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Sexual Reawakening: Indigenous youth leading new sexual revolution, says researcher

From rejecting modern labels of sexual identity to participating in traditional coming-of-age ceremonies, Indigenous youth are redefining and reclaiming sexuality.
Carrie Bourassa begins her role as scientific director of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in February. (Carrie Bourassa)
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Originally published February 11, 2018

From rejecting modern labels of sexual identity to participating in traditional coming-of-age ceremonies, Indigenous youth are redefining and reclaiming sexuality.

And it's all part of an effort to overcome the multi-generational trauma caused by colonization, said Carrie Bourassa.

Bourassa, who is Métis, is the chair of Indigenous and Northern Health in Sudbury, Ontario. She is also the scientific director of Institute of Aboriginal  Peoples Health at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. 

The sexual reclamation, Bourassa explained, is happening in communities like Six Nations of the Grand River in southern Ontario where youth are leaders in redefining sexuality on their own terms through frank discussion, workshops, and programs.

The Native Youth Sexual Health Network is also doing important work, Bourassa said. The Toronto-based, youth-led advocacy group focuses on Indigenous sexual and reproductive health issues, as well as rights and justice in the U.S. and across Canada. 

"My generation, and the younger generations are reclaiming ceremony, they are reclaiming identity; and they are doing it in such a positive way," Bourassa said. 

"They are saying, 'We are reclaiming our space, we are focusing on self determination, our resilience, our strength, and our assets and we are rejecting those labels [like 'at risk']. And that just fills me with so much hope for the future because they are teaching us."

Today's youth are rediscovering moon cycle ceremonies and vision quests, for example. While different nations have different traditions, these coming-of-age ceremonies typically teach youth about sexuality, gender roles, and sexual health, among other topics.

It also reinforces the idea that the body is sacred and valuable, said Bourassa, whose daughter went through her own connection to tradition through moon lodge ceremonies, and a year-long berry fast.  

This traditional knowledge doesn't make youth immune to bad decisions but it sets them up for making more positive choices, Bourassa explained.

But there's a lot to overcome.

Colonization and the violence and abuse perpetrated at residential schools have left a lasting, multi-generational impact on sexuality, gender roles, and sexual health, Bourassa said. 

Colonization 'superimposed' its patriarchal system on Indigenous culture, displacing matriarchy and the revered position of women. Traditional male and female roles — and the teachings passed from generation to generation — were often lost.

"[Residential school] suppressed us," Bourassa said. "It taught us that your sexuality, your sexual urges were bad. You weren't supposed to express even feelings, let alone any sexuality. We wouldn't even show love or affection, let alone anything around sexuality." 

People who were gay or transgender, or anybody who didn't "feel safe in their skin" were particularly vulnerable. 

The sexual abuse, violence, death, and loss of culture, language and identity has also scarred many generations. 

"That kind of trauma is absolutely inter-generational. And as some of the elders have said ... it's actually in our DNA. So you can't expect that is going to go away in one or even two generations," Bourassa said. 

Resilience, however, is also woven into the Indigenous DNA, she said. "I absolutely have faith in the next generation."