BY: SIERRA BEIN
After a student suspected of selling drugs was strip-searched by her teachers, people all over Canada were outraged. She had to remove all her clothing in front of a blanket — underwear included — while another staff member searched the clothes. She was not allowed to call her parents. They didn’t find any drugs on her.
But what if she had refused? Maybe a simple “no” would have stopped the whole situation. They would have called the police, who would have handled the incident. Probably without asking her to strip down at all.
Learning to say no isn’t as easy as it seems, especially to figures of authority. But as many have experienced, grasping the concept of “no,” and the idea of consent is something even the youngest children should understand. And so far, most schools have have failed in teaching this lesson.
Ontario’s provincial government has recently changed its sexual education curriculum to include more information about sexuality earlier on, a point of controversy for some parents. One of the major parts of this new curriculum is teaching kids about consent — which could be one of the most productive changes in the curriculum.
But provinces like Quebec still have no set curriculum for sexual education. If people think that the Ontario sex-ed reform is long overdue, then places like Quebec are still in the dark ages of teaching their kids about healthy sexuality.
The first time consent was discussed in a school setting for me was in university. You can spot “consent is sexy” buttons all over campus and signs on the walls of the campus centre. But up until leaving high school it was never a conversation in the classroom. Honestly, I got most of my sex ed from my friends and from TV (shout out to Urban Dictionary too).
Of course we all learned about sexuality and how our bodies work. We were taught about STDs and how to use birth control. But we never learned about sexual abuse, healthy relationships or consent. To think that it was never a conversation makes me want to tear my hair out— the second most prevalent type of police-reported violence committed against youth is sexual assault, according to Statistics Canada. Results from the same study show that 59 per cent of sexual assault victims were children under the age of 18.
Quebec Education Minister Yves Bolduc originally said strip searches of high school students should be permissible, only to backtrack a day later.
Yet, less than one out of ten victims reports the sexual assault to police.
Maybe it has to do with the fact that 75 per cent of victims know their abuser as a family member or friend.
“There’s much more sexual assault that happens between acquaintances, between two people who know each other,” said Brenda Cossman, director of Sexual Diversity studies and law professor at the University of Toronto. “Where lines around consent get crossed in ways that often you know people have different understandings about what consent is.”
Cossman believes that teaching youth about consent is essential, and that it’s important that people understand what healthy sexuality looks like.
“I think we just need to put sexuality onto that list of things that children need to be educated about and in some ways try to take the stigma away from it.”
Soon, in Ontario schools, children will be learning about healthy relationships in grades four to six. In grades seven to twelve they will focus more on respect and consent, including inappropriate sexual behavior and the different forms of harassment.
But back in Quebec, sex-ed still isn’t a structured thing. Although they have education modules, schools do not have to follow them, and can “adapt” them depending on the community. For example, the Montreal module suggests teaching about body parts at around five-years-old, and about consent between ages ten and eleven. But this is not a guarantee.
Consent should be included as a conversation both in the class and in the home. Telling kids that the body is a temple might seem cheesy, but teaching them to value themselves is not. Sex education can’t only focus on biology— STDs, reproduction and contraception— because sexuality extends past the physical.
Since schools need to react quickly to situations involving the safety of students, they often have more flexible power to engage in strip searches.
“Now that’s very important information,” said Cossman. “But that’s certainly not everything that young people need to know about healthy sexuality, and the whole question of consent, what consent looks like, what consent is, is something that absolutely needs to be introduced.”
Many people, like me, who did not receive a proper sex education, turn to pop culture and the media for examples of what healthy sexuality should look like. We are being bombarded by images and messages on the web and left to make our own conclusions. America’s sweetheart Kim K sits on a throne of sex tapes and bad choices. Shows like Jersey Shore have reigned supreme in many young people’s daily media consumption.
“I think teenagers don’t necessarily know what healthy sexuality looks like,” says Cossman. “So great, we’re teaching them about how not to get pregnant, how not to get STDs but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg.”
Maybe if this 15-year-old had learned that her body is hers and hers alone, then she would have had the courage to exercise that autonomy by saying “no”.
It’s possible that if she had the same “no means no and yes means yes” talk, this situation would have played out differently. Perhaps she would have demanded to call her parents. Maybe the police would have stepped in and handled the situation properly.
For the children who are like I was, and knew how their body works, but were never taught about the mental side of sexuality, I’m deeply concerned. The stigma surrounding talks about sexuality are crippling our ability to properly inform generation after generation.
Consent is about empowering people to understand their values. Healthy sexuality should be something we strive for, not something hidden between the lines of our textbooks.