Consent in the Ontario Health and Physical Education Curriculum in the Age of #MeToo
The importance of providing the space for our students to learn the lessons of consent, love, and personal safety is essential. Ensuring that our children hear these messages by highly trained educators, is something I believe wholeheartedly in as a parent and an educator.
I am a parent who will have any conversation with my children that they want to have. I believe in open communication and I do not mince words. I have had honest conversations about sexual health, promiscuity, sexual orientation, gender fluidity and any number of topics with my children since they were young and when they asked. At the same time, knowing that they learn this at school has always been something that has sparked further conversation at home and allowed us to go deeper into the dialogue. I do not feel that shame has any place in this conversation.
My parents also raised me this way. They were open and informative and I never felt judged by them and yet, even with this openness, there were things I just wouldn’t talk about with them. Learning about it at school allowed me to have different conversations with my peers based on our learning.
The changes in the Health and Physical Education curriculum are in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code and Bill 13, the Safe and Accepting Schools Act, released in 2012 protecting the rights of our students who identify within LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning) identities as well as their families.
Now, the Ford government has set up a “snitch line” for parents to report on teachers, actually called “For the Parents” (so I guess the last curriculum was “for the students”. This “snitch line” is another violation of the mandate of the Ontario College of Teachers which states on their website, “the College does not investigate anonymous complaints” and also undermines PPM 159, Collaborative Professionalism by questioning the professional judgement, knowledge and expertise of our educators. There has always been a way to launch complaints by speaking directly to the teacher, through the school administration, other members of the school board or the Ontario College of Teachers. In my experience, the complaints, no matter where they are sent, always come back to the school because that is where the point of impact is. If the person being complained about does not know that there is concern, how will s/he/they ever respond? Premier Doug Ford has said, “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games…Make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act.” I have a hard time reconciling the statement about “using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games”. What is the Premier doing?
We are sacrificing the safety and well-being of our students. That is certain.
It is essential that we understand the impact of these changes on our students, staff and communities. The impact will be profound. For the purpose of this piece, I am going to focus on one aspect of the health curriculum that has disappeared with these changes. Consent.
It is a struggle for me to write about consent because, like many girls and women, I have personal experience with both sexual harassment and assault. Brené Brown writes that “Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them” (Daring Greatly, p 45). I have gained courage from so many others to speak but none has impacted me more than a daughter of a friend of mine, Lily Rabinovich. Her mom, Kate, saved my son when he was in third grade and I was quite ill (You can read more about that in my blog, Six Years) sparking significant anxiety for him and now, seven years later, her daughter saved me. You can see her post here:
So here it goes…
Many of you have seen my TEDx talk that I did last year called, Reclaiming Space. The one piece I did not talk about in that story was that living with body shaming diminishes our ability to have self respect and increases our desire, and I would go so far to say, desperation to be loved.
I never thought I was good enough to be loved so when I received attention from a boy, whether I had considered him in that way or not, I believed that I should just feel lucky.
My first two sexual experiences were with boys I grew up with from a very young age. Neither one asked for consent. I was sleeping and woke up to both situations. I did not know what was happening, how to stop it or if this is what it meant to have a boyfriend. This was my foray into this world. It was scary, aggressive and more than anything, confusing.
This summer, I read Roxane Gay’s masterpiece, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. I cannot say enough about this book. It is a must read. The very title encapsulates the feelings and thoughts of those who have been victim to sexual harassment, assault and gender-based violence. We have been taught to believe that it is “not that bad” and that somehow, we are responsible. In one of the essays, To Get Out From Under It, the author, Stacey May Fowles, takes the reader through her experience seeking therapy as a rape victim:
…I should be able to manage this by myself rather than gobbling up much-needed and sparse resources because of my inability to move on…When I raised this in counseling, she told me: “The survivor who was raped at knifepoint feels guilty she has taken up the space of a survivor who was raped at gunpoint. Everyone believes there is suffering worse than her own, that they should be strong enough to cope without me.” (p 285)
But we are socialized to accept this treatment. Taught to be quiet. And if we are somehow not what the media tells us beauty looks like, then we are often even more vulnerable. This book helped me to understand what happened to me and why, we MUST teach our students about consent. It absolutely infuriates me that any government has the right to remove this from the curriculum when it is about the personal safety and well-being of our students.
Years ago I read two books by Alice Seabold, The Lovely Bones and Lucky. The first, The Lovely Bones, was a fictionalized account of the truth of what happened to her, revealed in the book Lucky, later made into a movie. Both books are the story of her rape. The title Lucky echoes the sentiment of Roxane Gay ’s book, Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture in that Alice was told repeatedly that she was “lucky to be alive”.
Earlier this year, I read this article, What About “The Breakfast Club”?: Revisiting the movies of my youth in the age of #MeToo by Molly Ringwald. Another eye-opener for me as someone who always wanted the guy who was like Bender. Ringwald reflects on the time she watched her old John Hughes films with her ten year old daughter and for the first time, she looks at them with new eyes. It is shared here on This American Life in an episode called, The Blunder Years. These were the movies we grew up on. These were the messages about what we should want. She writes, “If attitudes toward female subjugation are systemic, and I believe that they are, it stands to reason that the art we consume and sanction plays some part in reinforcing those same attitudes.”
This past year, season two of 13 Reasons Why, has a poignant scene where woman after woman stands up and shares her own experience with sexual harassment and assault. This scene hones in central theme of the series as each confession tells us another aspect of the lived experiences of girls and women, subjugated by male-dominated patriarchal society in response to the #MeToo movement.
Also last year, Alek Minassian was charged with ten counts of first degree murder and thirteen counts of attempted murder in the name of the INCEL movement, as he barrelled down Yonge Street in a van and ran down anyone he could. This happened around the corner from my daughter’s former high school and minutes away from where we live, targeting girls and women for refusing to engage sexually with him. Women’s groups called for this attack to be named for what it was, a terror attack against women.
We need our students to learn about consent. We know that 80% of girls and women are subject to sexual harassment and/or assault in their lifetime. We know that regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or age, we have the right to our bodies. We need to stop debating age and actually teach [our children] about consent.
Just in time for school start up this year, the Doug Ford Provincial Progressive Conservative government re-issued 2010 Health and Physical Education Curriculum removing key elements including content focused on consent. The previous curriculum document from 2015 included the following:
demonstrate the ability to recognize caring behaviours (e.g., listening with respect, giving positive reinforcement, being helpful) and exploitive behaviours (e.g., inappropriate touching, verbal or physical abuse, bullying), and describe the feelings associated with each [IS]
explain the importance of standing up for themselves, and demonstrate the ability to apply behaviours that enhance their personal safety in threatening situations (e.g., speaking confidently; stating boundaries; saying no; respecting the right of a person to say no and encouraging others to respect that right also; reporting exploitive behaviours, such as improper touching of their bodies or others’ bodies)
identify the characteristics of healthy relationships (e.g., accepting differences, being inclusive, communicating openly, listening, showing mutual respect and caring, being honest) and describe ways of overcoming challenges (e.g., bullying, exclusion, peer pressure, abuse) in a relationship
describe various types of bullying and abuse (e.g., social, physical, verbal), including bullying using technology (e.g., via e-mail, text messaging, chat rooms, websites), and identify appropriate ways of responding
demonstrate the ability to deal with threatening situations by applying appropriate living skills (e.g., personal skills, including self-monitoring and anger management; interpersonal skills, including conflict resolution skills; communication skills, including assertiveness and refusal skills) and safety strategies (e.g., having a plan and thinking before acting; looking confident; being aware of their surroundings and of people’s body language, tone of voice, or facial expressions; seeking help; drawing on cultural teachings, where appropriate, to analyse situations and develop responses
make informed decisions that demonstrate respect for themselves and others and help to build healthier relationships, using a variety of living skills (e.g., personal and interpersonal skills; critical and creative thinking skills; skills based on First Nation, Métis, and Inuit cultural teachings, such as medicine wheel teachings connected to the four colour or seven grandfather teachings, or other cultural teaching
explain the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about the following: delaying sexual activity until they are older (e.g., choosing to abstain from any genital contact; choosing to abstain from having vaginal or anal intercourse; choosing to abstain from having oral-genital contact); the reasons for not engaging in sexual activity; the concept of consent and how consent is communicated; and, in general, the need to communicate clearly with each other when making decisions about sexual activity in the relationship.
identify and explain factors that can affect an individual’s decisions about sexual activity (e.g., previous thinking about reasons to wait, including making a choice to delay sexual activity and establishing personal limits; perceived personal readiness; peer pressure; desire; curiosity; self-concept; awareness and acceptance of gender identity and sexual orientation; physical or cognitive disabilities and possible associated assumptions; legal concerns; awareness of health risks, including risk of STIs and blood-borne infections; concerns about risk of pregnancy; use of alcohol or drugs; personal or family values; religious beliefs; cultural teachings; access to information; media messages), and identify sources of support regarding sexual health (e.g., a health professional [doctor, nurse, public health practitioner], a community elder, a teacher, a religious leader, a parent or other trusted adult, a reputable website)
This is not about promiscuity. It is about being safe and understanding what consent means, on both sides.
This is about human rights, the rights of our students, their families and our educators.
This is about human dignity.
This is about teaching our students that their bodies, their love, their feelings, their identities are honoured, valued and respected. Anything short of this is a loss of liberty.