How can you ask for or give consent when you don't have a clear grasp of what it really means?
That's the question two Toronto 13-year-olds are posing ahead of the release of a new Ontario sexual-education curriculum this September. Grade 8 students Lia Valente and Tessa Hill have garnered more than 40,000 signatures on an online petition asking that the issue of consent – from respect for people's boundaries to a straightforward "yes means yes" approach when it comes to sex – be addressed in health classes in Grades 1 through 12.
And they want a say in what they are taught.
In 2010, students' opinions on sex ed were included in a proposed new curriculum, but those controversial lessons never made it to the classroom. Hill and Valente are hoping things go differently this time.
"We hear stories from our friends about cat-calling and slut shaming in the hallways and in the classroom," the girls wrote in their online petition. "We also notice the lack of awareness about safe sex and consent. … Our society is scared to teach teens and young people about safe sex, and most important, consent."
Ontario's current sex-ed curriculum is from 1998, predating smartphones, Snapchat and all the modern ways teens get information and talk to each other. It doesn't make mention of online porn, sexting or cyberbullying. Consent is also absent from the teachings, but when Premier Kathleen Wynne met with Tessa and Lia last week, she told them it would be in the curriculum this fall. "We were on the exact same page about talking about consent," Hill said of their conversation.
Dissenters quickly seized on the meeting, questioning why teachers should address the issue of consent before students reach the age of consent (which is 16 in Canada). "Ontario's teachers will be forced to teach little children how to give permission for that child to engage in sex," read a press release from evangelical Christian leader Charles McVety, who helped quash the last round of proposed revisions in 2010.
Tessa and Lia have been following the pushback, and give it an eye roll. Consent is about basic human respect, they say, a concept that can definitely be taught in Grade 1. The Globe met with Tessa Hill and Lia Valente to speak about what they actually want from their sex ed.
What is consent culture to you?
Hill: It's a culture of asking for permission. Sometimes we talk about affirmative consent in sexual relationships but other times we're just talking about respecting people.
Kathleen Wynne used the words "interpersonal ability and intelligence." What does that mean?
Valente: It's learning how to read people, which is important. People think it's common sense but you can't necessarily tell if someone is completely comfortable. They should talk about it in schools: facial expressions and what they mean connected to emotions. And body language: What it means when someone's shoulders are stiff when you're hugging them. It's about developing good relationships.
When it comes to the lower grades in elementary school, what do you see lessons about consent looking like?
Hill: We were talking about listening and paying attention to people's body language in the junior grades, about respecting the boundaries of your friends. "Can I hug you?" – that sort of thing.
You've also spoken about understanding what an "enthusiastic, affirmative yes" is. That sounds like sexual consent.
Hill: That's more Grade 7, Grade 8 and then high school: affirmative consent in relation to sexual relationships.
What have people missed in your message?
Hill: At her press conference, when Kathleen Wynne said that consent was going to be in the curriculum starting in Grade 1, a lot of people took that as, "We're teaching our Grade 1 kids about sex." No, it's not that.
There are religious groups who are opposed to the sex curriculum in general. They're using her statement that it will start in Grade 1 as a reason that it shouldn't happen. I think it's taken out of context. It's not about talking about consent in Grade 1. It's about these other things about consent related to general life and asking for permission.
Valente: You're not talking about what consent is, in a sexual way, until Grade 7 and 8.
Critics have asked why kids need to learn about consent before it's legal for them to consent. What do you think?
Valente: Teenagers will be introduced to sex in their lives at 14 or 15. The idea is to catch them before that, to make sure they're prepared when they go into high school. It's better to learn early on. Even kissing someone, you still need their consent. I don't think it's an issue of the law.
Hill: That's overlooked a lot – kissing someone. The spectrum of consent is very large and the spectrum of sex is very large and I think it's important to talk about consent in all of those situations.
The criticism has long been that teaching kids about sex encourages actual sex. What do students want from sex ed?
Hill: We want to learn about sex. One of the reasons that kids are exposed to porn so young is because they want to know about sex. The curriculum needs to be something that's not porn, where it's teaching kids real information. Teaching kids about sex doesn't make them want to have sex. And not teaching kids about sex doesn't make them not want to have sex.
Valente: Teaching abstinence and then blaming kids when they're curious about sex – I don't get it. The education system should accept that kids are going to be curious and have questions. School should be a place where they can have those questions answered.
Why do you think it's important for students to have a say in what they learn?
Hill: They are the ones affected by the changes. In the context of discussion in the curriculum around sexual violence, it is so important for youth to have a say because youth are most vulnerable to these issues.
What are you learning in sex ed in Grade 8?
Hill: We haven't gotten to our health unit; it comes at the end of the year. When I was in Grade 6 and 7, there wasn't really any talk about sex. We had to look up different [sexually transmitted infections] and present about it. It's kind of just fear.
Parents often have trouble giving their kids "the talk." Is a sex-ed curriculum that's 17 years out of date basically adults dropping the ball again?
Valente: That's what ultimately needs to change. If people aren't ready to talk about sex then they're not ready to have good, healthy sex.
You've said, Tessa, that "Not learning about consent means not knowing what consent is when you do decide to have sex."
Hill: The image that we have of how sex is, it's from TV and it's not always like that. When you see that your partner is uncomfortable you stop and talk about it. Consent can be withdrawn. Even people who are in relationships, just because you're in one doesn't mean you're entitled to sex.
In your petition you write about wanting to feel "safer." What are your concerns going into high school next year and university after that?
Valente: Rape culture is an issue that affects us – talking about all the rape cases around the world, including Toronto. We're going to go into that so we want it to change for us.
Hill: I really don't want to go into high school and have a bad experience. There are so many complicated things about not teaching sex. Then what kids learn about sex is from porn and the media. Then it goes into disrespecting and objectifying women. If that's all you're getting it's definitely scary. But that's why we're doing what we're doing.
Several studies have suggested that kids now view online pornography for the first time at age 10 and 11. And the average age of first intercourse hovers at about 17 in Canada. That's a potential of seven years of exposure to porn before you have a real-life partner. Is that something you think about?
Valente: It's so weird. People say "boys will be boys." But boys are not born this way; they're taught to be like that, that girls' bodies are their property. If that's what they're learning early on, maybe we could change that with the curriculum. If they're learning consent early on, then it could be "boys will be boys that ask for consent."
Remind me, what's it like to be in Grade 8?
Hill: Grade 8 is definitely a crazy year. You're going to high school next year. Everyone's going through puberty and discovering their sexuality. It's an important time in people's lives. It's when your brain is changing again. It's in between when you're a child and when you're supposed to be seen as an adult.
Going into high school, there are so many boys who treat girls a certain way. I was talking to this guy and I corrected him on something that he said that objectified women. I said, "Dude, that's not okay. How big their boobs or butts are, it's not yours, it's their body. Respect them." He said to me, "You're going to go into high school and there's going to be all these guys who only care about how big your butt is – they're not going to talk to you if you're ugly. You're not going to survive high school if you think like this."
That made me so angry. Talking about girls a certain way, it's not set that this is how high school has to be – that this is how men are supposed to treat women. That's the thing that really worries me about what I've seen with boys I know and girls I know.
What do you wish boys would understand?
Valente: Boys need to understand that women aren't sex objects or lesser people. And just because they're not interested in you, doesn't mean they're a bad person. Girls aren't this whole other world. Boys and girls actually aren't that different and they should be treated like they aren't that different. Otherwise nothing is going to change.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
January, 2010: The Ontario Ministry of Education releases a revised health and physical-education curriculum for publicly funded schools. Developed over three years of consultations with thousands of experts, parents and students, the curriculum includes topics such as sexual and mental health, substance abuse and physical activity.
April, 2010: Dissenters led by Christian evangelist Charles McVety raise concerns about the sexual-health section, arguing that some of the content is too explicit for younger students (particularly a mention of anal intercourse in the context of sexually transmitted diseases in Grade 7, and a reference to same-sex families in Grade 3).
Then-premier Dalton McGuinty shelves the new elementary-school sex-ed section and postpones the release of a revised high school curriculum. Elementary teachers revert to a 1998 curriculum, while high-school teachers use lessons from 1999.
January, 2013: New Ontario Liberal leader Kathleen Wynne pledges to update the curriculum through additional consultations with parents.
October, 2014: The Ministry of Education announces it will survey one parent per public elementary school on a new curriculum for the 2015 school year. Four thousand parents are surveyed online about the appropriate ages to introduce sensitive topics.
November, 2014: Minister of Education Liz Sandals says early data show parents want their children learning up-to-date information in a sex-ed curriculum.
December, 2014: Toronto Grade 8 students Lia Valente and Tessa Hill launch their online petition "We Give Consent" on Change.org, where they advocate for the inclusion of consent sex ed.
January, 2015: Wynne announces that the issue of informed consent will be included in the new curriculum in September, 2015.