Most parents who ask their kids about their middle school projects probably get an earful on dioramas of the planetary system or poster boards on Charlemagne―but not Tessa Hill's or Lia Valente's parents. Instead, they learned about how their 13-year-old daughters were busy making a documentary about rape culture for an eighth grade assignment.
Heavy subject matter, yes―but not something the girls couldn't handle, and brilliantly at that. Tessa and Lia have now affected real change in the conversation about sexual assault and rape, and particularly how consent plays into it. While working on their documentary for school, the girls realized that educating young adults about what constitutes consent might help prevent future assaults down the road, so they launched a change.org petition to include consent as part of the sex ed curriculum in the province of Ontario. When ELLE.com spoke with Tessa and Lia, the petition had already reached 40,000 signatures since its December 21 launch, prompting the government of Ontario to announce plans to include consent in the sex ed curriculum this fall.
Here, we caught up with Tessa and Lia to hear about their amazingly inspiring middle school project.
You could have chosen any social issue for this media studies project. What made you choose rape culture?
Lia: I think both of us are really passionate about women's rights issues in general, and being 13-year-old girls in a big city, rape culture's just something that we know about. We narrowed it down to rape culture in the media because that's something that comes up a lot with the topic of consent and all these different issues like the Steubenville rape case that happened, and all these different cases of rape and how it's reported in the media.
Within this whole project about rape culture, how did you land on consent as your focus, specifically?
Tessa: Through our interviews with experts and people working in the field of sexual violence counseling and things like that, we talked a lot about rape culture [and in the process] we started talking about creating a consent culture. To end rape culture, we must create a consent culture. It's the opposite of rape culture.
You both seem unusually socially conscious for your age. Do you think your peers share your perspective?
Lia: I think that a lot of people that are educated like us—and we are lucky to know about all these issues—agree with us. Especially girls our age really like the idea of empowerment and feminism and sex positivity. In terms of our campaign, most people our age have been really supportive about putting consent in the curriculum, because there are a lot of people and teens who don't necessarily have the right information or education.
Consent can be so much more complicated than 'no means no.' How can we address that when we're talking about sex?
Tessa: Consent, in a way, can be more than 'no means no' and 'yes means yes.' When you're having sex with someone or you're in a relationship, there are different ways to say yes or no, different verbal ways, but there's also paying attention to the other person's body language. It is a complicated conversation, but we need to talk about other ways of saying yes and no.
[Editor's Note: The girls are aware that one of the biggest challenges to what constitutes consent is the influence of drugs or alcohol. As Lia told the Toronto Sun, "When consent isn't valid — when the other person is under the use of alcohol or drugs —then their consent, even as a verbal yes, isn't valid. People need to learn that."]
The sex ed curriculum was last updated in 1998, before Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat and all these other things. How do you think things need to be different now to reflect that?
Lia: At least for me, one of the reasons I'm so passionate about this issue and creating this campaign is because I don't think healthy relationships or relationships in general are portrayed very well in the media, especially in films and TV shows that are directed towards kids and teens. I think it all goes back to the definitions of masculinity and femininity. It all goes back to that, and these strange ideas that men are supposed to be dominant and they're not supposed to necessarily respect women and girls, and they're supposed to keep going. For some reason in the media that's often seen as romantic if they're kissing and they keep trying even if you say no. I don't think that's acceptable.
Tessa: Social media has definitely changed the game. That's one of the things they're going to change about the curriculum [in addition to the added conversations about consent]. There's going to be stuff about sexting and social media. Of course when you think about it, social media can be seen as a scary place for teenagers in terms of sex and sexting and stuff. But it's also a great place where people can connect and survivors can connect and people can have conversations about sex and consent and changing the conversation, like with certain hashtags we've seen, like #rapedneverreported and #believesurvivors.
What's next for you now that you have a promise from the government to change the sex ed curriculum to include consent?
Lia: We've come a long way, and it's pretty good that we've talked to the [Canadian] premier and we know that consent is going to be in the curriculum. Now we can work more on our documentary. Keeping the discussion about consent going on social media, in schools, and in our homes is really important, because that's a discussion that should be around forever. We should never stop talking about consent.
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