Joyce Arthur is the Founder and Executive Director of the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada. She has been an abortion rights and pro-choice activist since 1998. Arthur worked for 10 years running the Pro-Choice Action Network. In addition to these accomplishments, she founded FIRST or the first national feminist group advocating for the rights of sex workers and the decriminalization of prostitution in Canada. We decided to start an educational series on reproductive rights in its various facets. Here we talk about Ontario.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With the repeal of the sexual education curriculum in Ontario, what are the central concerns about this move by Premier Doug Ford in terms of consent?
Joyce Arthur: Students live in a very different world today, compared to 1998 when Ontario’s previous sex-ed curriculum was implemented. Everyone uses the Internet, with its easy-to-access porn, and its cyberbullying, including online sexual harassment of women and girls. That makes teaching the concept of consent crucial for safety reasons and to reduce abuse. Consent means that each person needs to ensure their partner has actively agreed to any sexual act. Consent means a clear, even enthusiastic yes – not reluctance, uncertainty, or silence. As sexual health educator Kristin Rushowy said, “While ‘no means no’ was the mantra for years when talking about sexual consent, it’s now ‘yes means yes’.” Further, once consent is given, it can be retracted at any time including during sex; it is never ongoing.
It’s been social conservatives and anti-choice and religious groups driving the opposition to the former Liberal government’s 2015 sex-ed curriculum, so let’s compare this modern concept of consent to the traditional view on sexuality. The idea of consent is actually antithetical to right-wing religious beliefs. Sex should be only for married couples (a man and a woman born that way, to be clear) and the main purpose is procreation, not pleasure. It wasn’t that long since marital rape was not a crime – because a wife was expected to give herself to her husband and meet his demands, and by marrying him she permanently consented to sex. We see the same dynamic at work when we confront the sexist assumption that a sex worker, just by virtue of selling sexual services, has thereby lost her right to say no and gives default consent to having any kind of sex with anyone at any time. From the right-wing point of view then, the whole idea of consent is highly questionable because it gives sexual autonomy to women and encourages sex for pleasure and casual sex outside marriage. They don’t like “yes means yes” and want to go back to “no means no” because they are sexually repressive.
Interestingly, the Ontario government has backtracked somewhat after they got an earful from their public consultation, and they plan to put consent back into the curriculum. We’ll have to wait and see how much effort they put into that. But I doubt we’ll see them use the word “enthusiastic” when it comes to sexual consent.
Jacobsen: Let’s make this comparative and practical, and concrete: what was sexual education and public life like before the explicit introduction and implicit expectation of, more, consent-based sexual education and sexual activity? How did things change in the 4-5 years with the introduction of the modernized sexual education curriculum in Ontario, and elsewhere, along the same lines of education and activity?
Arthur: Sex education has always been a controversial topic and was not mandated in Ontario schools until 1987, in response to the AIDS crisis. Indeed, sex-ed has always tended to be scare-mongering – avoid sex if you don’t want to get pregnant or an STI. And best to wait until you’re married, of course. It’s still mostly that way, although it’s improved compared to early sex-ed in the 1960’s and 1970’s – if you got any at all back then, it was about teaching body parts and menstruation. It’s really a shame that the new Ontario government rescinded the new sex-ed program because it represented the most progressive and comprehensive one in Canada. Most provinces fall far short of teaching progressive sex-ed; they still emphasize abstinence and avoiding STIs. You can read a 2017 summary of the sex-ed policies/programmes of each province and territory here: http://www.arcc-cdac.ca/postionpapers/39-Sex-Education-in-Canada.pdf
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Joyce.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Image Credit: Joyce Arthur.