Grown-ups, addressing kids, often talk about sex in terms of lycanthropy. Boys become wolves; girls need to know the lunar cycles. When I took sex ed in the late nineties, it might have been implied that some women want to have sex with women, and men with men, but how they'd go about that was left to our imaginations. Our imaginations were left to the Internet, of which teachers knew nothing. (The site gURL.com taught me way more than any adult did; girls today have Rookie, which parents should feel great about.)
Traditional sex ed has left mostly questions. And what kids don't learn from elders, they learn from pop culture, which has always been a terrible source of information. In 1984, Sixteen Candles made light of sexual assault; so did Cruel Intentions, in 1999; so did Observe and Report, in 2009. There's Something About Mary is about a guy who stalks the woman of his dreams until she falls in love with him. Fifty Shades of Grey is about that, too, among other things. I like some of these movies, and it doesn't feel good to be a stickler. But if you didn't know better – and most kids don't – you'd come away from them with terrible ideas.
Ontario's new sex-ed curriculum contains some essential lessons – about the dangers of "sexting," yes, and also sexual orientation, gender identity and consent. It represents a paradigm shift, by treating sexual comportment as a life skill among others. Kids in Grade 1 begin learning about emotional communication and healthy relationships; when they get older, sex is folded into that discussion. It's a curriculum geared toward raising better people, who are better at relating to each other. Sex is one way that people relate to each other.
Before this week, Ontario's sex-ed curriculum had languished for 17 years. In that time, smartphones were invented, gay marriage was legalized, trans rights came to mainstream attention and a major Supreme Court decision established what's often called affirmative consent as the Canadian legal standard. That means the instigator of a sex act can't just assume that their partner is game because they're not resisting: Consent needs to be given, verbally or otherwise. It can be withdrawn at any time.
For some, the concept brings to mind sad, defeated kids politely requesting a feel. But there are many ways to say "yes," and, as University of Northern Iowa professor Harry Brod has put it, "If you don't have the affirmative-consent standard, you're saying that what's in place is green light" – that a man is entitled to a woman's body until she resists. The word "consent" doesn't even appear in the old curriculum, as two Toronto Grade 8 students, Lia Valente and Tessa Hill, have been speaking about publicly since January.
Kids need to learn about affirmative consent. Because they need to observe it, most importantly, but also because it opens into a healthier way to think about sex. Bro comedies give the impression that sex is about predation, that getting laid requires you to be malicious. This does untold harm, and it isn't very satisfying, unless it's part of a dynamic you're both on board with. Better to think of sex in terms of conversation. Whatever you're doing, you should want to do it; and you should want your partner to want it, too.
Not much in the culture I grew up with encouraged good attitudes around sex, or showed any kind of diversity, sexual or otherwise. Back then, actual sex was usually off-limits (a scene from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective stands out in memory). Now kids receive way more exposure to sex itself, and the messaging is not any healthier. We're less shy now, but somehow just as prudish.
Two weeks back, I wrote about the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. I thought the movie was fun, and I still do. I was flippant about it, for the same reason I'm sometimes flippant about horror flicks, or dirtbag comedies that I otherwise enjoy: I reduce their values to static, or make fun of them. But not everyone reacts this way.
The most harmful part of Fifty Shades has nothing to do with BDSM, and everything to do with the movie's notion of consent: The sex is never about Anastasia's desire, or even her curiosity, but her acquiescence. The message is that sexual submission is a thing some boys require, that girls might have to indulge. This is the dynamic that girl groups sang about before the sexual revolution, and it needs to be repaired.
In school, you learn that when you hit someone, you hurt them. I remember that. I don't remember learning that someone might hurt me, by forcing acts I didn't consent to, or cajoling me until I technically did. It took a long time to understand that sex was something I was totally free to decline, at any point in the evening, if I didn't want to have it. Kids should learn that as soon as they learn the basics. It took 17 years to change this curriculum; that's still faster than the pace of culture.