A recent press conference on Ontario’s forthcoming elementary sex-ed curriculum left some folks scratching their heads. The presser featured eighth graders as experts on enthusiastic sexual consent. It’s odd optics considering researchers have linked early sexual debut with a host of negative health outcomes. But there are bigger issues following the announcement to infuse consent into the curriculum from the earliest ages.
When and how sexual consent should be addressed is a matter of debate and one parents should have been thoroughly consulted on. But what should be clear is that consent can’t be confused with sexual readiness or as a proxy for healthy relationships.
It goes without saying that consent is an important moral, ethical and legal standard. Besides the emotional trauma, unwanted sex among teens has been associated with lower condom use, increased risk of pregnancy and STIs and lower relationship quality.
The indication from the province is that the yet-to-be released curriculum will focus on developing healthy relationships early as a prerequisite to understanding consent. Specifically, instructing young children to read non-verbal cues is supposed to translate to clear communication around consent later. The hope is that healthy relationships will form the building blocks of a culture of consent.
Numerous factors influence a teen’s engagement in sexual behaviour, including social and home environments. Consent is important. It’s also the lowest standard possible.
This is because consent doesn’t require a real relationship. The presence of consent in itself is not a marker of a healthy relationship.
Two adults can agree to sex without a pre-existing relationship or expectation of one afterward. Likewise, the legal age of consent is 16 with some close in age conditions. It doesn’t require a healthy relationship.
Canadian developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld writes that teen sex is rarely just about raging hormones. He says teens seek sex as a way to feel in control, be desired and accepted and ultimately feel connected and wanted at a deeper level.
He goes on to argue teen sexual relationships rarely offer robust commitment and the protection of exclusivity. He states that too often teens are vulnerable not just physically but psychologically. Teens are in the process of developing and maturing and their relationships tend to reflect that fact.
This may be why the US-based National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy found that over half of sexually active teens surveyed wished they had waited longer before becoming sexually involved. Just how many enthusiastically consented or felt pressured into sex is unclear, but many respondents expressed regret.
One of the most effective ways to teach healthy relationships is to model it. Research shows that home environments and the nature of relationships between family members impact teen sexual health.
Studies show increased father involvement and communication is correlated with delayed sexual debut.
Other research has linked high levels of relational satisfaction between moms and kids with decreased sexual involvement, lower incidents of pregnancy and increased likelihood of using birth control.
Adults model healthy relationships by striving for a parenting style that is warm and supportive with clear communication. Defining limits and offering adequate supervision has been shown to have a protective influence against risky sexual behaviour.
Consent is important and how to implement the concept into the curriculum will continue to stir heated discussion. It should be clear that consent doesn’t mean sexual readiness or the presence of a healthy relationship.
Peter Jon Mitchell is a senior researcher with the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada and author of Making Sex Education Work (www.imfcanada.org)