Carmella Farahbakhsh. Photo: Moira Donovan
Carmella Farahbakhsh. Photo: Moira Donovan

“I’m not going to teach you how to put on a condom and things like this,” said Carmella Farahbakhsh “but I’m going to focus and give space to topics that aren’t covered and that some people may have never heard about.”

Sex education has come a long way since the teaching of abstinence. In Ontario, curricula were recently adjusted to address the root causes of gender inequality by including the issue of consent.

In Edmonton, Trustees of the Public School Board have announced that they’re considering the introduction of consent into the curriculum.

In Nova Scotia, debates around the need for discussions of consent and cyber-bullying in schools arose in the wake of Rehtaeh Parsons’ death.

Yet as the ongoing issue of gendered violence and sexual assault on university campuses suggests, when it comes to sex education, there’s always more to learn.

Thursday, South House hosted a workshop titled “All Bodies are Good Bodies: Feminist Sex Ed 101.”

Led by Carmella Farahbakhsh, South House’s volunteer coordinator and staff member at Venus Envy, the workshop underscored the importance of consent at the outset.

Seated before a table crowded with pink feather boas and construction paper, Farahbakhsh prefaced the workshop by inviting the crowd filling the front room at South House to set community standards “to maintain a safe space,” ranging from using the proper pronouns and respecting the experiences of others to allowing anonymous questions.

The timing of the workshop no coincidence. Since 1979, February 14 has been celebrated as Pink Triangle Day, a day that Farahbakhsh described as “a space for us to reclaim beyond state-celebrated relationships, beyond hetero and homo normativity, beyond coupledom, beyond colonial understandings of relationship, gender roles and beyond what we were taught we were allowed… space to celebrate our sexual deviancy and relish in our irrevocable difference.”

Inclusion

With that in mind, Farahbakhsh asked the group think about oppressive ways people are taught about their bodies. ‘”There’s a lot of secrets and shame and violence within these models of sex-ed that are really cis-sexist and heterosexist,” they said [Farahbakhsh prefers the pronoun “they.”]

These models, they added, take up space in the way we think about sex, which is why changing understanding of our bodies to include diverse notions of sexuality is a necessarily ongoing project, even for experienced sex educators such as Farahbakhsh. “I want to relearn today a sex-ed to fit our desires and our bodies and talk about how that intimacy is valid and powerful.”

One change to the way we talk about sex that would have an immediate effect on sex education, said Farahbakhsh, is the inclusion of trans health in sex education curriculum. “Trans health should not be taught separately,” they said. “It’s an integral part of sex education.”

Teaching people to think about sexuality and the diversity of bodies as a spectrum rather than a polarity, Farahbakhsh noted, is essential in encouraging acceptance and respect of those bodies.

Photo: Moira Donovan

While the idea of consent underpins the workshop, teaching consent is more complicated than establishing a dichotomy of yes and no. “Consent is super complex and it goes past checking in one time and getting consent from one person and having that consent carry through the relationship,” said Farahbakhsh.

Celebrations of relationships that embrace and value diversity, such as Pink Triangle day, expand the notion of relationship to include all those forms of connection that go beyond romantic love.

In a similar way, Farahbakhsh pointed out that the importance of consent should not be limited to sexual or romantic relationships. “It’s also something that is completely removed from sex.”

At the end of the workshop, Farahbakhsh invited participants to submit anonymous questions, which ranged from whether it is ever possible to consent if intoxicated to how to get an abortion to how to reconcile some sexual fantasies with a self-identification as feminist.

Farahbakhsh offered practical advice in response to these questions, but many of the answers had a similar underlying message: that a feminist sex education teaches listening to yourself, eschewing judgment and asking questions.

As participants prepared to leave, Farahbakhsh pointed out a handout on the table titled “12 Ways To Say No Gracefully.” Resources like that, they said, can be helpful when securing consent with friends, family, and coworkers.

Grace isn’t necessary though, they added, especially when it comes to sex. Farahbakhsh urged participants to listen to themselves and their bodies and say no or yes as gracefully or ungracefully as they want.

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  1. Great piece covering many aspects.

    Re “oppressive ways people are taught about their bodies,” I submit that most detrimental sexual attitudes are shaped in the home by parent or parents during children’s most vulnerable, impressionable development. Values — dictated ‘norms’ (spoken and implied) — become psychologically implanted, making it difficult, sometimes impossible for many to later reject or modify. Guilt creeps in and erodes, along with a feeling of parental disloyalty. Until the absolute teaching sanctity of parenthood is questioned and challenged, until parents’ power over early childhood sexual conditioning is modified — and I’m not sure how we do that except through better, wider societal education — we’ll continue to have many of the problems you thankfully address. Mom and Dad weren’t and aren’t always right, nor were/are their agendas.