A NEW PROJECT AIMS TO HELP ADULTS TALK WITH YOUNG PEOPLE ABOUT SEXUAL HEALTH AND RELATIONSHIPS
Sunk into a well-worn couch 20-year-old Calen Sack eases into a story of childhood sexual assault with the familiarity of one who has explored it, made a reckoning, and now shares it in the hopes of connecting with others. Alongside, 17-year-old Oliver Oldfield click-clacks on knitting needles waiting patiently to tell his story of hopelessness, transition, bullying, and perseverance.
Across from them, on an equally broken-in couch with her long legs tucked under her Cecilia Tataa listens and prepares to tell her tale. Next to her is Rena Kulczycki, who brought them here: an open room filled with couches, bookshelves at the HeartWood Centre for Community Youth Development on Spring Garden Road.
These young people signed up for LUST (Loosen Up and Start Talking). It’s a pilot project encouraging a dozen youth aged 14 to 24 to share their experiences to help adults to be “more awesome and less awkward in conversations with youth about sexual health and relationships.”
The material from three day-long sessions held in July and August is becoming part of workshops delivered this fall to adults: educators, counsellors, parents, coaches, and others.
These young people are sitting down with Halifax Magazine to share their thoughts, opinions and experiences in the hopes it will somehow, some day make it easier for other Nova Scotian kids with the world on their shoulders.
As a young kid, Sack knew little about what was appropriate and what wasn’t. They grew up on a reserve where people didn’t talk much about sexual violence.
“There wasn’t a lot of talk about what sex was; the acts that took place were what I thought were completely normal between someone younger and someone much older,” Sack recalls. “I went along with it and I did enjoy it because at that age that’s a feeling that’s never really explored, my body was still growing but it was never divulged to me that was not OK.”
Sack was only five or six at the time. But it wasn’t until years later when a doctor came in to talk to youth about sex when Sack realized it wasn’t OK. The police got involved but that didn’t help.
“It was very traumatizing… they announced it to the, basically, school public and they shared it with the individual who had sexually assaulted me as a child.” Because the alleged offender was also a youth nothing much was done, says Sack. “So, living within a small community with the aggressor living a few houses down was kind of traumatizing.”
Discovering Sack was a “two-spirit non-binary person” in this environment wasn’t easy either. Sack says it got better after moving to Halifax last year at the age of 19.
“I really want to be active in this community to support people who maybe shared my experience of living in an isolated space, being a person of colour and living under colonization and white supremacy. I really wanted to find a community to have that support system and be a support to other people.”
Sack says they’re a sexually positive person who wants to encourage people to have these conversations so it’s not hidden anymore. “I think body autonomy is something youth should have access to at a very young age,” they say. “And one thing that always aggravated me is adults have this tendency to act like they know everything. I think it’s perfectly OK to not know everything because if the youth in your life brings up a question you don’t know the answer to, I think it should be our responsibility to read up and learn what the answer is.”
Early into his teen years, Oliver Oldfield struggled under the weight of mental-health problems and had no idea why. “It was a really rough patch in my life,” he says. “I wasn’t having conversations so I didn’t know what was going on with myself.”
Oldfield says when he was growing up in a rural Nova Scotian town, nobody was having conversations about LGBTQ+ or mental health. “I had all these layers of myself to sort through, none of which were being talked about,” he says. “I had to figure it out on my own and that’s really, really difficult. When I look back on my childhood, I think I went through some tough things that kids shouldn’t have to go through.”
A family member came out as queer and to show support Oliver went to group meetings to learn more about the LGBTQ+ community. “I got there and realized oh wait, I’m gay too,” he says. “Then things started falling into place and I’ve been out sexuality-wise for five or six years and I’ve been out as transgender for three or four years.”
Switching schools and moving to Halifax also made a big difference. He’s now actively involved with the Youth Project and the school’s Gender and Sexuality Alliance.
“My quality of life is better,” he says. “I’m happy now, well relatively. And I’m getting there. I don’t feel like I have to hide any parts of myself, especially at school.”
It’s still not perfect. Oldfield said there is still so much shame around sex and sexual identity. His best advice for parents is to be open to listening to what youth have to say. Don’t shut them down, he says, or project your own beliefs on them.
A secret Tataa kept close inside for years burst like a bomb when she was in high school.
An immigrant from South Sudan, 23-year-old Tataa moved to Canada with her family when she was six or seven. She was raped soon after. “Since then it literally shaped my sexuality,” she said. “In my community, we don’t talk about sex—zero—unless it’s to shame.”
Growing up she carried the guilt and the trauma, never telling anyone. Without anyone to guide her, Tataa learnt about sex, sexuality, and gender all on her own.
“I withdrew into myself and that’s where I had very bad depression,” she says. “At the time I didn’t have words for it but now I know I went through a really hard disassociation… and my body helped me by forgetting what happened.”
Then when she was in Grade 11 it all came out. A nurse talked to the class about sexual assault, Tataa realized that she had been a victim and came forward. “It was a disaster,” she remembers.
Her family and community heard of it and it just blew up, Tataa said.
“My parents didn’t know how to deal with it and re-traumatized me and it was a big mess,” she says. “It was like I was holding onto the bomb for so long and I was forced to give it up and it blew up in my face.”
She wishes someone had told her it’s going to suck at first but it would get better. And she said she wished someone had sat down with her as a child in her new country and explained things: “I wished someone had introduced me to the world.”