01/30/2018 17:32 EST | Updated 01/31/2018 10:59 EST

As A Sex Educator, I Want You To Know Consent Isn't Always Straightforward

There's good sex on one end of the spectrum, forced sex on the other — let's talk about the shades of grey in between.

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Before you click away from one more article on sexual misconduct, consider the shades of grey. I am not talking about BDSM, although its rules do fit into the consent spectrum, but rather the concept of consent itself.

After an early dismissal from jury selection the other day, a young woman recognized me from puberty classes I had taught two decades before. She said she had thought of me lately as she was trying to figure out what consent means. To celebrate this unexpected gift of time, we decided to continue to chat over coffee.

She believes one should ask for consent every time. I asked her, "Every time what? Every time you kiss, every time you seem to be heading towards intercourse?" She is married and said that her husband knows her so well that consent for any intimate activity is unspoken.

How do we engage all genders to desire true intimacy and the communication skills to find it?

As an educator, my question is: how do we promote affirmative, ongoing consent for adolescents, for adults who have just met and, yes, even for couples that have been together for years? How do we engage all genders to desire true intimacy and the communication skills to find it?

In high school, I used a teaching tool I called the "continuum of consent." I would draw a line on the board. At the right end of the continuum, I wrote "violent sexual assault." Starting at the left side of the continuum, I wrote "mutual consent," then "playful seduction," "coercion" and so on, in the direction of forcible sex. The current tsunami of sexual misconduct allegations live here in the centre of the continuum: coercion due to male entitlement and power.

But even mutual consent is not always straightforward.

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On a call-in show today, I heard the phrase "feminist agenda" regarding the latest misconduct allegations against local politicians. The caller blamed media's political leanings and feminists for ruining careers. Callers also wanted to know why women do not just walk away from a bad situation. "She was of age" is the argument. Susan Cole writes, "... women tend to want to 'solve' the situation rather than remove themselves." She adds, "How about talking? Ask a woman what she wants and when she answers, take her seriously."

People who were brought up in a society where rape culture is prevalent may experience misguided expectations that lead to miscommunication: mixed signals coupled with a lack of self awareness and clarity. Even if one has overtly agreed to a particular form of sexual intimacy, there may still be discomfort, distaste or regret during the act — or afterwards.

"We have been saying for a while now that consent is a low bar. It is the lowest bar there is."Karen B. K. Chan

Consent alone is a low bar to set

Zosia Bielski quotes Karen B. K. Chan, a Toronto-based sex and emotional literacy educator. "We have been saying for a while now that consent is a low bar. It is the lowest bar there is. After that, we need to talk about sexual pleasure and good sex — sex that you actually want to have." Her article raises the notion of good sex.

Lili Loufbourow takes up the issue, writing about pain during vaginal sex.

"Research shows that 30 per cent of women report pain during vaginal sex, 72 per cent report pain during anal sex, and 'large proportions' don't tell their partners when sex hurts."

During classes on sexual assault I would pose the following question: Is it OK to say no at any time? In other words, is it ever OK to interrupt sexual activity once it has started? Most students were ready to acknowledge that one could. The question remains, do we actually do this?

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Managing expectations

While there may not be pain during a sexual activity, there may not be pleasure, either. For example, it may be boring. If it is not pleasurable, what is the point of continuing? We agree to sexual activities for a variety of reasons, and we may not be proud of all of them.

We may acquiesce because it is expected, or because of our partner's needs. We may not want to hurt their feelings. We may not want to jeopardize the relationship. We may hope that it will start to feel better soon — as it sometimes does. While we may have progressed beyond the Victorian dictum "close your eyes and think of England," we want a great deal more. Why should we have to work ourselves into a state of desire with a partner who is unaware of its absence?

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I remember an incident with a long-term partner. I had lost interest in the proceedings and told him so. He got very angry, sat up in bed and said in a menacing tone, "But I want to." Had we been two different people, that incident might have ended up in an assault. Instead we just turned away from each other in distress and anger.

The World Health Organization's definition of sexual health includes "the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence." We need to educate our children to celebrate their sexuality, to learn respect for themselves and others. And that includes having a clear idea of what you want in the moment, how to communicate that and how to hear it. Maybe we can't get what we want today, but think of the joys that lie ahead.

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