At first glance, Tessa Hill and Lia Valente might seem like your average 13-year-olds. Oh, except that the Doc Martin-wearing duo (Tessa rocks pink boots, Lia's sporting white) started a petition for a school project that got more than 40,000 signatures. And it led to a meeting with Ontario's premier. And they succeeded in getting the issue of consent included in the new sex-ed curriculum. And that new curriculum sparked a wave of protests from some parents.
"I don't think parents should use their children as political pawns," says Tessa in the wake of the recent "parent strike" that saw Ontario sex-ed opponents keep nearly 35,000 Toronto-area children out of school.
It followed last month's angry demonstration at Queen's Park by sign-wielding parents. In a speech blasting the new curriculum, Tory MPP Jack MacLaren told protesting parents: "And if you had have been asked, what would you have said? No!"
The irony of his statement about a curriculum that includes teaching consent is not lost on the girls.
"All the opposition is coming from an uninformed perspective," Lia says.
"Maybe they didn't have open conversations about sex in their homes or in school when they were younger so it seems kind of scary that their kids are going to be talking about it. But in reality these conversations are really healthy and everything in there is age-appropriate."
"It's just the basic rules of consent," she adds. "I don't really get why they could be opposed to that."
Many of the signs at the protests focused on the age of children — under the new curriculum, Grade 3 students would learn about sexual orientation and Grade 4 students would learn about puberty. Grade 4 is a recent memory for Lia and Tessa, who are in Grade 8 at City View, a public alternative school in Toronto's west end focused on social justice.
That's where the girls founded We Give Consent, their ultimately successful campaign to get consent included in the sex-ed update that is replacing the current 18-year-old curriculum when school starts next September.
They say they're frustrated by how much of the backlash to the new curriculum has been based on myths and lies. Christian evangelist Charles McVety stirred up fears once again in February by claiming "the only conclusion you can come to is that they are...planning to introduce sexual consent to six-year-olds. That is intolerable for parents."
McVety's Institute for Canadian Values organization successfully pressured former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty to back down from reforming the sex ed curriculum in 2010.
"In Grade 1 it's teaching the base issues of consent but not in terms of sexual activity," Tessa explains. "So if you're going to hug someone you should make sure they're okay with that, and pay attention to people's body language and emotions.
"It's about teaching empathy in general and that transfers later to talk about consent in terms of sexual activity and romantic relationships."
We #supportsexed because OUR BODIES ARE NOT SECRETS
— We Give Consent (@WeGiveConsent) May 4, 2015
We Give Consent initially began as a Change.org petition aimed at the Ministry of Education. It was the call-to-action for a school project they began in September, an unintentionally timely doc on rape culture that wound up dovetailing with the Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby revelations last fall. The documentary will premiere at Toronto's Bell Lightbox Theatre on June 8.
"We knew we wanted to do the project on something surrounding feminism because that's something we're both really passionate about and we wanted to do something that really affects us as young people and as women," says Tessa.
During a conversation about the changing curriculum in the school's Queer-Straight Alliance club, a teacher mentioned that the update still didn't include anything about consent. The girls saw how the curriculum connected to their project — they say establishing a consent culture is the best way to stop rape culture.
The idea of teaching consent as part of a sex-ed curriculum is still a relatively radical one. Some Canadian provinces touch on the concept, but stop short of directing teachers to use the term, reports Today's Parent. There have also been calls to introduce consent in U.S. classrooms. As American sex-ed proponent Diana Thu-Thao Rhodes put it, "We have young people not knowing what consent is and isn't."
And it's not just young people. According to a recent survey by the Canadian Women’s Foundation, "only one in three Canadians know what sexual consent means." But nine out of 10 said that sexual activity should be consensual, which the group says is a clear sign that Canadians need more education on the meaning of consent.
The UK just introduced the concept of concent into their sex-ed curriculum. However, it's voluntary for the schools, leading to complaints from the group that created the program.
'Now We Have Connections'
— Kathleen Wynne (@Kathleen_Wynne) January 9, 2015
"She was on the same page as us with consent," recalls Lia of their January visit to Queen's Park, where they were also invited to be part of the premier's Youth Advisory Council. "[She's] just in general a really cool person. It was great meeting her, it was a great opportunity."
"Now we have connections," laughs Tessa.
On Feb. 7, the girls' petition hit its target of 40,000 signatures but their campaign wasn't over.
"We hope to inspire youth in other parts of our country and even the world to build similar campaigns," they wrote. "To those who say youth can't make a difference and don't care about social justice, we're proud to say we've proved them wrong! Thank you!"
Then last month protests erupted at Queen's Park. That's why they created the petition, they say — to show how many people support the changes, despite loud opposition from religious groups and some conservative parents.
Now that the curriculum is released, they're very happy with the update. The province's education minister Liz Sandals says it makes Ontario a "leader" in teaching consent.
Tessa and Lia also like how it addresses other issues like gender expression and puberty in Grades 3 and 4.
"That's really helpful, otherwise you end up learning about puberty in grade six and you've already gotten your period. Also just generally making it a little more sex-positive rather than just teaching abstinence and fear."
The girls say they have been supported by the province and their own school board. However the pair believe the government could have done more to inform parents about the curriculum changes, and help them better understand it. They would have liked to see an info sheet about the consent changes send home with every single student.
"When you don't understand something, a lot of the time you tend to oppose it," says Tessa.
— We Give Consent (@WeGiveConsent) April 16, 2015
They wonder if many parents who oppose the changes realize consent isn't necessarily about about teaching kids how to say yes — it's also about teaching them they have the option to say no.
"There's this idea that consent means 'no means no,' but it’s more than that," Lia explains.
"Yes means yes and anything less is not consent. Silence is not consent and even if the person does verbally say yes but they're intoxicated or high, then it's not consent. All these rules that should be taught in schools aren't necessarily known."
The girls say the genie is out of the bottle thanks to the Internet. Kids may be exposed to pornography, false information or sexist attitudes online, and schools can be a space for kids to get information about healthy relationships and learn they are in charge of their own bodies.
"It's going to hopefully create a culture where we can openly talk about sex because right now sex is taboo, sex is dark, sex is like a whispered secret. People don't like to admit that sex is about pleasure and desire, not just reproductive stuff, and that teenagers are having sex as young as middle school," Tessa says.
"It is a thing that we can't stop, but we can educate."
ALSO ON HUFFPOST:
In Grade 1, students should be able to identify body parts, including genitalia like the penis, testicles, vagina, vulva, and use correct terminology.
By Grade 2, students will outline the basic stages of human development, including an infant, child, adolescent, adult, older adult, for example, and related bodily changes. They will also identify factors that are important for healthy growth.
In Grade 3, students will be able to describe how visible differences (like facial features, body size and shape, physical aids or different physical abilities. for example) and invisible differences (like learning abilities, personal or cultural values and beliefs, gender identity, sexual orientation, for example), make each person unique. Students will also learn ways of showing respect for differences in others.
In Grade 4, students will describe the physical changes that happen during puberty for males and females — the growth of body hair, breast development, changes in voice and body size, production of body odour, and skin changes, for example. They will also learn about the potential emotional and social impact of these changes.
In Grade 5, students will identify the parts of the reproductive system, and describe how the human body changes during puberty. They will expand their vocabulary with words like cervix, uterus, fallopian tubes, ovaries, endometrium, and clitoris, as well as scrotum, urethra, testicles, prostate gland, seminal vesicles, and vas deferens.
Students in the sixth grade will assess the effects of stereotypes — including homophobia and assumptions regarding gender roles and expectations, sexual orientation, gender expression, race, ethnicity or culture, mental health, and abilities, among others. They will also propose appropriate ways of responding to and changing some of these stereotypes.
In Grade 7, students will touch on consent and the importance of having a shared understanding with a partner about delaying sexual activity, for example. They will go over genital contact, vaginal or anal intercourse and oral sex (including choosing to abstain from these activities). They will also go over reasons for not engaging in sexual activity and the concept of how consent can be communicated in a relationship. Grade 7 students will also touch on the understanding of physical, emotional, social, and psychological factors that need to be considered when making decisions related to sexual health, including STIs, pregnancy, desire, pleasure, gender identity among others. Students will also delve into areas of cyber-bullying, harassment and behaviours like sexting.
In Grade 8, students learn about all six genders including male, female, two-spirited, transgender, transsexual and intersex. They also cover topics of sexual orientation (heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual). When it comes to sex, students will learn about contraception and condom use for pregnancy, STI prevention, consent, and what it means to be in a healthy sexual relationship. For further development, Grade 8 students will also touch on the benefits or attractions of being in a relationship, along with drawbacks and risks like breaking up.
In Grade 9, students will be able to describe how to prevent unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS. A further understanding of gender identities and issues around stigma, culture, religion, media, stereotypes, homophobia, self-image, and others.
Students should be able to describe factors that influence sexual decision making, including personal values, having limits, peer and family expectations, and myths and norms related to sexual activity or safe sex. Students will demonstrate an understanding of how to use decision-making and communication skills effectively to support choices related to sexual health. Discussions on misconceptions about sexuality in our culture, as well as what it means to be in a exclusive relationship.
Understanding a variety of mental illnesses and addictions including: eating disorders; major depression; anxiety disorders; psychotic disorders, and tobacco, alcohol, drug, gambling, gaming, or Internet addictions. Students in Grade 11 will cover proactive health measures like breast and testicular examinations, Pap tests, regular medical check-ups, stress management techniques, among others.
In addition to cyber-bulling, students in Grade 12 will also cover stalking, sexual assault, abuse within a family, extortion, and workplace harassment, for example. Further discussion on healthy relationships, developing healthy sexual relationships with others, and looking at relationships and stereotypes in the media.