Recently, sex educator Samantha Viarruel hosted one of her signature sex-ed trivia games in Ryerson’s Student Learning Centre. The topic she addressed — sexual consent — is ubiquitous lately, and as pertinent to Ontario high school students as it is to U.S. Supreme Court justice hopefuls.
Viarruel’s session revolved around consent and intoxication. With so many pubs bordering Ryerson’s campus along Yonge Street, it’s a relevant topic. However, 19 years old is way too late to be learning how to talk about sex. The lack of conversation on the topic can have negative effects that span generations.
In August, the provincial government of Premier Doug Ford repealed parts of the sex-ed curriculum that the former government of Kathleen Wynne had put in place — including parts that introduce the topic of sexual consent to elementary school kids.
According to the Journal of Adolescent Health, “a history of maltreatment significantly increases the risk of subsequent perpetration of maltreatment.”
Teaching young people about consent and what maltreatment looks like could be the key to stopping cycles of abuse. How can a child report a traumatic experience without first being taught about what’s acceptable and what isn’t?
“When I was in Grade 9, I was actually learning what consent was in one of my courses and realized that I was being abused at home,” said 20-year-old Ryerson student Olson Crow. Crow doesn’t remember learning anything about consent in their Chatham-Kent elementary school.
“It’s not just about sex, and I think people are forgetting the other important conversations that go along with this. How do kids even know if they’re being abused if they don’t know what consent is?” said Crow.
That same question has been writ large across protest posters held by high school students across the city who are afraid for the generations to follow.
A Statistics Canada report from 2014 on criminal victimization in Canada stated sexual assault — one of the consequences of non-consensual sexual contact — is the only violent crime in Canada that hasn’t declined since 1999. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that girls make up 82 per cent of people under the age of 18 who experience sexual assault.
“Folks who grow up in a western context — even my experience growing up in Toronto — we get ideas about sex that are rooted in patriarchy, misogyny, those types of things,” said Viarruel. “So when we’re experiencing them [sexual acts], we’re bringing all that baggage with us.”
The curriculum switch is a stark reminder of how easily power can be stripped away from those who need it most. Classes like the ones led by Viarruel may be the last line of defence that young people have against entering their adulthood unequipped for healthy sex lives, both mentally and physically.
“Stuff around consent is really interesting,” Viarruel said. “I remember I had one guy in particular, and there was something his partner really wanted to do. He didn’t want to do it, but he felt like he wasn’t able to tell that person because of what he thought was expected of him as a man in that situation.”
In 2015, the Canadian Women’s Foundation reported that only one in three Canadians fully understood what it means to give consent. If consent was prioritized as a key component of sexual education curriculums in Ontario, this bleak stat could be eradicated.
“There’s something to be said for what we talk about in our formalized learning spaces,” says Viarruel. “There’s still a validity when information comes from those spaces. The validity that that they can give to someone when they’re not sure. It’s the symbolic nature. On a symbolic level is where it’s the most powerful in these decisions with these curriculum shenanigans.”
Representation of a range of identities and experiences is something built into the mandate of many modern businesses. Yet inexplicably, it isn’t prioritized in our formative years in proper education settings. Yes, people can learn plenty from sex-ed trivia on campus, but it doesn’t have the same potency as learning in the classroom at an impressionable age.