There’s far more to consent than “no means no” — not that you’d know it from what we’re taught in sex ed. Curricula in Canada, the U.S., and worldwide have long glossed over this crucial part of every sexual encounter. It’s time we say yes to talking about consent, in all its forms.
At the age of 13, I invented masturbation. Well, in my mind I did. I knew boys masturbated, but I had no idea that girls did too. I thought I was a genius discovering this magical spot on my body that gave me so much joy. It became a way to self-soothe, explore what felt good, and daydream about crushes while reading my mom’s romance novels. But I knew, through overt and covert cues from family, religion, and school, that masturbation was something to keep to myself. It was only in Grade 11, when a girl I was sort of dating confessed that she also did it, that I realized other women were doing it too.
My sex education — and the sex ed that continues to be taught in schools today, nearly 30 years later — skipped over the wonder, curiosity, and exploration that can be a part of sex. This is especially true for the fear-based, heteronormative lessons taught to girls and young women, who are consistently told there is something inherently wrong, dirty, and shameful about our bodies. And yet, as my 13-year-old self figured out, one of the biggest reasons people want to be sexual is the pursuit of pleasure.
Too often consent is taught as a checkbox — an obstacle a partner needs to get past to gain access to sex.
Today, as a consent and pleasure educator, I teach students what I wish I’d learned growing up: that these two concepts go hand-in-hand and are both keys to a satisfying sexual experience. Too often consent is taught as a checkbox — an obstacle a partner needs to get past to gain access to sex. Consent, of course, is mandatory in any sexual experience, and I’m relieved that it is being more widely discussed. However, like sex education in general, it is often discussed solely focused on avoiding risks, including sexual assault. This is important, but we also need real and practical talk about consent in all relationships, pleasure, and sex, for safer and more ethical connections. When we move past our tendencies to focus on the mechanics of sexual acts, we set ourselves up to have satisfying sexual and intimate relationships.
That starts with good sex ed, which, for me, means understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all model for sex and intimacy. It involves actively challenging the dominant sexual scripts we are all fed, shaped by our social location, our family, our culture, previous sexual experiences, and the media we consume, including porn. Currently, many are taught heterosexist ideas of how cisgender men and cisgender women are supposed to act — myths that certain bodies are worthy of pleasure, while others are not; that men should always be up for sex, always be the sexual aggressor, and have multiple sexual partners. All while we teach women they should be passive, their pleasure should be predicated on what their partner enjoys, and they should refrain from expressions of sexual desire to ensure that they are never seen as a slut. Furthermore, the sexual experiences of 2SLGBTQIA people like myself are hardly ever included in mainstream sex education.
Wouldn’t it be so much better if our partner said “so we both consented, now what? I want to know what feels good for you and share what feels good to me.” What would our sex lives look like as adults if, from a young age, there were ongoing, honest conversations about pleasure, relationships, sex, and communication? What would it mean for your sex life if you were given the skills to explore what kinds of sexual activity (be it solo or with others) give you pleasure? I believe that these skills would also help us all to feel confident when communicating with our sexual partner(s) that a particular sexual activity doesn’t feel good. We all have the right to pleasure and it’s not a scarce resource, despite what we often hear.
Good sex ed also includes learning about how power operates in sexual relationships. Rarely do we learn about how dominant sexual scripts are built on things like white supremacy, anti-Black racism, misogyny, and capitalism. These scripts can lead some people to believe they can have unfettered access to our bodies, or the expectation that they should never be rejected in their own pursuit of pleasure, regardless of how the other party feels.
We know that sexual assault can take place after someone has initially consented to sexual activity. What if sex education talked about the pleasures of hearing and saying no? Imagine knowing how to deal with being rejected as well as rejecting someone, saying, “not now, no," or, "maybe later.” Imagine knowing how to be a partner that checks in, listens, and responds with care on an ongoing basis. Knowing that it's okay if someone isn’t attracted to you. That rejection is not about shame or being unlovable — it's about someone feeling safe enough to say "not this time" or "not ever." A "no" to you is a "yes" to ourselves, and isn't that what we want? We want to be with people who we desire and who desire us.
Wouldn’t it be so much better if our partner said “so we both consented, now what? I want to know what feels good for you and share what feels good to me.”
I want us all to have the skills to non-verbally check in with a partner; slow down the pace, stop altogether, look into their eyes, pause to see what they would do next, breathe together, grab a glass of water. I want us all to be well-versed in communicating about what we both want before anything starts, about how we are feeling during a sexual experience, and our aftercare needs — no matter if it’s a one-time hookup or a long-term relationship.
Imagine how much better your relationships would be if you knew how to communicate during sex, not just “slower faster, slower, harder, use two fingers, YES, right there.” But also how to verbally check-in: “What is your favorite way to...; I’m only into this if you are. How are you feeling? It’s okay for us to stop; Is this a good touch for you; Would you like it if we…?; Want to switch it up or slow it down?; Are you into this?”
Working daily with survivors of sexual violence, I know all too well the importance of checking in with ourselves. I want sexual health information that affirms that we can learn to understand and listen to our bodies, to know what signals our body and mind give us when something feels good. I want us to be able to discern if we are nervous-excited or nervous-scared about an intimate situation. Self-touch, even if it’s not genital-focused, is one way to pay attention to our emotional and physical reactions. This can help us grow to understand our boundaries, work through triggers, and practice being present during sex. For many people including survivors, this can be a safer way to gain sexual confidence in ourselves.
Trusting ourselves is a skill that many of us are told to ignore so that people, including our family members, can have access to us without consent — like pressuring you to hug an uncle despite your misgivings. I want us all to have the ability to give ourselves permission to move away from an unwelcome situation, or an unsafe relationship without fear. What if we create space in education that affirms our bodies and minds to know what we need?
Thirteen-year-old me might not have invented masturbation, but I still consider myself a genius for realizing that pleasure was something I had a right to. Even if it took decades to recognize that there is nothing to be ashamed of in pursuing it.
Farrah Khan is an award-winning gender-justice advocate, consent and pleasure educator, and trauma counselor. She is the Manager of Consent Comes First at Ryerson University and Co-Director of Courage to Act, the first national project of its kind to address and prevent gender-based violence on post-secondary campuses. The views expressed here are her own.
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).