Consent is more than just “no means yes” – but you wouldn’t know that from the sex education classes. This crucial aspect of every sexual encounter has been ignored by curricula worldwide, including the U.S. and Canada. It is time to talk about consent in all its forms.
I invented masturbation at the age of 13. In my mind, I did. Although I knew that masturbating was a common practice among boys, I didn’t know that it was a common practice for girls. It was like I was a genius to find this magical spot in my body that brought me joy. It was a way for me to relax, feel good and dream about crushes, while I read my mom’s romance novels. Through my family, religion, school and friends, I knew that masturbation was not something I should be revealing to anyone. I only realized that masturbation was a common practice in other countries when I was in Grade 11.
My sex education, and the .sex Ed that is still taught in schools nearly thirty years later, skipped the wonder, curiosity and exploration that can be part of sex. This is particularly true for young girls and women who are constantly told that their bodies are inherently bad, dirty and shameful. Yet, my 13-year old self realized that sexual pleasure is one of the main reasons people desire to be sexual.
As a pleasure and consent educator, I can teach my students the lessons I wish I had learned growing up. I believe these concepts are essential to having a fulfilling sexual experience. Consent is often seen as a checkbox that a partner must clear in order to have sex. I am glad it is being discussed more. However, like sex education in general, it is often discussed solely focused on avoiding risks, including sexual assault. .This is important, but .we also need real and practical talk about consent in all relationships, pleasure, and sex, for safer and more ethical connections. We can have fulfilling sexual and intimate relationships if we let go of our tendency to be focused on the mechanics behind sexual acts.
It starts with sex education, which for me means that I understand that there is no universal model for intimacy and sex. It involves actively challenging the dominant sexual scripts we are all fed, shaped by our social location, our family, our culture, previous sexual experiences, and the media we consume, .including porn. Many are being taught heterosexist ideas about how cisgender cisgender people and women should act. These myths claim that some bodies are more worthy of pleasure than others. Men should be open to sex and be sexual aggressors. They should also have multiple partners. While we tell women to be passive, they should not be able to enjoy sex without their partner. They should also refrain from expressing sexual desire in order to avoid being viewed as a slut. Mainstream sex education rarely includes the sexual experiences of LGBTQIA persons, like myself.
It would be great if our partner said, “so we both agreed, now what?” It would be so much better if our partner said “so we both consented, now what?” What would our adult sex lives look and feel like if there were ongoing, honest conversations about pleasure and relationships? It would be a huge improvement in your sex life to have the ability to discover what types of sexual activity, solo or with others, give you pleasure. These skills could also be used to communicate with sexual partners when a particular activity isn’t for them. All people have the right to enjoy pleasure, and it is not a limited resource, contrary to what we hear.
A good sex education includes understanding how power works in sexual relationships. We rarely learn how dominant sexual scripts are constructed on the basis of things like white supremacy, anti Black racism, misogyny and capitalism. These scripts can make it easy for people to believe that they have unlimited access to our bodies or that they shouldn’t be rejected in pursuit of their own pleasure.
It is known that sexual assault can occur after consent has been given. Imagine sex education focusing on the pleasures of listening and saying no. Imagine being able to accept rejection and saying no It’s okay to not be attracted to someone. Rejection is not about being rejected or feeling unlovable. It’s about someone being able to say “not now” or “not forever” If you say “no” to yourself, it is also a way to show that you are open to change. Isn’t that what our hearts desire? We desire to be with those we want and who desire us.
It would be great if our partner said, “So we both consented. Now what?” I want to hear what makes you feel good and what makes me feel good.
I want everyone to be able to communicate with their partner non-verbally. Slow down, slow down, look at your partner, take a deep breath, and then pause. It is important that we all know how to communicate about our needs and what we want before anything begins.
Imagine how much better your relationships would be if you knew how to communicate during sex, not just “slower faster, slower, harder, use two fingers, YES, right there.” But also how to verbally check-in: “What is your favorite way to…. I’m only into this if you are. What are you feeling? We can stop. This is a nice touch. Would you mind if we …?. You want to speed it up or down? Do you like this?”
As someone who works daily with survivors of sexual violence, I understand the importance of being honest with myself. Sexual health information should affirm that we can understand and listen our bodies and know when it feels good. It is important to know when we are anxious or scared about intimate situations. Even if self-touch is not genital-focused it can help us pay more attention to our emotional reactions and physical reactions. This will help us to learn how to recognize our boundaries and work through triggers. It also helps us practice being present while we sex. This can help survivors and many others gain sexual confidence.
Many of us are taught to trust ourselves so that others, including our families, can access us without our consent. I want everyone to be able to let go of an uncomfortable situation or unsafe relationship. How about education that empowers our bodies and minds?
Thirteen-year-old me might not have invented masturbation, but I still consider myself a genius for realizing that pleasure was something I had a right to. It took me decades to realize that there was nothing to be ashamed about in following it.
Farrah Khan is an award-winning gender-justice advocate, consent and pleasure educator, and trauma counselor. She is the Manager at Ryerson University of Consent comes First and the Co-Director for Courage to Act. This project was the first to address gender-based violence on postsecondary campuses.
Call the 1-800-656-HOPE Hotline (4673) if you have been victim to sexual violence or are in crisis.