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We need to start teaching girls about consent

As a public educator who's spent the last 15 years working to end violence against women, I believe it's time empower young women in the classroom

By Julie Lalonde

Canada has experienced an unprecedented level of discussion on sexual violence these past few years. From Bill Cosby to Jian Ghomeshi to the #MeToo movement, we’re finally talking openly about assault.

Some provincial ministries of education have created curricula to address the issue. In 2015, Ontario introduced new, comprehensive physical and health education guidelines that included gender identity, sexting and consent. Last summer, Quebec began piloting a new curriculum that contains discussions of consent with preschool children. And this past fall, Alberta unveiled a new approach that starts educating about consent in Grade 2.

As a public educator who has spent the last 15 years working to end violence against women in Canada, I am delighted by these new developments. Unfortunately, not everyone shares my enthusiasm.

After the Progressive Conservatives formed government in Ontario last year they almost immediately scrapped the Liberals’ 2015 curriculum, which included discussions of gender identity, sexting and consent, claiming it was inappropriate material for youth. As I watched politicians, pundits and advocates spar on the issue, I flashed back to May 2017 when I spent the day with 92 girls in Ontario’s Muskoka region.

When we remove shame, we empower girls to spot and resist forceful persuasion.

I had been invited to present to the group of 13-year-olds as a form of high-school preparation. A male colleague presented in another room with the boys, while I talked to the girls about the definition of consent, what to expect from a healthy relationship and the important role we play as bystanders. If someone shares a friend’s nude photos, will we speak out or just keep sending them along? If a friend discloses that she’s experiencing violence, are we going to have her back or silence her? I asked some tough questions, but the young women were keen, enthusiastic and brutally honest.

When the four hours were over, I asked them to fill out an evaluation form. The results shocked me.

Every single participant mentioned the definition of consent as her biggest take-away. In particular, the girls had learned that they have the right to say no: even if someone threatens them, even if someone guilt trips them, even if the guy gets mad. These girls in rural Canada were grateful to have learned that they have the right to resist coercion.

This was particularly striking because I am a feminist, sex-positive educator. I do not frame sex and sexuality as scary or limited to marriage. And it is this approach that allowed them to step into their power to say: “Only I get to decide what happens to my body. You don’t get to force or manipulate me.”

I am so grateful that the girls were able to find their voice in a world where they’re torn between traditional forms of female sexuality, which still focus on shame and repression, versus the popular culture representations, which are explicit and overt.

Ample research demonstrates that teaching women and girls to talk openly about bodily autonomy and what they do want in a sexual context gives them the confidence to more easily say no to what they don’t want. When we remove shame, we empower girls to spot and resist forceful persuasion.

I want to live in a world in which girls and women are free to live in safety. But we won’t get there unless we standardize evidence-based consent education in every school across Canada so that all girls are given the same opportunity to be empowered. Our girls deserve this much.

This story originally appeared in The Observer's January 2019 issue.

Julie Lalonde is a women’s rights advocate, public educator and media commentator based in Ottawa.

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