Tessa Hill is the co-founder of We Give Consent, and a 16-year-old film student living in Toronto.
Me at 13: waiting nervously with my friend Lia in the foyer of Queen's Park, hands folded, while I went over talking points in my head. I was trying to distill all of my passion, everything I had preached in interviews and social media posts, into efficient phrases. In retrospect, I was overthinking it. The concept was scary, but the execution was simple: We were talking to the Premier about why we valued sex education and how every young person should learn about consent.
Consent was easy, non-arguable, and at 13 I already understood its absence in our culture. I saw not just the value in knowing the laws around consent, but in understanding its meaning of respect and empathy. I had experienced boundaries crossed and, as I educated myself about consent and rape culture, I saw its manifestation in life around me. The answer was straightforward: teach consent. Standing at Queen's Park, I was ready; by that point I had explained it a thousand times, and I would continue to explain it a thousand more.
In the past months, discussions about sexual assault have entered the news cycle once again. Most recently, eight women have come forward with allegations about Roy Moore. The U.S. Republican nominee for Senate is accused of sexually assaulting the women – some when they were teens. Mr. Moore was in his 30s at the time, a district attorney, and the girls were as young as 14. The same responses have been heard, as they do whenever a powerful man is accused of sexual assault, and his fellow Republicans have come forward to defend him. Their arguments range from "you can't be a victim 40 years later" to "14-year-olds don't make good decisions," all justifications that only centre the supposed "wrongdoing" on the women who were assaulted.
The women's stories have intersected with news in the rest of the world as well. This past week France brought forward the possibility of setting the minimum age of sexual consent to 13-years-old. The country currently has no set age.
France's new legislation and the Moore accusations can provide an important context for examining young people's autonomy and ability to give consent. The allegations against Mr. Moore have sparked online discussions with #MeAt14, where women have been posting photos of themselves as teens to highlight how a 14-year-old is too young to consent. At the same time, we see France proposing that young people can consent at 13.
When I was 13, beginning to speak about the importance of sex education, I was forced to take an objective view of my own experiences. I had to field questions about complexities: Could someone consent if they're intoxicated? What happens if someone regrets it after the fact? The truth was that I had no good answer. At 13, my insight came only from my experiences and the rest I learned through online sex education resources. Even now I am consistently asked to speak to classrooms or student groups about consent, offers that I shift by telling them I would rather talk about student activism, because there are a lot of things I don't know. Consent can be grey or it can be black and white.
However, there are many things I do know: consent is enthusiastic, consent is mandatory and consent is equal. I also know that as a 13-year-old who, even then, understood so much, I was not at the right age to give total consent to anyone. Age is not just a number; it is often a symbol of experience, maturity and power. The age gap between Roy Moore and the women he allegedly assaulted was a signifier of power, as was his job as district attorney.
We cannot fathom everything at 13, but there is no question that young people should always feel they have control and an understanding of the rights of their body. Yet, it's difficult to expect this when the media frequently undermine its importance and comprehensive sex education is minimal.
We need to learn that consent can be affected by power dynamics, the influence of substances and perceived safety. In order for us to feel safe and empowered in our decisions, conversations must be constant and reflective of our experience. Education has to start young, acknowledging that consent is not only mandatory for sex but also for any kind of healthy relationship. It's one answer that may seem too simple, yet many still grasp to understand.
So, we have to keep talking about it, a thousand times over, until things start to change.