Back when I was a public school student in Toronto, my sex-ed classes—while certainly better than the abstinence-only education many American and some Canadian children receive—were inconsistent; sometimes helpful and sometimes bizarre.
Take, for instance, my 7th grade experience. Our teacher pulled out flash cards of different relationship “steps” (think: holding hands, kissing, oral sex, intercourse, etc.) and asked us to “put them in the order of a healthy relationship.” I can’t tell you how long we haggled over whether oral sex should come before or after intercourse. Oy.
But there was one teacher who got it: Ms. Cooper.
My high school health teacher was straight-up and no-nonsense, but also approachable and always smiling. She breezily answered questions from pubescent boys that would make a less-stellar teacher cringe—”Ms. Cooper, how wet does it have to be to be considered a wet dream?” And she kept an even keel when students approached her, shaking and near tears, in need of first-time sex advice.
I’ll never forget the day we delved into the wonderful world of alternative menstrual products. Ms. Cooper, beaming at the front of the class, produced what looked like a tiny, collapsible drum skin. Holding it aloft and panning left to right, while her class of 14- and 15-year-old girls squirmed in their seats, Ms. Cooper explained that the product, called a Softcup, was a cotton-free alternative to pads and tampons that could be left in the vagina for up to 12 hours.
“And,” she exclaimed, “you can leave it in during sex!” Ms. Cooper explained to us that when she first learned about Softcup, she wondered if heterosexual sex would knock it out of place or be uncomfortable. So, in the name of research, she headed home, seductively called out “Huuuusband!!” and tested out the *ahem* rougher side of Softcup.
I started thinking about Ms. Cooper when I found out that sex ed is getting a major facelift in my home province of Ontario, Canada. Thanks to lobbying efforts by two magnificent 13-year-old girls, Tessa Hill and Lia Valente, the provincial government last week announced that the new curriculum will seek to foster a “consent culture” in sex ed classes, a direct response to the rape culture in which we live. Students will learn what consent means, how to read facial cues and body language and that the absence of a “no” doesn’t necessarily indicate a “yes” (that’s in addition to existing lessons in anatomy, sex, sexual health and puberty). Sounds like a curriculum Ms. Cooper could get behind.
In 9th grade, Ms. Cooper’s frankness about sex mortified me. I was shy—so shy—and had exactly zero experience with sex and sexuality. Where Ms. Cooper was straight-up and straightforward, I was all rosy cheeks and hiding my face in my hands. I still blush when I think of the time she explained how to insert a tampon, complete with instructive hand gestures and props—”Sitting on the toilet or standing up, maybe one foot on the tub if you need some leverage! Whatever’s most comfortable for you! I’m a stand-up kind of gal!”
She was certainly quirky, but I appreciated her approach even through my mortification. I’m grateful that I had a teacher who was confident in her role as an educator and honest with me as a young woman. When I finally did start to explore my sexuality, I was well-prepared and far less terrified than I would have been had my health classes focused solely on how and why to say no. Working consent into the curriculum is a powerful choice—and it’s certainly the right cultural moment to add it to public education. We’re more aware than ever of campus rape and sexualized bullying, and a more nuanced sexual discourse may be just the thing to empower girls and boys to have positive, healthy relationships with sex.
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