By MF Miller
Nadine Thornhill is a sex educator and therapist currently based in Toronto, Canada. She offers parent coaching and various sex ed workshops for teachers, parents, and youth. You can find her first mini-webinar, “How to Talk To Kids About Consent” here.
Nadine fabulously live tweeted her reading of Ontario’s new sexual health curriculum which you can read here.
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you end up a sex educator and what compelled you to focus on kids/parents/educators? Was there a pivotal moment for you?
Sex education sort of found me. I was an actor/playwright in search of a day job. When I discovered Venus Envy – my favourite local sex shop – was hiring, I thought it would be a fun way to earn extra cash between theatre gigs and maybe get a discount on vibrators. I got the job and in addition to the retail work, I began facilitating some of VE’s evening workshops and loved it!
After a few years at Venus Envy, I moved on to became the program director for Insight Theatre at Planned Parenthood Ottawa. Insight is a peer education program for adolescents that uses theatre to teach youth about sexuality and sexual health. I had the privilege of working with some incredible young people. I learned a lot of from them and I saw first hand the positive effects of giving youth comprehensive information about sexuality
A pivotal moment for me came one evening, during my professional training at PPO. I was taking a class about sexually transmitted infections – how they’re transmitted, their symptoms and treatments, etc. My son was around two at the time and I remember thinking I’m really glad I’ll be able to share this information with my son when he gets older, because this is stuff he needs to know. That information was for my professional benefit, but as a parent, it was very reassuring knowledge to have. I thought to myself, ‘every parent should know this stuff’.
I started a blog as a way to share some of what I was learning with other folks. Not everyone wants to talk about sex. I think it’s fine if someone chooses to keep their sexuality private. But I’ve met a lot of people who have questions, concerns or feel confused about sex and sexuality. I wanted folks to know that they could talk about if that’s what they needed and I wanted people to have as much information as I could give, because when it comes to a potentially sensitive subject like sex, knowledge is both reassuring and empowering.
Eventually I decided to start my own sex ed practice. I thought that I could help families and teachers talk to their own children/students about sexuality. I knew I needed to learn as much as I could, so I decide to pursue graduate studies in child and adolescent sexuality and work towards my AASECT certification as a sexualiy educator.
Why did you choose consent as the topic for your first webinar?
Whenever I write about consent, I find there’s a strong positive response. I think most people understand why consent but where adults sometimes struggle is knowing how to bring it up in a way that makes sense for children. I wanted to share a few practical strategies that I’ve found useful. In the early years, consent is more about teaching manners (ask before touching, making sure that everyone is having fun, not just you) and giving them permission to set limits (you don’t have to kiss your relative if you don’t want to; if you pull away when I try to hug you, I’ll stop). Hopefully by teaching kids about general consent when they’re young, incorporating those same principles when they’re older and become sexually active with other people becomes easier.
Do you feel like consent has a stigma or negative connotation around it? Do you find that it makes people uncomfortable and if so can you elaborate on the reasons based on your experience? Is it a label thing or is it deeper than that?
In the webinar I talk about how most of us behave when we go to someone else’s home and how that’s a working model of ongoing consent. In certain circumstances, we’re totally comfortable with consent as concept and practice it easily. But I’ve noticed when some people hear the word, they immediately associate it with sexual consent which can make it an uncomfortable prospect, especially if we’re talking about teaching younger kids. I tell people that for little ones, it’s about general consent – the sexuality piece comes in when they’re older.
In my discussions about sexual consent, I often come up against arguments along the lines of, ‘Are you really telling me have to ask at every two minutes “Is this okay? Is this okay?” ‘ I think that’s a fear-based question. No, it doesn’t have to be repetitive questions, asked at perfectly timed intervals. There’s no reason for anyone to become a consent-robot…unless you’re into that. People can change up the words, they can negotiate what they’d like to do/not do ahead of time, they can establish non-verbal cues, then can have their partner tell them want they want and they can use whatever kind of sexy, smutty, dirty language they want. But doing that involves two things a lot of us are taught to avoid: 1) Talking honestly about our sexual needs and desires. 2) Setting ourselves up for the possibility of rejection.
Our culture doesn’t encourage honest communication about sex in general. So being told that you have to do that in the moment when you’re naked and showing your most private parts to another person can be really intimidating. Authentic sexual consent require vulnerability and that’s not easy for most people. But authentic consent is essential for partnered sex, so I want to do what I can to help people move past those fears.
Do you find the resistance to talking about consent more from the parent/educator side or from the kids’ end?
Definitely the adults. In general, I find that as long as kids are given information about consent in a kind, straightforward way, they take it in the same way they take in information about any subject.
Adults can be a little more reticent. Even I am sometimes. Grown-ups are often sexual active and what I call erotically motivated. I think sometimes it’s hard to see how we can bring up a topic like consent to a young child without framing it in the context of a sexual encounter, because that’s how we’re used to thinking about it. But there are a lot of ways to teach to younger kids about non-sexual consent so that it becomes a normal, expected part of how they interact with others. The lessons about how those same principles apply to their sexual relationship can come when they’re older.
What has been the point of most resistance in your line of work? Is there an issue that you keep having to rally against?
Related to the last question, the biggest point of resistance is the idea that sexuality is fundamentally harmful and therefore children shouldn’t be given information about it. Again, I think it comes back to fear. No loving parent wants to do something that’s going to upset their child or rob them of their innocence. Generally speaking, we want our children to learn and enjoy watching them discover the world, but sex is one of those topics that we’re told is dangerous.
There’s ample research supporting the benefits of starting sex education with children early and giving them information on an ongoing basis as they grow-up. It has a positive influence on mental health, relationship satisfaction and sexual health later in their lives. Giving children information about sexuality is not sexualizing them. It’s not about encouraging them to have sex. It’s about helping them understand their bodies, their feelings, the type of relationships that are happening around them, their health and their individual identities. These are aspects of humanity that are with us from birth and that change and develop over the course of our lives.
How can parents and educators ensure that they keep communication going on after?
Repetition is an important part of learning anything. Don’t have just one conversation about consent, bring it up regularly. People typically don’t absorb everything we hear/read/see the first time – especially children. Their brains are developing and their capacity for comprehension can change significantly as they grow older. You can talk to them about consent and then have almost the same conversation six months later and many kids will get new information from the subsequent conversation talk. Also, ask your kids lots of questions. I’m often surprised by what my son understands and thinks about these topics!