Who says you need to be old enough to vote to start a revolution? (Photo: Getty Images)
In Toronto, two young women who aren’t even old enough to drive are taking on their school system, insisting that the concept of consent — and an active promotion of “consent culture” — be taught in their school’s sex ed classes.
Thirteen-year-olds Tessa Hill and Lia Valente are petitioning the Ontario Ministry of Education on Change.org to add the topic of consent to the province’s health curriculum.
In their petition, the two teens write: “Our society is scared to teach teens and young people about safe sex, and most importantly, consent. Young people will have sex, despite teaching abstinence in the classroom, so the most important thing is to educate us and other young people about consent. When young people don’t learn about the importance of consent in a sexual relationship, it can lead to unhealthy relationships and ultimately perpetuates rape culture.”
A similar push for consent education is occurring stateside in Nevada, where a group of students is likewise demanding a new kind of comprehensive sex ed that includes teaching consent. These students are hoping that the guidelines outlined by the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS) will be integrated into their state’s sex ed teachings, specifically its inclusion of teaching about rape and sexual assault as part of a thorough health education for young people.
Some parents, however, believe that discussing these matters in school is inappropriate and oversteps the boundaries of the kinds of things school administrators and staff members should be discussing with students — infringing on parents’ discretion surrounding the way in which their children learn about these topics.
Experts, however, take the students’ side. “Teaching consent in sex education may help avoid instances of sexual assault down the line, and it’s difficult to imagine being against that,” Leslie Kantor, MPH, the vice president of education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, tells Yahoo Health. “It’s really important that schools provide comprehensive sex education to their students and that includes learning about healthy relationships, consent, and communication.” High school is often the first time young people experience romantic and sexual relationships, Kantor says, and so they need the skills to figure out what they do — and don’t — want to do. “If they don’t learn these skills in sex education they may not learn it anywhere else,” she emphasizes.
Kantor explains that consent can, and should, be incorporated into sex ed curriculums, as “young people also need resources about where to turn if they have questions about their relationships.”
The skill of giving and asking for, or hearing, consent is “a learned thing, not something people know instinctively,” Kantor says. “Part of this is developing a sexual vocabulary which for some people can be harder than [it is for] others. It can be hard if you’re already in a relationship. If you haven’t been communicating in this way from the outset, you start to fall into patterns and it can feel even harder to break out of those.”
It’s also important to remember, says Kantor, that talking about sex with young people is not “a one-shot deal” limited to “one conversation about the ‘birds and the bees’ with your kids or one course on sex education from your school when you hit puberty.” At different ages and stages of development, children and young adults should have the opportunity to learn the “different skills we’ll need for experiencing each stage of our sexuality from very young ages through adulthood,” she says.
Likewise, Kantor emphasizes, the teaching of consent isn’t one-size-fits-all for all ages, explaining that the concept of consent can be introduced as early as elementary school by teaching young children “about learning to hear ‘no’ when a friend says you can’t have their cookie, or empowering a child to speak up for themselves about what activity they want to try at school.”
Healthy relationships are about being a good friend, or knowing when it is OK to trust an adult, she says. Covering consent and healthy relationships with everyone — including friends, family, adults, and eventually sexual partners — “lays the groundwork for better conversations about sexual assault and rape in high school” and beyond, Kantor says.
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