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Teaching Consent At A Young Age Could Help Prevent Sex Assaults, Say Experts

11/16/2014 11:00 EST | Updated 01/16/2015 05:59 EST
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TORONTO - Sexual assault allegations against former CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi have sparked a national conversation about how to facilitate the reporting of such incidents, but some advocates say the focus should instead be on prevention.

A key to stopping sexual assaults from happening in the first place is education about the legal landscape, says Kim Stanton of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund.

"It's so important to educate young people on the law of consent and the fact that consent is something that has to be renewed at every stage, it can't just be assumed," she says.

Ghomeshi was fired after the CBC said it saw "graphic evidence" that he had caused injury to a woman.

In all, nine women have come forward with allegations, some dating back a decade, that Ghomeshi sexually or physically assaulted them and police are investigating complaints by at least three of them.

Ghomeshi has filed a lawsuit against the CBC alleging defamation and breach of confidence. He has argued in a Facebook posting that he engaged in "rough sex" with women, but said it was always consensual.

Stanton says it is very important that sex ed for younger people includes a discussion of consent.

"I'm not sure that that message is one that all school kids in Canada are exposed to in a healthy way."

In Ontario, the government has announced it will reintroduce an updated sex-education curriculum for schools that it withdrew in 2010 because of objections from some religious leaders.

The reintroduced sex-ed curriculum will teach kids about homosexuality and same-sex marriages in Grade 3, encourage discussions about puberty, including masturbation, in Grade 6, and talk about preventing sexually-transmitted diseases in Grade 7, which could include information on oral and anal sex.

Education Minister Liz Sandals says it will also "explicitly" deal with the issue of consent.

"We need to have young people understanding what a healthy relationship looks like, because if you look at the video games and rock videos and things that they consume, those are not portrayals of healthy relationships," she says.

"I feel very strongly that we need to put the consent material in there."

The government is consulting with parents and is considering research from earlier consultations and focus groups with students, teachers and others as it finalizes the new sex-ed curriculum.

Chris Markham, the executive director and CEO of an organization promoting health education, says he hopes the issue of consent is indeed incorporated in the new curriculum.

"I think it would be appropriate to introduce the concepts as early as possible, as they are learning about their bodies, as they are learning about how they interact with each other, I think probably the earlier the better," Markham says.

Sex-ed curricula introduce different concepts to children at different times, from learning to identify body parts to sexually transmitted diseases. Discussions of consent should underlie every stage of sex education, Markham says.

If Ontario's proposed curriculum is implemented it would bring it in line with other provinces', he says.

Cristina Stasia is part of Accessing Information not Myths, an Edmonton-based group pushing to get consent taught in the sex-ed curriculum in school boards across Alberta. She said it's unrealistic to expect people to successfully negotiate the thorny issue when they become sexually active, without a proper fact basis.

"We need to teach what consent means," said the gender studies professor at the University of Alberta. "This is information that kids need to know, just like they need to know in driver's ed what a red light means."

Deborah Roffman, an American human sexuality teacher who has written several parenting books on how to talk to children about sex, says she has always incorporated the topic of consent into her classes. She teaches kids that that absence of "no" does not equal consent, she says.

"The concept is respect for people's boundaries," Roffman says. "That's a concept we teach with very young children."

In the U.S., there has also been an ongoing conversation about consent, stemming in part from a high school football rape case, Roffman says. Two athletes were ultimately convicted in a high-profile case involving a 16-year-old girl, but the case drew attention in part because of allegations that authorities were covering up the actions of the athletes.

The focus of the ensuing conversations, Roffman says, has all too often been on how to protect one's self from sexual violence.

"But why is there not more emphasis on talking to young men if we are talking about prevention?" she says. "Why is the emphasis on the victim or the survivor?"

Young children can be taught the concept that "not everything in the world is available to you," right up to informed and ongoing consent, meaning that just because someone allows a kiss once doesn't mean they will again or will allow further activity, in the higher grades, Roffman says.

"When we postpone, put off these conversations, even the beginning conversations with young chidlren in schools, what we are essentially saying to them is adults are not available to you around these issues, and that's the worst of all possible messages," she says.

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