Cultivating Consent: Sex Ed in the 21st Century

A Swedish public service broadcaster, SVT, recently caused quite a kerfuffle with a catchy animated video of dancing and singing genitalia. According to Radio Sweden, although the one-minute video from educational program Bacillakuten was made in response to questions children had sent in regarding genitals, it raised concerns over whether it is a public broadcaster’s place to introduce children to sexual information. Critics also accused the clip of gender stereotyping, however SVT denied that they would ever support a transphobic tune. Overall, the video was a hit, “racking up nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube and half a million views on Facebook in just over a week” and spawning discussions internationally.

Meanwhile, in Canada, there is a stir of controversy over Premier Kathleen Wynne’s proposed changes to Ontario’s sex ed curriculum that incorporate a consent-focused approach beginning at an early age. Countless research has gone into the revised curriculum that aims at increasing empathy and providing youth with the information they need to make informed decisions regarding intimate relationships, and yet these changes are misconstrued by right-wing religious groups as “introduc[ing] sexual consent to six year olds.”

On the contrary, Wynne explains that starting as early as Grade 1, kids will learn skills relating to empathy, such as how to actively listen and recognize facial expressions, setting the foundation “for that kind of interpersonal ability and intelligence.”

This curriculum is not about introducing too much too soon; it’s about creating the building blocks for healthy relationships by focusing more on understanding ourselves and one another, and communicating constructively about our sexuality and emotions. It’s also about understanding variances in family, sexual preference and gender identity, and nurturing the awareness in young minds that will be their vaccine against hate. Incorporating a “consent culture” into the classroom not only teaches the next generation essential communication skills that will aid them in their future relationships – it’s also a strong preventative action against sexual assault.

In an age where social media is the backdrop of teen drama; where tweens are sexting nude photos; and where online bullies are ‘slut shaming’ and posting compromising photos of their victims; we need a system in place that cultivates awareness, respect, and empathy, resulting in a safe environment where kids can freely speak up about issues surrounding sex and relationships.

When 13-year-old girls in Canada are petitioning for consent to be added to our educational mandate while children in Sweden are sending in questions about their private parts to public broadcasters, it’s clear that children seek out answers from whomever they believe will give them the information straight. Kids yearn for knowledge, and providing them with the primary tools for understanding themselves and others is not something to shy away from – it’s beneficial and necessary.

Ultimately, there are many sexual health resources for youth who choose to seek out information for themselves, however those kids are likely the ones who are conscious enough to make balanced decisions the majority of the time. It’s the kids who are denied a safe space to discuss issues relating to sexuality and relationships who are the most in need, and providing an updated curriculum with a broader scope of information and a positive approach to intimacy is essential. Chances are, the kids who can’t talk to their parents about sex also don’t have the best role models for healthy relationships, which is why learning these soft skills in school is so important. There are other programs out there that have been very successful – such as WiseGuyz, a sexual education class for boys in Calgary, and programs for at-risk youth offered through Planned Parenthood – but sadly they are few and far between. Kids want and need this information, and if they aren’t getting the full scope at school or at home, they’ll find it elsewhere.

The youngest generations are increasingly more tech-savvy than their predecessors, and despite many wonderful online resources for sexual health, including popular personalities like sex positive educator, speaker, and YouTube blogger Laci Green, providing accurate, age-appropriate and engaging information about sexuality should be a priority in the classroom and on screen. Finding answers shouldn’t be something that kids have to navigate alone, especially with so much misinformation out there.

It’s important for kids to have comfortable and secure access routes to the real, constructive information they need to make safe and informed decisions for themselves. The earlier children learn the fundamentals of empathy and consent, the stronger their foundation of knowledge when it comes to making the right emotional decisions in regards to relationships, sexuality, and respect for themselves and others. Understanding basic anatomy, stages of puberty/growth, and the risks associated with pregnancy and STDs is only the beginning. We need to set them up with the tools to succeed emotionally and interpersonally as well.

Demystifying sexuality is an imperative step in furthering human understanding of one another, and finding a place within the collective community – isn’t that, essentially, what every child needs most?