If sex is going to happen, consent needs to happen: a Q+A w/ Nadine Thornhill

Sinclair: In your January 2018 article titled, “If We’re Gonna Talk About Consent, We Need To Talk About Pleasure” you wrote: “Pleasure is important. No matter what your gender, race, ethnicity, body-size or ability, you are entitled to choose to have partnered sex or not. And if that’s your choice, you are entitled to feel good about the sex that you’re having. Pleasure is about feeling good in your body. It’s also about feeling good emotionally, ethically and spiritually, if that’s part of how you move through your life.” How do ethics and spirituality intersect with pleasure?

Nadine: When we talk about pleasure, specifically sexual pleasure, we often focus on what feels good physically. For many of us, feeling good in our bodies is an essential part of a positive sexual encounter, so I don’t want to diminish it’s importance. But, I’m also interested in what folks need sexually to feel good about who they are as people.

Ethics – and for some folks spirituality or religion – are guiding principals we use to sort out what we feel is right in terms of our thoughts, attitudes and behaviour. Our sense of touch helps us figure out what type physical sensations feel good,  Our morals, ethics, and values can help us figure out what types of sexual expression, relationship styles, communication, and boundaries are right for us. The specifics of what that looks like are unique to each person, but I do believe that pleasurable sex is about what feels good for you, and what you feel good about.

Sinclair: How can we start having better and healthier conversations around sex and pleasure?

Nadine: I think it starts with telling each other the truth. Not just about what we want and don’t want, but also about our emotions, and our context. For example, I may sometimes want my partner to throw me to the floor and ravage me. That’s the truth of my desire. But during sex, I also might feel unsure about how to say it in away that disrupts our flow, or worried that if I do disrupt the flow we won’t get the moment back. And beyond that, I might feel a bit conflicted as a Black woman about finding pleasure in an act that’s rooted in submission.

Those might be hard thing for me to say, if I’m able to communicate with my partner about those complex feelings – even if it takes several conversation over time – it’s highly likely that we’ll be able to find away to make that pleasurable act happen in a way that also honour our emotional needs.

Sinclair: What’s something we often get wrong about consent?

Nadine: We often talk about consent in soundbites and catch phrases. “No mean no”, “Only yes mean yes,” “Your body belongs to you”.  I think the tendency to talk about consent in very simple terms stems, at least in part, is a response to folks who excuse sexual violations by claiming that some situations are complicated, sorting boudaries can be challenging, and therefore consent is too hard.

Consent as a concept is simple. But consent in practice can often be complex. There’s a lot of individual nuance involved in consent. Sometimes it just about saying “yes”. Sometimes it’s about having those longer conversations. Circumstances can and often do change over time, overnight or even in the moment.

Moving forward, I hope we can do a better job of acknowledging those complexities without using them as an excuse to ignore consent. I hope we learn how to address our sexual messiness, and give ourselves and our partners space to work it out. If sex is going to happen, consent needs to happen, regardless of whether it’s simple or not.

Sinclair: In your correspondence with me, you mentioned some things regarding your own mental wellness. What mental illnesses do you live with, and how do you seek healing?

Nadine: Like many folks, I live with generalized anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Although I received my official diagnosis in my early thirties, I suspect I’ve had both since early adolescence. Late last year I was also diagnosed with ADHD. Like the GAD and depression, it’s clear in retrospect that I’ve had it most, if not all of my life.  

It’s an ongoing process but a big part of healing has been finding acceptance of, and compassion for my own mind.  I’m learning to love my frenetic, feel-all-the-feelings brain and that acceptance has opened the door to learning what works for me.  I take daily medication, and I go to therapy regularly. I speak openly about my mental health with virtually everyone. I’m finding ways of managing workflow that suit my ADHD brain, even though many of them run counter to conventional wisdom about working “efficiently”. I start most days with a few minutes of mindfulness work (real talk – even in my “zen” moments, my thoughts are like ping-pong balls boucing around my brain).

Sinclair: What’s something you that still sticks with you today after working with Planned Parenthood?

Nadine: I worked with thousands of youth during my time at Planned Parenthood. What stuck with me was how accepting, conscientious and kind youth can be, and how open they were to learning about different ways of relating to sexuality.

I also remember how many teachers and parents wanted to talk to their kids about sex and sexuality. They weren’t always sure about what to say, or what information was accurate. But they wanted youth to feel safe, comfortable, confident and at home with their sexuality, which was always so great to see.

Sinclair: How did you turn your passion for sex education into a full-time career?

Nadine: It happened over time. I started giving workshop at a local sex-positive shop, which led to my job at Planned Parenthood. That inspired me to start a blog about everything I was learning at work. The blog kind of took off, which led to other writing and media-related opportunities. Eventually I started writing and facilitating some of my own workshops.  

When I realized that I both loved the work and was kind of good at it, I decided I wanted to start my own sex education practice. I knew I’d need at lot more education and some easily identifiable credentials, which is how I decided to go back to school.

Sinclair: What advice do you have for others looking to do the same thing?

Nadine: There are many different paths in this career. Some folks do clinical work in office settings. Some folks are academics doing research and teaching in post-secondary setting. Some sex educators are brilliant content creators, or medical professionals, or elementary school teachers.

So my advice is learn as much as you can. Figure out which aspects of sexuality interest you most and focus on honing your expertise. Find the work style or setting that best suits your personality. This type of work that requires a lot of emotional labour, so the best way to find success is to tailor this work to who you are, as much as you can.

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“Acceptance has opened the door to learning what works for me.” – Nadine Thornhill

Sinclair: Who do you go to when you’re needing support and guidance?

Nadine: My partner is often the first person I’ll turn to when I need a supportive ear or advice on how to handle a situation. As I mentioned, I see a therapist. She is wonderful and always steers me in the right direction. I also call on my ancestors for help and guidance. I have a book that I use to write them letters. It may sound absurd to some folks, but they really have come through and shown me what I need when I feel lost.

Sinclair: When was the last time you practiced self-care? What did you do?

Nadine: Last night. My partner is away for a few days, so I took advantage of his absence to starfish in our bed and take up all the space. It felt great, and helped me get some really good rest.

Sinclair: What’s something that’s been bringing you joy lately?

Nadine: My son. It sounds strange because part of my job is coaching parents, but I’ve often felt very insecure about my own parenting – particularly whether or not I was doing a good job of helping him navigate the world with his mental health challenges.

But lately, I see that though he has difficulties and set backs, he’s resilient and determined to be a kind person. He’s wild and smart and funny, and I realize that being his mother has helped me grown stronger and more resilient as well. I love him so much, and being his mom brings me tremendous joy.

“You are entitled to your place in this world. As am I. As is everyone.” – Nadine Thornhill

Sinclair: What’s something that’s been pissing you off lately?

Nadine: Our provincial government announced that they are repealing our current sex education program and replacing it with the previous version which is now 20 years out of date. It’s a move meant to appease a minority of misinformed people, and it’s utterly infuriating.

Fortunately, I have a plan…which I talk more about a little later in this interview. 🙂

Sinclair: When was a time that self-doubt was at its worst for you while on your career and life journey?

Nadine: The last few months of my doctorate was probably the hardest time of my life. My father had died suddenly a few months earlier, I was living in a new city, overseeing renovations on our new home, my son had just been diagnosed with mental health issues of his own. I was mentally and emotionally depleted.

It runs counter to popular narratives about positivity, but at that time my pain is what motivated me to finish my degree. I’d get to the end of another torturous writing session and I’d think, ‘this is too hard. I give up!’ Then I’d think, ‘How am I going to feel when I get to the other side of this grief and transition, and I have nothing to show for all the work I’ve already put in?’

 I couldn’t abandon it, precisely because it had been so hard.  I took breaks, and at one point I was so mentally ill I had to put my writing on hold for several weeks. But eventually, I got it finished and now I’m so glad that I didn’t give up on myself.

Sinclair: Who are some other sex educators that you’re connected to?  

Nadine: I know so many amazing educators, it will be hard to list them all!  Some of my favourite people doing groundbreaking work include:

Sinclair: What are your unshakable values and when did you become clear on them?

Nadine: My core value is that, barring behaviour that harm others, every person has a human right to express and embrace their authentic needs, desires and boundaries. Not just in terms of sexuality, but in every aspect of their lives.

I grew up with two parents who made a lot of major life choices, including getting married, because they were taught that it was the correct thing to do. Getting married, having children, raising them together, working 9 to 5, etc – these things are right for some folks – but they aren’t what everyone wants, or needs. Trying to adhere to a life script that wasn’t written for them made parents very unhappy. Which made me very unhappy.

I truly believe people are better when they’re given the freedom to simply be the people they want to be.

Sinclair: Imagine that all your life’s work disappeared and you only had 1 minute to tell the world what you believe to be true. What would you say?

Nadine: You are entitled to your place in this world. As am I. As is everyone.

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Dr. Nadine Thornhill, Ed.D has been teaching youth and adults about sexuality and relationships for over a decade. As a parent, she knows how challenging it can be to figure out what to say and how to talk with your kids about sex and relationships. As an educator, Nadine’s goal is to empower parents in sharing authentic values and providing fact-based, age-appropriate information about sexuality and help kids grow up safe, happy, and healthy.

Learn more about Nadine and connect: Twitter | Instagram | Website | YouTube

Featured Awesomeness: Nadine says, “In September, I’m going to be releasing a series of videos on my YouTube channel based on sex education units in the 2015 Ontario (my home province) Health and Physical Education Curriculum. Because of our Premier’s decision to remove this content, I want to preserve it and make it available to folks who want it. Even though it’s based on Ontario sex ed, there’s a lot in there that will be relevant for families all over the world. And in the meantime, I have well over 100 videos already available for parents and educators, so check out my channel!”