Between Yes and No: Rethinking Consent in Sex Education


Funding Program:

SSHRC Insight Grant

Funding Amount:


How does contemporary sex education policy reflect, advance, and contest understandings of sexual violence, agency, and youth? In particular, how does the recent move toward including discussions of sexual consent in Ontario's new sex education Health and Physical Education (HPE) curriculum signal a new understanding of young women's sexual agency and rights?

In recent curriculum reform across North America, including sexual consent has become a hallmark of progressive sex education policy and instruction. This inclusion reflects a growing consensus that sex education must acknowledge that the risks of sex are not only disease or unplanned pregnancy but also assault. However, the move to consent also allows for another possibility, one that may once have seemed unimaginable: that young people, and girls in particular, might want to have sex, that sex might be freely chosen and pleasurable, and that sex education ought to help prepare young people for that reality.

This project traces this discursive move in the curriculum and lives of Ontario students and teachers through two phases. In the first, we understand the rise of consent in sex education as a policy discourse and using a policy archaeology methodology, this project asks how the discourse of "consent" has emerged as a solution to the problem of sexual violence. In considering the contemporary turn to discourses of consent in light of other conflicts over young women's sexuality and consent--- two grade eight girls' campaign, "We Give Consent," which pressured the Ontario government to include consent in the HPE curriculum; debates in Canada to raise the age of consent in 2008; and, the feminist sex wars of the 1980s, a series of heated intellectual and activist conversations about whether sexuality is best understood as a site of pleasure or exploitation. Using a policy archaeology methodology to follow these connections across historical antecedents will help explain both how consent in sex education became the policy solution for the problem of sexual violence in young women's lives and what possibilities and challenges this policy and curricular move have for sex education.

In the second part of this study, the project will bring the themes uncovered in the policy archaeology to a qualitative study of the ways students and teachers---having received a mandate from the Ontario government to discuss consent in HPE---understand, contest, and reimagine discourses of consent in the lives of young people. We will work with three diverse high schools in Ontario (Thunder Bay, Ottawa, and Toronto) and, using focus groups, ask students and HPE teachers to discuss the relationship between consent as it is rendered in the new curriculum and other related texts and their understandings of young people's sexualities.

The research questions bridge the two phases of research:

  • How did consent emerge in sex education as the policy solution to sexual violence?
  • What assumptions about gender, sexuality, and youth inform discourses of consent in sex education?
  • How do students and teachers interpret, contest, and reimagine discourses of consent in the Ontario HPE curriculum?
  • What pedagogical, curricular, and policy possibilities do discourses of consent offer young people and adults?
  • What lessons for sex education curriculum and pedagogy can we draw from this study of discourses of consent?