Hot! Sex ed curriculum strikes blow to rape culture

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Teaching consent doesn’t mean teaching kids to say yes to sex. It’s teaching them that they have a choice.
May 09 2015.   By: Anna Leventhal

In Grade 8 English class we learned the Greek myths: Pandora and her box, Achilles’ weak spot, Zeus and his lightning bolt. We did group projects. My group’s was a magazine, sort of like Cosmo for ancient Greek women. I wrote an article called “I Was Raped by a God.” It was a torrid confession-style narrative from the point of view of three mythic Greek women: Europa, Danae and Antiope, all of whose sexual assaults we’d studied, somewhat as a matter of course.

I thought this was a brilliant piece of satire, and was shocked when a classmate’s parent thought it was inappropriate for class and suggested I pull it from the magazine. “But it’s what we learned about in class!” I protested. As a 13-year-old I had already heard so much about rape — not just in the newspapers, not just in movies or on TV, but in English class — that I thought nothing of parodying it for a school project.

That, my friends, is what rape culture is. Not just blaming women for being too drunk/too sexy/not careful enough, not just putting the burden of proof on the rape survivor, not just a culture that tells women not to get raped rather than telling men not to rape — though it is all those things as well. It is also a culture that defines sex as something either forced upon women or that women grudgingly agree to, and it is a culture that reinforces these ideas culturally. Not just in law or in social practice but in those arenas where we turn for understanding of ethical codes, where our ideas of “beauty” and “the good” come from.

What would it look like if instead of — or at least alongside — rape culture we learned about a culture of consent?

This is part of what’s being proposed by the Ontario Education Ministry in its new sex education curriculum. Along with learning about anatomy, puberty, gender identities and various sexualities, by the time they finish Grade 6 students will have learned about consent: that you have to ask someone if they want to have sex, and they have to answer positively before you go ahead and do it. Seems basic? It isn’t.

I came of age in the ’90s, when HIV/AIDS education was at peak vigilance; my safer sex knowledge is rock solid. We were well trained in the ways of condoms, viruses, STIs and how to not get pregnant. But learning about consent wasn’t part of the picture. Sex was a natural disaster that was coming for us, like a tropical storm or earthquake, and we had to be prepared.

I don’t know what boys picked up from this curriculum. But from the culture at large, surely they learned that if sex was a thunderstorm, they were the ones throwing the lightning bolts.

Parents who are protesting the curriculum seem to fear that teaching consent means teaching kids to say yes to sex. But it’s not that. It’s just the opposite. It’s teaching kids that they have a choice. It’s teaching them that they are agents when it comes to sex, not passive objects; that they have the right to determine the conditions under which sex happens, and until those conditions are met (whether it be maturity or marriage or true love or feeling safe and good in your body), they can say no. Education doesn’t determine the path a person will follow; it gives the person tools to make informed decisions about that path.

The argument holds for other parts of the curriculum that have been deemed controversial. Learning about homosexuality and transgender identities isn’t going to make kids become gay or trans. It’s going to make kids who are already gay or trans feel safe. It’s going to give them a vocabulary to talk about their bodies and their feelings. It’s going to help their classmates accept them for who they are. It’s going to save lives. If this last part sounds like hyperbole, look up statistics on gay and transgender teen suicide.

And for those who think that elementary school is too young to learn about these things, consider that when I was a 13-year-old penning “I Was Raped by a God,” the Internet was a few cables and a dream. Only millionaires and drug dealers had cellphones. Even a nerdy, tech-unsavvy youth without access to the global village (or the global porn industry) was inundated with messages of sexual violence and gender norms. We have a chance to shift the culture away from Zeus and his (insert phallic metaphor here). We can do better. Let’s.

Anna Leventhal is a Montreal-based writer. She is the author, most recently, of the short-story collection Sweet Affliction.

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1 Comment

  1. This article addresses a very important point about the current social perpetuation of rape culture. I agree that consent should be taught in this new sex-education curriculum, and I question as to why it hasn’t been introduced before. Consent is major in the realm of safe sex, but it is shrouded by the physical threat of STD’s which have been the major spokes model for sex education over the past few decades. However, safe sex also involves proper consent, which can unfortunately be ignored due to today’s culture. We can speculate as to why this rape culture exists, which could be evident when looking at today’s media surrounding this topic. Whether it be the portrayal of rape victims in the media, or dinner table conversations about proper attire to avoid sexual harassment; there is a strong message that states that the victims are at fault in sexual harassment cases. No victim is ever asking for it, as rape should never be considered justifiable.
    Introducing the concept of consent would also allow both women and men to understand that they don’t have to say yes to sex due to the influence of others. For many students, high school can be a hyper-sexualized and judgemental environment. Many adolescence may have the perspective that social status is determined by sexual activity. This is a dangerous concept which often leads to unwanted sexual encounters. Having a clear definition of consent within this curriculum will hopefully help defeat this norm, and break barriers in the construct of rape culture in schools and elsewhere.

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