Teaching consent

Sexual health educators have been teaching about consensual and non-consensual sexual activity for decades.  Despite gains made by the women’s movement since the late 1960s, sexism is far from eradicated.  Rape culture, although under scrutiny and challenge, is still the norm.  Sexual harassment and assault are as common as dirt.  How can we make a fundamental change in our society through education?

If all genders are not on board with the concept that consensual sexual activity is enjoyable and fulfilling, we will not make any headway.  If boys and men in particular are not included as allies in this struggle, classroom education will remain no more than an exercise.

I created a lesson plan about sexual assault at least 20 years ago which continues to be used by former colleagues.  It is a two part activity.  In the first part, the facilitator reads a series of statements and asks students to agree, disagree or indicate that they are not sure; in the second part, students work in small groups and read through two scenarios, one told from a girl’s point of view where it is clear there was no consent; and the other from the boy’s.  Then they answer questions on the board which are later discussed by the whole group.

One of the statements in the first part, “It is OK to say no at any time” (during sexual activity) provoked a grade 8 boy to insist that once you had initiated sexual activity, you couldn’t stop.  I asked the class why someone might want to stop (fear, pain, flashback, changed their mind etc.), but this kid wasn’t budging.  So I said, “Suppose you’re on top of her and you can see that she is in pain”.  He said, “Turn her face away”.

That is an unusual response from a 12 year old, but indicative of the far end of the consent spectrum; viz., a total lack of empathy and clear exercise of power.

After each group reads their story, I read them both out loud, where it becomes clear that what happened was not consensual.  I remind them that there are medical issues that need to be explored (Emergency Contraception, Sexually Transmitted Infection testing) psychological/emotional issues (the need for counselling since most people blame themselves after an assault) and legal issues.  Because the stories are written in a way that demonstrate a miscommunication based on the popular cultural ideas we explored earlier, exacerbated by alcohol, I suggest that if the police came to this boy’s door and said they were investigating a sexual assault, he would probably say, “Who got raped?”  We end the class by brainstorming how it could have been prevented.

Gray zone

Girls and women are still seen as gatekeepers in heterosexual relationships.  In spite of the current support for affirmative, ongoing consent, it continues to be difficult for a girl/woman to live this new norm.  Societal ambivalence rules: is it really OK for women to want sexual activity and say yes to it?

I remember teaching that to say no, it is important that tone and body language be congruent; i.e., to say no in a way that is clear and unequivocal.  But no to what?  No means no to a particular sexual activity at a particular moment in time.

People are complicated and so are their desires – they can change during the course of any sexual encounter.

In a more sophisticated discussion with older students, this can be illustrated with a continuum: from enthusiastic mutual consent to playful seduction; to giving in; to coercion; and to forced sexual contact.

People may move back and forth along the continuum from mutual consent to playful seduction during a single or multiple encounters.  One may not initially want to engage in a particular sexual activity, but could become interested.  There is a difference between talking someone into it and turning them on.

There is also a difference between hearing no and ignoring it.  We are familiar with the power dynamic and the culture that facilitates this crime.

For boys/men, saying no to sexual activity with girls/women may be difficult for other reasons.  Society tells them never to refuse what is handed to them on a silver platter.  Women who sexually assault men are more likely to use shame and coercion than force for obvious reasons.

Same gender assault involves many of these same dynamics.

Politics and pedagogy

We want affirmative, ongoing consent to become the norm.

We detest rape culture and want it eradicated.  We are appalled when images and videos of assaults are posted as entertainment.  Good pedagogy includes teaching empathy for survivors in order to eliminate this ghoulish feasting on others’ misery.

While it is useful to explore the underlying ideas that lead to assumptions, miscommunication and/or predation – a simple unpacking may be preferable to political rhetoric.

In their fervour to drive home the harmful outcomes of rape culture, some educators are using materials that are more likely to alienate the boys and young men in the classroom than to enlist them as allies.  We want them to accept the premise that there is an advantage to mutuality in relationships.  I read recently that consent culture is a resistance movement to rape culture.  It is a lot to ask for young men to see themselves as freedom fighters against rape culture and sexual assault.

I think Wiseguyz is on the right track in the way they address young men directly.  There are also some excellent public campaigns like the one from Norway “Dear Daddy” and New Zealand’s “Who are You?” that bring home these messages in a simple, clear and direct manner that appeal to the positives.

Because good lessons on consent and sexual assault are so hard to come by, well thought out print materials can play a role.  I would love to see a good pamphlet which includes the language of consent and refusal as a guide for young people to take home.

There is work to be done.

 

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Teaching sex ed – Ontario updates 1998 curriculum

In 2007, the Ontario government began the process of updating their health and physical education  curriculum which was sadly out of date.  It was, in fact, the oldest curriculum in the country.  Sexual health is part of that curriculum.  A broad consultation with teachers, parents and agencies took place before the revised curriculum was finally released online in 2010.

There was little notice taken, until a group of zealots found it and started a web-site: stopcorruptingourchildren.ca where they cherry picked the sexual health components, misrepresenting the information students were about to receive and inflaming public sentiment.  At first, then Premier Dalton McGuinty stood by the revision, but caved within days.  This, despite consistent surveys that indicated parents wanted comprehensive sexual health education taught in the schools.

It has been five long years, but the government finally released the “revised revised” curriculum.  Revised revised, because in the interim, it was acknowledged that there was no content on Internet issues like sexting; or any discussion of consent.  Regarding the latter, the premier, who was approached by two grade 8 students after they posted an online petition https://www.change.org/p/ontario-ministry-of-education-make-consent-a-topic-in-the-2015-ontario-health-curriculum agreed to its inclusion.  They also published some very clear and useful parent guides (see resources below).

The latest version of the curriculum guide was released on February 23, 2015.

That morning, I did an interview on a local radio program just before the document became public.  Although I did over a dozen interviews on all platforms, it wasn’t until five days later that I finished going through the entire document to check these revisions against the ones originally proposed in 2010.

It should be pointed out that these are just guidelines.  They give teachers permission and encouragement to discuss the issues and some “prompts” to assist them.  However, teachers still have to either seek out or create lesson plans in order to implement them.

For the record, here are the pertinent changes and my comments. 

Grade 1

  • identify body parts, including genitalia (e.g., penis, testicles, vagina, vulva), using correct terminology

A very good place to start.

Grade 2

  • outline the basic stages of human development (e.g., infant, child, adolescent, adult, older adult) and related bodily changes
  • saying no; respecting the right of a person to say no and encouraging others to respect that right also; reporting exploitive behaviours, such as improper touching of their bodies or others’ bodies

This is where there needs to be an acknowledgement that children are usually unable to say no to an adult who manipulates them into sexual touching.

Grade 3

  • They list “invisible differences (e.g., learning abilities, skills and talents, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation diverse families”
  • Some students live with two parents. Some live with one parent. Some have two mothers or two fathers.

By grade 3, most kids know this already.  Good place to reinforce it.

Grade 4

  • identify risks associated with communications technology (e.g., Internet and cell phone use, in­cluding participation in gaming and online communities and the use of text messaging), and describe precautions and strategies for using these technologies safely
  • sexist, racist, or homophobic comments in person or online – any of these kinds of bullying could cause emotional pain
  • describe the physical changes that occur in males and females at puberty (e.g., growth of body hair, breast development, changes in voice and body size, production of body odour, skin changes) and the emotional and social impacts that may result from these changes

Given the increasingly early onset of puberty, this is an excellent revision.

  • Some people start ‘liking’ others

A perfect opportunity to say that sometimes one likes a person of the same gender or another gender.

  • It is not uncommon for the person being abused to know the person who is abusing them. If a friend told you that she had a secret and that she was being abused, how could you help?

A comprehensive lesson plan on sexual abuse will be useful here.  (See www.boostforkids.org)

Grade 5

  • identify the parts of the reproductive system, and describe how the body changes during puberty

There is no mention of kids who are trans for whom these pubertal changes may be traumatic.

  • When the sperm from the male and the egg from the female join together, pregnancy occurs.

Nope.  Conception occurs.

Moreover, this whole section dances around vaginal intercourse:

 “Fertilization can occur when the penis is in the vagina.”

How did it get in there?  What about erections?  A decent lesson plan, will need to include orgasm and the pleasure people (hopefully) feel during sexual activity like vaginal intercourse.  There is nothing about sexual feelings.  They euphemistically refer to “crushes and more intense feelings”.

  • Ways of show­ing that you like someone that are inappropriate include touching them without their permission, spreading rumours about them to others or online, and making fun of them in order to get attention. Sharing private sexual photos or posting sexual comments online is unacceptable and also illegal.

I’m impressed that this warning shows up in grade 5.

 Grade 6

  • gender identity and self-concept
  • wet dreams, vaginal lubrication
  • exploring one’s body by touching or masturbating as something people find pleasurable

Still no orgasm.

  • relationships we see online or in the media are not always accurate and can send false messages

An introduction to media literacy – good.

  • signs of a healthy relationship; signs of potential trouble

I like the way they do not set up a dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

  • jealousy or behaviour that is too controlling can be signs of trouble
  • a clear “yes” is a signal of consent
  • A response of “no”, an uncertain response or silence need to be understood as no consent.

This is an excellent introduction to the notion of consent in sexual activity.

  • assess the effects of stereotypes, including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, gender expression…

In later grades, unfortunately, they maintain a heterosexual bias.  It is important to discuss these issues, but the language of sexual activity in particular must change at every level.

Grade 7

–              the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity until they are older (genital contact, vaginal or anal intercourse, oral-genital contact)

What does older mean?

–              consent and how it is communicated

–              the need to communicate clearly when making decisions about sexual activity in the relationship

–              abstinence can mean different things to different people

From this point on, even though they have named several sexual activities, when they refer to sex, it is clear that they mean vaginal intercourse.  They name the risks – pregnancy and STIs.

  • sex can be an enjoyable experience

But they do not use the word “pleasure”.

  • But having sex has risks, too

What I want them to say is this: some sexual activities are higher risk than others.  There are sexual activities that are pleasurable and safe, like kissing and touching.  Is that so much to ask?

  • common STIs are listed and the importance of knowing that they are often asymptomatic

Unfortunately, pubic lice is listed with STIs instead of infestation.  But this is worse:

  • Engaging in sexual activities like oral sex, vaginal intercourse and anal intercourse means that you can be infected with an STI.

They leave out the crucial term “unprotected”.  And this is much worse:

  • If you do not have sex, you do not need to worry about getting an STI.

Skin-to-skin contact in the boxer short area with an infected person can transmit HPV and HSV.  Again, the implication is that sex equals intercourse.

  • If a person is thinking of having sex, what can they do to protect themselves?
  • People who think they will be having sex some time soon should keep a condom with them so they will have it when they need it.

If two women are thinking of having “sex” how does this apply to them?  How do adolescents who are trans protect themselves?

  • If a partner says they do not want to use a condom, a person should say, “I will not have sex without a condom”.

This does not take into account intimate partner violence or other reasons why someone is not assertive enough to insist on protection.

In the section on HIV, they discuss treatment as prevention.  Bravo.  It would be good to add that untreated STIs facilitate HIV infection.  

Grade 8

  • factors that can affect an individual’s decisions about sexual activity

They discuss personal limit setting and a personal plan.  That may work for people with a roof over their heads, a loving family, food on the table and an abuse-free life.  Young people from a lower socio-economic status, young people who suffer from abuse, racism, sexism, homophobia are among those who are more likely to engage in risky behaviours.  This should be acknowledged.

  • demonstrate an understanding of gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation and identify factors that can help individuals of all identities and orientations develop positive self-concept

Start by having them and their sexual issues appear as per my comment above.

  • Teenagers need to know about the benefits and risks of different types of contraception.

They also need to know about abortion which is part of birth control as is Emergency Contraception.

In the discussion on safer sex, there is nothing for WSM or young trans people.  They do use the term “sexual contact” to avoid STIs – but it will need to be spelled out in a lesson plan.  They also need to add the phrase “for the parts that are covered” when discussing condoms as protection against STIs.

  • analyse the impact of violent behaviours, including dating violence and gender-based violence
  • against girls it can include physical assault in a relationship, sexual assault, or rape

They will have to define terms, since “rape” no longer exists in the law.

  • understand the attractions and benefits associated with being in a relationship as well as the risks and drawbacks
  • there is a range of intimate behaviours that people can use to show caring and connection and different levels of risk associated with different levels of intimacy
  • being intimate with someone includes having a good understanding of the concept of consent
  • consent to one activity doesn’t imply consent to all sexual activity
  • it is important to discuss consent at every stage
  • consent is communicated not assumed

And this is where the curriculum really shines.  It would be even better to talk about how wonderful it is to enthusiastically consent to a sexual activity one really enjoys.

Grade 9

Bear in mind – Physical Education is only compulsory till grade 9.  In terms of sexual health education, for many students, this is their last chance to hear it in school.

  • understand the benefits and risks of using electronic communication technologies
  • harmful or undesirable information and entertainment such as pornography

This will require a skillful educator.  By grade 9, most students will have been exposed to pornography and many will be regular consumers.

  • If someone is being abusive online or through texting, you can be assertive and stand up for yourself or others.

This is somewhat naïve, especially in the light of recent teen suicides due to online bullying and the posting of filmed sexual assaults.

  • discuss the relative effectiveness of various methods of preventing pregnancy or STIs
  • if you are thinking of having sex, you need to know how to avoid unintended pregnancy or STIs

Again, the assumption is that having sex means intercourse.  Where are WSM in all this?  The reasons given for non condom use are naïve (see remarks above about social determinants of health).

  • Clinics can provide counselling like birth control advice and pregnancy tests.

They also offer counselling and abortion referral.

  • demonstrate an understanding of factors that can influence a person’s understanding of their gender identity

This is a good section.

  • to build healthy relationships, it is important to have open communication, mutual respect and honesty between the people involved
  • one way to take care of your sexual health is to do some thinking in advance about your health and safety

This is not how it works for the 14 year old mind.  Moreover, they give the example of a Metis woman who says making decisions about sex depends on how much she respects herself and respects being a woman.  That is particularly ironic when we consider how First Nations and Metis people’s deracination, aided and abetted by residential schools, has contributed to ongoing substance abuse, sexual abuse and murder of Indigenous women especially sex workers.  This is disingenuous to say the least.

  • thinking about your health involves planning for a regular medical check-up, regular breast or testicular self-examinations and STI and Pap tests if you are sexually active

Adolescent women should not be doing breast self-examination.

Adolescent men should be doing TSE.

Pap testing does not start till age 25.  These are egregious errors.

The term “sexually active” is meaningless.  If someone has had unprotected sexual activity, they need to be tested for STIs.

Grade 10

  • factors that influence sexual decision making
  • being sexually active is not something you should feel pressured into doing

There’s that term again.  The assumption is that “sexually active” means intercourse.

  • It’s OK to delay having sex with my partner until both of us feel ready, so that we’re able to enjoy sex without regrets.

There is constant double speak about sexual activity.  It’s good, but it’s bad.  Young people like anyone else engage in a variety of sexual activities.  At issue is the risk level of each activity which needs to be spelled out.

  • describe some common misconceptions about sexuality in our culture and explain how these may cause harm to people
  • respect is enshrined in the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Human Rights Act
  • heterosexism is the assumption that if someone is in a romantic or sexual relationship it is with someone of the opposite sex
  • explain how being in an exclusive relationship with another person affects them and their relation with others

It seems to me they want to discourage teen relationships.  They also do not take into account casual sexual relationships, like friends with benefits or F-buddies.

Grade 11

  • describe how their understanding of factors that affect reproductive and sexual health and their knowledge of proactive measures and supports (including breast and testicular examinations, Pap tests) can be applied to avoid or minimize illness

Once again, they got it wrong about breast exam and Paps.

Grade 12

  • discussion of harassment, violence and abuse
  • stalking, sexual assault
  • how relationships develop through various stages
  • skills and strategies needed to maintain a satisfactory relationships the relationship evolves
  • if you’re not comfortable talking about sex with your partner, you shouldn’t be having sex

Not helpful.  Once again, what is sex?

  • Analyse the portrayal of different relationships in the media with respect to bias and stereotyping, and describe how individuals can take action to encourage more realistic and inclusive messaging

Final remarks…

This updated curriculum is a vast improvement over the one implemented under a Conservative government in 1998 when they introduced the term abstinence as part of sexual health education.  The next round will need to take into account children’s and adolescents’ realities.  It will need to incorporate sexual orientation and gender identities into the body of the discussion so that all students feel they are represented.  Otherwise, they are just paying lip service by discussing stereotypes and barriers to healthy sexual expression.

Congratulations on a very good start.

Resources

Sexual assault – Seeking a sea change – January 29, 2013

At the end of 2012, when a 23-year-old woman in India was viciously attacked and later died of her injuries, it touched off a movement which will hopefully have a profound effect on their culture. Not surprisingly, there is no such movement in the Congo where rape continues to be used against both men and women as a weapon of war. During the last American presidential election, the absurd and enraging remarks about rape and pregnancy got a lot of press as well as more activity from women’s organizations in a long time. In a Toronto neighbourhood last summer, people came together after a series of sexual assaults, resulting in well-attended and well-publicized demonstrations.

And yet, despite decades of feminism and talk of “rape culture” we do not seem to have affected a fundamental shift in thinking in Canada.

Working in middle school and high school classrooms for three decades, I dedicated considerable time to issues of gender equality, including developing an education module on sexual assault specifically in a dating situation.

Years ago, I was in a class of Grade 8 students, 13-year-olds. We were working through the first part of an exercise on sexual assault. I was asking them to respond to a list of statements. It was interesting that they often gave the thumbs up to what they thought was the “correct” answer. For example, “no always means no” almost universally got a yes. Then, I would explore why some girls and women may say no at first, but then seem to accept the advance. They understood that some girls and women don’t like to be considered “easy”; that they worry about their reputations. They also understood that the tone of voice or body language could lend their “no” a certain ambiguity, resulting in miscommunication, especially if alcohol was involved.

Next statement: “a person never loses the right to say no.” One boy stood alone in his refusal to accept that notion. I asked the class under what circumstances someone might want to stop the action and the student responses included: experiencing pain if it was the first time, a change of mind, worries about STIs, etc. But this one male student steadfastly insisted that once you started you had to finish. I said, “what if you’re with a girl, you’re on top and you see that she’s in pain?”

“Turn her face away,” he said.

I later found out from his teacher that he had trouble with female authority figures, which made sense in terms of his misogyny and lack of empathy; but it also made me fearful about his potential future behaviour.

It is an understatement to say that parents are raising children in a culture steeped in contradictory images of what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman. What’s a parent to do?

One day when my children were young, I heard my young son and daughter fooling around in the living room. My daughter sounded unhappy about what was going on. I peeped in. My son had pinned her down and she was struggling to get up. I said to my daughter, “say, ‘get off me’ like you mean it”; and to my son, “and then you have to listen.”

Of course, using this kind of teachable moment can only happen in a context with all other things being equal. Statistically, a child who has been sexually abused is more likely to be sexually assaulted, especially in the absence of good therapy. The egregious ongoing assaults and murders of Aboriginal women are in a category by themselves based in the profoundly racist history of our relationship with First Nations people.

We live in a society that deems us responsible for our choices in health, including sexual health, without taking into consideration the factors over which we have no control, like abuse, poverty and racism. Yet, the potential for dealing with sexism remains the purview of the parent through education. What is taught—or not taught—in the home can have a profound effect on children’s ability to work through the issues despite the media barrage of sexist images, including pervasive violent sexual images.

After the 23-year-old Indian woman died of her injuries recently, men in India laid their bodies down in the street and called for a fundamental shift in culture. Our White Ribbon Campaign has made some significant inroads; and yet, the scourge of sexual assault remains statistically high. In 2011 more than 21,800 sexual assaults were reported in Canada. We know this represents only one in ten of the actual assaults, which are most commonly committed by someone we know.

Of the many challenges facing our quest for equality, this one runs deep.