The province of Ontario is introducing a new health and sex ed curriculum (to upgrade its 1999 version after a previous government was bullied in 2011 to abandon the project). Some pretty important changes have been brought to the table. But don’t take my word for it, here’s the actual curriculum : grades 1-8, grades 9-12 and some solid articles, here, here, here and here (plus a great piece on sex ed in the Netherlands here). Kids will learn the anatomically correct names for all of their body parts (which countless studies have shown is key to preventing and being able to report childhood sexual abuse), will learn about gender identity, sexual orientation, and, among other things (and thanks to two awesome young women), they’ll learn about consent.
Now some have been up in arms about this consent thing because they assume that very young kids will learn about sexual consent. This underlines the fact that everyone needs to learn about consent, especially adults, because many of us just don’t get it.
The idea that a person is the master of her or his body, and that s/he gets to decide what happens to that body, shouldn’t be all that revolutionary. But people have a really hard time with this. Take the whole “high school dress code” issue—where young women are told they are first and foremost a possible “distraction” to their male peers (or, worse, to their male teachers). Making it institutional policy that young women are told that they’re responsible for the behaviour of boys and men, and that their clothes can and will be measured, sometimes literally, by people in positions of power, to see if they should be sent home for “indecency”, is really problematic. If we’re okay with schools teaching youth that they can disrespect or expect to be disrespected because of their attire, let’s think for a minute about how slippery that slope is (ie. rape culture, victim blaming).
Another example of most people having a really hard time with the concept of consent is their reaction to small children’s bodies. Children are adorable. They’re pudgy and soft, they’re as cute as buttons with big eyes and round cheeks. When adults see children they want to touch them. We have codes, as adults, for ways of greeting one another depending on how well we know each other, our age, our sex, our cultures and customs. Sometimes a close hug makes sense, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a double cheek kiss, la bise, is appropriate, sometimes not. Sometimes we shake hands, and sometimes we just say “Hello!”. Adults (generally) learn to navigate these things and to send clear body language about which greeting they’re going for, and most often (we hope), that body language is heard and respected.
Kids don’t have these internalized codes, they’re learning the ropes of social living. They also meet a lot of people who care about them, who have heard about them or seen pictures of them, but whom they’d don’t know or don’t remember meeting.
We went out for breakfast over the weekend and an older woman, a real grandmother type, was really taken with our child. She rubbed his back at length to say « hello. » She caught both of us, his papa and I offguard, and we were both stumped and then kicking ourselves for not responding quicker to our child’s clear discomfort. This woman would not have greeted my partner this way. She wouldn’t have greeted me this way either.
I used to think this was generational, but it isn’t. My kid gets poked and tickled, gets his hair ruffled or his arm rubbed by people he doesn’t know, people my age and younger, all. the. time. And for the most part, they don’t stop when he hides in my arms, or otherwise shows his displeasure. They think it’s a game.
More often than not, I need to take my child in my arms and move away from them, or assertively ask for them to respect his space, for it to stop.
Having had my own share of unwanted touching, as a child and a woman, I find it really hard to navigate these things assertively. If I was honest I’d say that the most challenging part of parenting has been its social side—protecting this child, giving him the space and encouragement to be himself (in a society where so many gender rules prevail), listening to his verbal and non-verbal cues, and making sure that our social comfort never trumps his sense of safety.
For those who’ve been really strong proponents of this new sex ed curriculum (and for those who haven’t), I ask you to think about your own ideal definition of consent and to think about how you interact with young people. If we want youth to be able to assertively choose when and how they’re touched, and to really respect others’ choices and words—to put an end to gender-based violence, to assault and harassment—we need to grant young children those same inalienable rights and responsibilities. I don’t hug my kid if he doesn’t want a hug, and I don’t let him climb on me if I don’t want to be climbed on. I’ve heard it said that “consent is really complicated” but it isn’t. It’s as simple as that.