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.
Three years ago, a group of determined high-school students picked a fight with Ontario’s Doug Ford government over its regressive slashes to provincial education. Ford's government planned to cancel the proposed Indigenous education curriculum as well as roll back the sex-ed curriculum to a version last updated in 1998 — before Facebook, MySpace, or ... Baby One More Time. It removed concepts like “no means no,” online sexual safety, even the naming of body parts. But perhaps most shocking of all, it would revert us back to a curriculum that literally did not include the word consent.
At their core, our protests were about consent: not just as it appeared in the proposed changes, but also as a larger expression of our right to autonomy over the way our government treats us. Not only did Ford’s decision fly in the face of countless experts and community leaders who had been consulted in the creation of those curricula, it also demonstrated flagrant disregard for the voices of the students whose education had been turned into a political bargaining chip. In response, pockets of community resistance started springing up across the province, and in the weeks before the school year began, Indigenous activist Indygo Arscott and I teamed up to organize a walkout.
At the time, I was an inexperienced activist motivated by fear for my genderqueer sibling’s future and my own experiences with sexual harassment (and, of course, a deep-rooted resentment for political authority). But as I began to entrench myself in education activism, I realized people cared about this as much as I did. At my first protest, 50 or 60 people showed up; at my second, we filled the Queen’s Park courtyard with hundreds. We watched momentum build before our eyes.
Despite all this, in the days leading up to the walkout, I was wracked with exhaustion and the constant, nagging fear that nobody was going to show up. I remember going to see some emo band perform a few days before in a futile attempt to distract myself — but thanks to some cosmic coincidence, while standing in the pit, I happened to overhear the group of strangers next to me excitedly discussing the walkouts planned at each of their high schools.
It was surreal; for the first time, I was confronted with the fact that the work we’d been doing was bigger than ourselves. We hadn’t just been screaming into the void. “Everyone’s talking about it,” said one of the girls at the show when I introduced myself over the ear-shattering bass of the opening act. “It’s going to be huge.”
She was right. The first round of walkouts saw approximately 40,000 students across the province walking out of science labs and English classes to advocate for their educational autonomy, immediately establishing the movement as one of the largest student protests in Canada’s history. Student organizing teams had independently set up mini-protests at each school featuring speakers, performers, and rallies. For months, the government had pushed the narrative that students couldn’t possibly be smart or aware enough to know what kind of education they wanted or deserved — but at countless schools, thousands upon thousands of students proved them wrong.
At their core, our protests were about consent: not just as it appeared in the proposed changes, but also as a larger expression of our right to autonomy over the way our government treats us.
The September walkouts set the stage for a wave of radical student action. Over the next two years, several walkouts and protests were staged over a variety of education issues (one of them rallying over 100,000 students). To this day, I receive messages on social media from students across the country saying those protests were the first time they realized their voices had power. We had won.
Or did we?
Yes, after a years-long consultation process that wasted countless tax dollars, the Ford government agreed to keep many of the contested aspects of the curriculum, including discussions of gender identity, sexual orientation, and drug use. And while that was a huge victory for students’ voices, the new curriculum doesn’t go far enough. Looking back three years later, it’s hard to tell if anything’s really changed at all. Ontario’s current sex-ed curriculum is little more than a watered-down version of the one we had in 2017, with a delayed educational timeline and the addition of an explicit policy all but encouraging parents to excuse their children from conversations about sexuality, gender identity, and consent.
In other provinces, it’s more of the same: Canada has no national sex-ed strategy, no accountability measures in place to monitor sub-par sexual education, inadequate funding nationwide, and no methodology to capture national data about the efficacy of current sex ed. Across the country, students are reporting a lack of knowledge about STIs, birth control, emergency contraception, and safe sex, says a report from Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights.
What good is sexual education if it’s only provided after the damage has been done? What good is sexual education if the people that may need it the most are whisked out of class by their parents at the slightest whisper of penis or vagina? And of course, all of this raises the ultimate question: What is the government so afraid of? In a country that likes to fancy itself one of the most progressive in the world, why are we still shielding our children from consent, online safety, and gender fluidity?
To me, it’s simple: Once you teach marginalized people that they have autonomy over their bodies, they begin to realize that they deserve power everywhere else, too. Consent, both personal and political, is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal — and when the right to consent is withheld, it becomes a weapon to strike down resistance and change.
Teaching young kids about gender, sexuality, and autonomy provides them with a kind of power that oppressed people have never had before, and there is nothing more frightening to those whose power relies on entrenched systems of patriarchy and colonialism than the idea that one day, those systems might be dismantled. Why would they ever want to give us the tools to start the revolution?
When I imagine the future of consent education, I imagine a world where lessons on autonomy are woven into every subject, not just health class. I imagine consent being seen as more than just sexual — I want informed consent to be a part of every decision young people make before they’re even old enough to spell the word. And when it comes to sexual consent, I dream of a world where our institutions don’t just teach young women that they can say no, but also teach them that they can enthusiastically and confidently say yes. Too often, conversations around consent rely on narratives of restriction, celibacy, denial; and while those feelings aren’t wrong, we should also think of consent as a joyful, pleasurable act that’s just as much a part of having sex as it is a part of not having it.
The fight for comprehensive consent education rages on. But as old, established institutions repeatedly fail us, a new generation has been building entirely new ones to replace them. Over the past few years, responsible sexual education has found a new home on social media — whether it’s professional sex educators making YouTube videos or 16-year-olds talking frankly about consent and sexuality to their peers on TikTok, we’re seeing in real-time that education always finds a way. There’s no true replacement for accessible, school-based, universal education, but if our government continues to shirk its responsibilities, we’re more than willing to pick up the mantle once more. On our own terms.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).