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.
Trigger warning: This story contains sensitive content regarding sexual assault.
A bumbling high-school student's awkward sexual encounter might not be the obvious place for a lesson about consent, but last year with 11 words, Normal People’s Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) schooled us all. During the second episode of the series, the bro-ish rugby-playing teen with a penchant for gold chains and literary fiction stops mid-hookup to tell his secret girlfriend Marianne: “If you want to stop, it won’t be awkward — just say.” For a character who, throughout the series, becomes known for blundering through many a conversation, this was a big moment. And the internet thought so, too. This scene was praised for clearly showing how consent is an ongoing conversation during sex, and actually increases intimacy, rather than the mood killer it is so often made out to be.
That this scene, and the idea of explicitly addressing consent during sex, was such a novel cultural moment shows just how sorry the state of our understanding of consent is, and how infrequently we are having these conversations in real life. Most of us aren't being taught consent in schools or at home, which is why the first time many young people really think about consent — the way it works, the language to use, its limitations — is when they’re in a situation where they’re encountering it head on.
While Connell and Marianne's interaction may have left me feeling warm and fuzzy inside, my first experiences with consent — or lack thereof — were quite different. I've been in a situation where someone continued verbally and physically persisting until I conceded. I've started to hook up with someone, realize midway through that I wasn't feeling it anymore, but continued because I felt like I had to. "Better to just do it than navigate how to untangle yourself from the situation," I — horrifically — joked with friends about lying back and thinking of England when in an uncomfortable sexual situation. It was honestly kind of scary to realize that maybe I didn’t have as much control in these situations as I thought I did.
And that’s not a unique realization for many of us. Refinery29 spoke to five Canadians about the first time they truly thought about consent, and what they learned from it.
"I’ve only ever seen my parents kiss once in my life. We’re very non-sexual, non-intimate, so no discussions about [sex and consent] were ever had in my home. I went to a Catholic elementary and high school, so there were no educational discussions on consent ever. We had sex ed for the first time in grade five, and what I remember most about that was the fact that they separated the boys and girls.
"The first time I actually thought about consent was the summer between third and fourth year of my undergrad. I went on exchange and we’d been travelling and my best friend broke down. She came out and shared that she’d been sexually assaulted by her ex-boyfriend. I was a virgin at the time, so consent had never clicked for me in terms of how I could see myself in it. I understood it as an abstract concept, but then my best friend was discussing how she was put in this situation where she had zero consent and was explicitly stating 'no,' and it wasn’t respected. And then every other girl in the hostel room was sharing very similar situations. I was slapped in the face at the severity of the lack of consent. I’m never going to forget that absolute shock.
"It’s made me so much more conscientious looking back on previous hookups. Even sometimes me not getting [explicit] consent from other people; it really forced me to consider myself in the contextuality of it. Moving forward, I drink less now in social situations where I’m surrounded by people I don’t know. Or, if I’m going out and feel like I may want to hook up that night, I’m not drinking as much. I was quite reckless at university. Now, I’m much more aware of what’s going on with me and with other people." — Nicole, 26
"I grew up in Pakistan and Dubai before moving to Canada three years ago, so there was no consent or sex education at all. I was self-taught on the internet and on Twitter. When I became sexually active, I was around 21, which is pretty late, but as a South Asian woman we don’t really get to grow up until our early twenties. So, going into that uncharted territory, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t speak to my friends because it was hush hush, you’re not supposed to be losing your virginity before getting married. I couldn’t tell anybody I was doing this, so consent wasn’t a big part of it.
"Learning about consent came from just understanding more about feminism and what choice means. I wasn’t specifically reading feminist theory per se, but people on Twitter were talking about it and sharing sources. Reading about how sex can be empowering and isn’t shameful, that was a whole 180 for me.
"I’ve been in many situations where I would have reacted differently if I’d known what I was allowed to even say as a woman. I think it starts at a very young age because parents, especially South Asian parents, they'll be like, 'go kiss your chacha or mama and whatever.' And I'm like, 'no, I don’t want to kiss that creepy man.'
"[Since starting to think about consent], I’ve turned very mean towards men. If they do something screwed up, I’ll just tell them. I’ve been in situations where my consent was definitely not asked for or it was just ignored, and I would always freeze up, but since 2016, I’ve just been getting angrier."— Aiman, 30
"I really don't think I ever learned about consent in school. If I did, it was just thrown in the curriculum. At home, I never really got a sex talk, and even if I had, I feel like consent probably would have unfortunately been an awkward thing for my parents to talk about.
"The first time I thought about consent? It was a hookup situation. At the time it was happening, I remember not being super-comfortable, but the next day when I thought about it, it was difficult for me to be angry with the guy because I hadn't said no and he wouldn't have necessarily thought that I was uncomfortable. I was angry that I didn't feel I had the agency to say how I truly felt because we were never taught that we could do that. Before these conversations [around consent] started becoming more prevalent, navigating how to give consent and navigating how a partner might react was all very new and scary. Thinking about that interaction today, I really wonder what would have happened if I had told my friends that it made me really uncomfortable and I felt violated. Would they have thought that I was in the wrong? Or would they have related to it? I have no idea.
"I don't know if it makes me feel guilty that I didn't stick up for myself. Or maybe it's also partly something I felt I had to brush away and not make a big deal out of it because it had happened. It was just like, Okay, well, I guess I just need to move past it and deal with it." — Ellyssa, 26
"I’ve dealt with romantic partners and a lack of consent, especially this year. I got out of a long-term relationship last summer, so I started dating again and I found that I was encountering a lot of partners who didn't really know consent. I started questioning, What are my boundaries and how do I communicate them?
"I’ve been really thinking about consent and what it actually encompasses because I’m 24 and I still don’t know. It’s never really been taught to me. As someone who is Gen Z/millennial, I know what consent is in regards to extremes, but I don’t actually know what it is [in the smaller acts and day to day]. For example, saying no to some things, but saying yes to other things. In regards to consent, I feel like it's a blanket 'yes,' and if someone is given a 'yes' it feels like you’re saying yes to everything. So I would love for sex education to really focus in on, Hey, just because you get one yes does not mean that the yes can't be revoked. Minds can change. That’s a grey area and it’s so problematic." — Jennifer, 24
"Growing up in Indonesia, they taught us about reproduction, but in such a matter-of-fact way, like in biology class. It was so weird because I already took biology, Why do I need to learn this again? There was nothing about what to do on your period. There was nothing about how to use a condom. It’s embarrassing for me to admit, but it’s almost a universal experience for people, especially immigrants coming to Canada. They're like, we don't know anything about consent at all, because no one teaches us about it. I had to learn about it myself, which I'm grateful for. I know a lot of people don't have that luxury.
"My definition of consent beforehand was just that consent is reserved for a sexual relationship, penetration, and that’s it. But it goes far beyond that. You need to ask if it's okay to hug someone — a friend or sexual partner. You need to ask if it's okay for you to touch them. If it’s not an enthusiastic yes, then it’s not consent." — E, 24
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.