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.
As a woman with Turner Syndrome, I’m either hypersexualized or infantilized by men. My humanity hangs on a limb when I try to express my sexuality or assert my bodily autonomy. I wear hearing aids, and my mobility aid becomes quite transparent when I put my hair up or show it in pictures. People assume naivety because of my short stature and clearly displayed hearing aids and believe they can take advantage of my presumed innocence.
At a former workplace, a colleague thought it would be amusing to grab my hands when we were working side-by-side. We were alone. He then exclaimed that he was joking, thinking I would not understand what he was doing. That colleague claims it was because I was going too slow, but that was no excuse to disrespect me. This is not the only incident that made me uncomfortable: He constantly touched my shoulders in passing. When I called him out about it, he got angry. People constantly disrespect boundaries when they believe they can get away with it.
The boundaries of my own body have felt unknown to me. And understanding your body is key to sexual pleasure (and consent!). I've found myself in many unpleasant situations online with men who angrily asked me for nudes or continued to press me for them even though I wasn't interested. Actively and enthusiastically engaging in sex for disabled women and non-binary individuals is key to ensuring safe sex. Disabled women are four times more likely to experience sexual assault and abuse. Unfortunately, there are limited statistics on non-binary individuals. But the collective trauma of sexual assault remains prevalent. According to Stats Canada, about a quarter of women with cognitive disabilities or mental health-related disabilities were sexually abused by an adult before they turned 15. To conjure an even more horrifying scenario, RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization in the U.S., found that people with disabilities are less likely to be believed when they report.
Sexual assault against disabled and non-binary individuals is an epidemic. Refinery29 spoke to five disabled people about their personal experience with consent and their thoughts on sex education in Canada.
Chloe, 22, Halifax, N.S.
“I have schizophrenic affective disorder and there’s a lot I can say about sex education. I’ve been in situations where I have been talked into [sex] even though I didn’t really want to do it. It’s called coercion. I think if I had sex ed that was clearer on saying no and sex education on what coercion is, it might have been different. I think being mentally ill adds another layer to it. I guess because of the lack of good sex education, a lot of mentally ill people end up being hypersexual in a dangerous way.
"I know my friend who is mentally ill has issues with emotional attachment issues and he did a lot of dangerous stuff in high school. So, I think it would be good if they at least teach about the struggles of mentally ill people in the dating world."
Sarah Patel, 28, Toronto
"I was born with an eye condition called Leber's congenital amaurosis. I think there’s a lot you can do to accommodate visually impaired students when it comes to sex education. The educators need to be a bit more educated themselves when it comes to disabilities, how to communicate, and how to address certain things with specific disabilities and be open and to not only learn by themselves, but be able to teach that to children or youth with disabilities. For example, visually impaired students may not know when they’ve gotten their period because it's something that is visually seen. There are other hints and clues [when you first get your period], but if you're getting it for the first time it can be confusing.
"I think another important factor to consent, and blindness, is body language. There are many situations where body language might say one thing, but their words might say another, and you can’t read what the other person's body language is saying. The message might not be clear enough. We live in a world in which people will just come up to you and start saying things or make remarks without consent and completely disrespect boundaries. It can leave individuals with trust issues. I think whether you have a disability or not, consent is very important."
Katherine Challacombe, 21, Calgary
"I developed complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) later in life. I also have dysautonomia. When I was receiving sex education, I was able-bodied. We wouldn't receive our sex ed at the same time, so that means I don't really know what sex education would be for disabled students. But it makes me worried that somebody might have been missing out on important information and ableist narratives leaking of disabled people not enjoying or engage with sex.
"It’s important for people to learn that disabled people are far more likely to face sexual harassment and assault and abuse. That should be taught to non-disabled students; talking about consent and how that can often be manipulated and coerced with disabled people. During my own personal experiences, I found my breaches of consent were often by doctors, by people who were supposed to be caregivers, there was so little understanding of that relationship. You feel quite vulnerable when your body isn't suddenly not working as you expect it to. From a sexual standpoint, when I decided to go out with my friends to the club and struggled up the stairs, all of a sudden, someone grabbed my ass, and I didn’t have the fight response I would have had if I were able-bodied because I felt weaker."
Tamyka Bullen, 42, Scarborough, ON
"I am a Deaf woman, and I went to a hearing school with a program for people with hearing loss. During my time in school, sex education for Deaf and hard-of-hearing students was far behind since it didn’t meet the standard education curriculum that all schools were required to follow. Unfortunately, this malpractice by teachers of Deaf and hard-of-hearing students still happens today. Most of my teachers were hearing and they had low expectations for their students. It seems they confused being Deaf with cognitive delay. Given the state of education in my Deaf classes, it makes sense I learned about sex and STIs in my hearing classes. There was an ASL interpreter.
"Generally, Deaf people are the last to receive new information for some reason; most workshops are inaccessible, some TV shows don’t have closed captions, and English is not our first language. Sexual violations and breaches of consent within the Deaf community were not discussed in sex education. One time, I visited a Deaf man’s place to talk. He told me that he heard that I liked him. I used to like him, but... my feelings for him [had] faded out. He was disappointed and he wanted me to feel for him again. I told him I couldn't. He kissed me out of the blue and I felt violated. He then said I kissed him back. I didn’t. Many Deaf women experienced sex force from hearing men. It is purely audist and sexist. Due to communication barriers, hearing men violate deaf women’s boundaries."
Rebecca*, 25, Calgary
"I am autistic woman and in my experience, consent applies to a lot more than just sex. I think educating people and giving them the vocabulary to understand their biology and themselves would go a long way in not only normalizing LGBTQ+ people, but also empowering people of all genders and sexualities to contextualize and understand their bodies as they grow into adults. People should have a right to their body and their boundaries, but unfortunately it's taken me a long time to truly understand that for myself.
"Being autistic, it was normalized in me from a young age that it was okay for people to overstep my boundaries. I have been touched a few times without my consent but didn't have the vocabulary or confidence to voice my discomfort or enforce my boundaries and I think I was lucky enough that the times I've had it happen that the person stopped their advances after I froze in a panic. With the exception of high school, I had a "friend" who thought it was funny to grope my chest or to grab onto me and restrict my movement.
"I'm not even sure if he did so to be sexual as this happened before I came out and transitioned, but it was not consensual and has caused me to feel really gross about myself. I didn't want to be groped and it's traumatic to be denied autonomy like that. Maybe with better education around consent he wouldn't have thought it to be so funny to repeatedly do that, or maybe with better education around consent I would have been more empowered to communicate to someone what was happening, but that wasn't the case and it happened constantly until I took a year off school."
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of these individuals.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please visit Shelter Space.