the topic Canadian youth want more information on: 67% of Canadian respondents said it’s the most important subject to be covered in sex ed nationwide. Currently, it’s in the official curriculum of fewer than half of provinces and territories.
“I went to a Catholic school and sex ed was very oriented on the reproductive rights of women. There wasn’t a lot of conversation about what it looks like to be in a consensual sexual situation,” says Aubrianna Snow, 23, a consent advocate and communications student from Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Treaty Six Territory). So, when her Grade 10 boyfriend pressured her to have sex, she did it, even though she felt uncomfortable. “I finally gave in just to get it over with,” she remembers. “It didn’t really click for me until I got to university and I heard the word ‘consent’ for the first time in my life.”
Young people who aren’t receiving this education are the ones most at risk: Half of Canadian women between 18-34 say they have felt this pressure to consent; that rate is 18 times higher than any other age group. And 71% of Canadian college and university students have either seen or experienced unwanted sexualized behaviours. These stats suggest that inadequate sex ed has an immediate and pervasive negative effect on women and non-binary people.
More likely than not, you've been there yourself. Maybe you’re making out with someone in your dorm and your shirt’s off and that’s fine, but then your bra is on the floor and you’re not sure how to slow things down. Maybe you didn’t say stop, but you didn’t say yes either, and your body sure as hell didn’t. Maybe you were drinking and can’t fully remember what even went down. Or maybe you and your partner decided to do that one thing that one time, but they want to do it again and you’re not up for it.
Your consent is required for all of the above, though it's not always easy to know where to draw the line because we haven't been taught where the line falls or the grey zones around it. To put it simply: “Pressure is not consent, it’s coercion,” says Keetha Mercer, director of community initiatives and grants for the Canadian Women’s Foundation (CWF), a Toronto-based nonprofit dedicated to righting the nation’s gender equality imbalance. The CWF defines any sexual contact without consent as sexual assault. “Young people are experiencing really, really high rates of sexual violence, which changes their lives forever. And they don't know and they don't feel like they can say no.”
When it comes to tracking race-based data, Canada is sorely lacking, but we also know racialized women and women with disabilities face much much higher risks of such gender-based violence — which, by the way, is the only violent crime currently trending upwards in the nation. “Teaching young people the skills on how to communicate around sex and relationships, how to set boundaries, how to navigate conflict, how to seek support, and how to intervene for each other, will create a safer environment for everybody,” says Mercer.
Most Canadians are on board with the idea. The sexual health and reproductive rights organization Action Canada just wrapped a survey that found that 82% of us think a national sex-ed strategy would help reduce gender-based violence. It’s currently advocating for a strategy that puts consent front and centre. “It’s an incredible opportunity to address long-standing societal issues that run deep,” says Frédérique Chabot, Action Canada’s director of health promotion. “Sex ed is not just about learning how to put a condom on. It's about learning how to be with one another, understanding body autonomy. You're basically shaping culture through sex ed in ways that could really address health inequity.”
The biggest roadblock to a more enlightened dialogue? Bureaucracy. Sex education, like all education, falls under provincial or territorial jurisdiction, which means each province or territory sets a curriculum that’s up to individual school boards to put into action. These should be based on the Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education, but no one is exactly monitoring this. Boards, schools, and even teachers can choose to do the bare minimum or deviate from script, which means what students learn is wildly different from school to school, and even classroom to classroom.
Complicating the matter is that sex ed is often made into a partisan issue. Like abortion, it’s a low-hanging political fruit used to swing votes at the cost of those who stand to benefit the most from improvements to the system. When Doug Ford was elected premier of Ontario in 2018, he immediately tried to roll back the comprehensive sex ed (which included consent discussions in Grade 1) introduced by the Liberals just three years earlier. He only backed down after mass student protests.
All of the above is why feds need to step up, according to Chabot. What’s needed is funding, national benchmarks, and perhaps most importantly, training for teachers as well as school board access to trained sexual health educators. “Right now, even if we had the best curriculum across Canada, if teachers are not comfortable talking about consent or masculinity or pleasure, then we have gotten nowhere,” says Chabot.
According to the experts who spoke with Refinery29, a national sex-ed strategy would also require a complete overhaul of the current sex-negative curricula in schools. The long-debunked notion that talking openly about sex leads to more sex is still the foundation of most classes. Materials are often outdated and talk down to students, and classes are also shoe-horned into phys ed (which you can drop after Grade 9). No wonder we’re not learning much: In the same Refinery29 survey, only 5% of surveyed people said sex ed prepared them fully for the real world. And if we won’t talk openly to kids about the good stuff like porn literacy or gasp, sex and pleasure, we sure aren’t going to get real about the hard stuff. We can barely admit it to ourselves: Canadians love to pretend we live in this enlightened, progressive utopia where gender-based violence isn’t a reality for one-third of people.
Even when there is discussion about consent, the perspectives are largely cisgender, abelist, white, and based on interactions between monogamous men and women. “Consent is often still talked about from the perspective of heterosexual relationships, and the boy is more sexually aggressive and the girl has to protect herself,” says Debbie Owusu-Akyeeah, executive director of the Canadian Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity, which recently submitted a report to the federal government in support of a sex-ed strategy that affirms the experiences of LGBTQ+ people. “You cannot talk about concepts like consent without affirming queer and trans identities at the same time — how consent shows up in friendships, in interpersonal relationships, in romantic relationships. Consent is far more than pressuring someone to have sex.” It comes down to who this country deems worthy of education and protection, she adds. “If we're going to talk about the experiences of racialized, Black and Indigenous women and non-binary people, we have to look at how these systems make us more vulnerable to those types of violence.”
Even when there is discussion about consent, the perspectives are largely cisgender, abelist, white, and based on interactions between monogamous men and women.
Consent is a complicated concept worthy of nuanced examination. Glossing over the word doesn’t do anyone any good — and the repercussions have both personal and societal ripple effects. We’re in an era of reckoning in Canada, though, with the country holding people in power responsible for wrongdoings past and present — from the legacy of colonization to the systemic racism that pervades our cities and towns. Hopefully this accountability will extend to conversations and actions around consent.
“I think the trajectory of my life would be completely different if I learned about consent in high school,” says Snow, the communications student and consent advocate. “I think of how many young people are in this position now and how many people are lacking the education that I was also lacking. It's so sad to me in 2021, that we're still facing these issues, when really the solution is education.”
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.
If you are an LGBTQ+ person in need of crisis support, call Crisis Services Canada at 1-833-456-4566 at any time or text 45645 between 4 p.m. and 12 a.m. ET. Residents of Quebec, please call 1-866-277-3553.
If you are a trans person thinking about suicide or experiencing a crisis, please call the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-330-6366 for confidential support from other trans individuals.