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Editorial: All students should be taught about consent

May 29, 2018 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

I never taught health or career and life management (CALM), but I have thought about how I might approach the unit on human sexuality.

I always thought I would begin with a discussion on the debate between harm reduction models of sex ed versus abstinence models. Not only would it be interesting to hear student perspectives on the debate, but it would be valuable for students to respectfully explore what adults think about how we should teach them about sexuality.

Such a discussion would get into aspects of why we want to teach human sexuality in schools and why most parents want to be involved in discussing sexuality with their children. It would inevitably lead to a strong understanding that there are risks associated with sexual activity; that there are ways to mitigate the risks; that the best way to manage the risks is through healthy, committed relationships; and the only guaranteed way to eliminate the risks is through abstinence.

Over the May long weekend, after significant discussion, delegates at the Annual Representative Assembly approved a trio of resolutions related to sex education.

The first two resolutions urge the government to fund programs and services and develop curriculum to address issues of sexual exploitation, sexual assault, sexual harassment and consent. The third resolution urges the government to make sex education mandatory for all students attending publicly funded schools.

Some teachers were worried about how such a policy would inhibit the ability of parents to direct the education that their child receives. But other speakers spoke to how teachers would use good judgment and professionalism to teach the program of studies in a way that would be sensitive, objective and age appropriate.

"Schools teach the facts. Parents can teach the values," said one speaker.

And the program of study urges sensitivity and encourages good communication with parents.

"Students need to have a safe and caring environment in which to explore feelings, ideas and issues surrounding personal choices and decisions," the CALM program of study states. It says many of the topics in CALM are sensitive in nature and "need to be dealt with in a responsible, respectful and professional manner in the classroom."

"Instruction in human sexuality education requires communication with parents about the learning outcomes, topics and resources."

I know that if human sexuality becomes mandatory, teachers would continue to communicate with parents about the class content while teaching with sensitivity and appreciation for a diversity of viewpoints on the matter.

I saw a clear link between this resolution and the earlier ones about sexual assault and consent.

The emergence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements represent a new consciousness about the pervasiveness of sexual assault and sexual harassment in society. As many as one in three females and one in six males will experience some form of sexual assault or sexual exploitation in their lifetime. Most of the time these incidents happen before the survivor reaches the age of 21, and 80 per cent of the time the person knows their assailant.

Sex ed has been shown to reduce incidents of sexual violence and to improve the frequency of reporting when it happens. Sex ed helps to foster healthy relationships and empowers young people to understand boundaries. It also helps to foster a culture of believing and supporting survivors of sexual violence by challenging myths and stereotypes that surround sexual violence. The Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services has put together a sexual violence action plan for Alberta that includes a call for sexual assault prevention education across all ages and in all communities.

Adding consent as an important topic of discussion into the curriculum empowers possible victims with more tools to clearly and confidently say no, while educating possible perpetrators about what consent looks like and how to ensure it has been obtained.

This is important learning that everyone should know, and we can start this by teaching it to all students.

I also think that teaching about consent fits nicely with those who think young people should remain abstinent by choice. Abstinence requires young people to be able to communicate confidently about the decisions they have made about sex, and to be able to send and receive messages about which activities (like holding hands, hugging or kissing) they have consented to and which ones (like sexual touching or intercourse) they have not consented to.

This is what it can look like when teaching professionals, led by a high-quality curriculum, with clear communication and respect for the diverse views of parents, deliver sex ed in a responsible, respectful and sensitive manner.

I think it will be very good for the health and safety of all students and society at large. ❚

I welcome your comments—contact me at

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