words tanushree pillai
illustrations brianne bruneau
A few days ago, my 4-year-old son came home from school crying. Turns out, he’d wanted to hold this little girl’s hand and she wouldn’t let him. He was clearly upset and said he didn’t want to be friends with her anymore. I had to calm him down and explain to him why it was important to seek her permission before trying to hold her hand, and if she said no, then he had to respect that choice. As I was talking to him it dawned on me: I was having my first conversation with my son about consent.
I never had a lesson in consent when I was a child. In fact, I never received any sort of sex-ed talk from my mother. After I had my periods, she did give me a long list of things to avoid, but that’s about it. When I was in my late teens, I once gathered the courage to tell her that I was sexually active, but she went into denial and thought I was imagining things. I do of course come from another country, another society, where sex education is a lot less open, but talking to other people my age who grew up in Canada, I see that for them, they too never really received much more sex education beyond putting condoms on bananas. But through my conversations with my son, I’m realizing now how much sex education has evolved and, given the rapidly shifting landscape of gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender-based violence, must continue to evolve.
And I don’t say this simply because I’m a parent who worries about my child’s safe interactions with his community. I’m sure you as a BCIT student, someone who might be thinking of having kids yourself one day, you also think of these things. Sex education concerns you even if you aren’t thinking about becoming a parent. Body image, gender identity, sexual orientation, or even the consent of your partner – whether to hold hands or to have sex – all of these topics fall under the banner of sex education today, and it’s imperative to the healthy growth of society that we continue to educate ourselves beyond the standard sex-ed classroom.
I was a fairly unusual young adult and my knowledge and lifestyle was considered fairly “western” by Indian standards. But now that I am a mom, to a child of the opposite gender, I am fairly conscious of the fact that I won’t have all the answers to his questions. I am prepared to handle them, but I’m grateful of the fact that I am raising my child in the western world. Here in Canada, the curriculum for sex-ed is fairly extensive and goes far beyond sexual reproduction. In Ontario for example, kids are introduced to proper names of genitalia in grade 1, puberty in grade 4, and they discuss STDs and how to prevent them in grade 7. In BC, sexual orientation and gender identity are taught in Grade 6.
It gives me comfort to know that sex-ed in Canada is fairly ahead of the curve. Here, sex-ed includes: names of body parts, puberty, bullying, respect, consent, sexual health, sexual orientation, gender identity, body image issues, body health, healthy eating and living, sexual intercourse, Sexually Transmitted Diseases, drugs, opioids and overdose, tobacco, safe sex, pregnancy, sexual abuse, violence, safe interactions, healthy boundaries, unhealthy relationships… and the list goes on. Given these topics, clearly sex education has come a long way from the banana; these are life lessons that all of us need to have in any kind of relationship – familial, platonic or sexual – at any age.
I think it’s also important to note that sex-ed is no longer limited to sexual intercourse, and it is paramount that we understand how sex-ed is an umbrella word for healthy living and healthy relationships, with ourselves and others. Let’s also not forget that sex-ed forms the basis of consent. I think in the times of #MeToo, consent has gained the attention it always deserved, but was never accorded. So many men still often wonder why they need to ask a woman if she’s okay being touched, because sadly our society still enforces the idea that one person can assume domain over another person’s body. I’m speaking more specifically here about Indian society, which focuses on having a male heir and treats its men like gods. Women are considered second-class citizens and the concept of consent is laughable. “Ask my own girlfriend/ wife if she wants to have sex? Riiiight...”
I believe we all have a stake in advancing the conversation around sex-ed, whether you’re a parent, youth, or adult – whether you are hetero, gay, bi, pan-sexual, binary/ non-binary/fluid. We need to talk to each other more and eliminate the stigma of talking openly about sex. We’ve all had instances where we acted silly about sex, but we can learn to take it more seriously. Sex doesn’t have to be talked about only behind closed doors, but most importantly, we need to talk to our youth about sex on an ongoing basis, and it doesn’t have to focus on sexual intercourse alone.
To know that my child is growing up in a society that is open to evolving conversations around sex brings me great relief, because I know how important it is. I don’t want him growing up feeling confused. If he’s having sex, I want him to be armed with information. Our youth need to be taught sex-ed because, when we start instilling in them the concept of respect and consent at such a tender age, we ensure the building of a strong foundation of healthy relationships that won’t bow down to peer pressure or societal norms.