Pathways to Empathy: Research in Sexuality, Relationships, and Family

Mary Gordon is recognized internationally as an award-winning social entrepreneur, educator, author, child advocate and parenting expert who has created programs informed by the power of empathy.

Ms. Gordon created the award winning aggression/bullying prevention program Roots of Empathy in 1996 and named her not-for-profit organization after the program. Roots of Empathy now offers programs in every province of Canada, New Zealand, the USA, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, Germany and Costa Rica. In 2005, Ms Gordon created the Seeds of Empathy program, a social emotional and early literacy program for 3 to 5 year olds in child care.

She is a Member of the Order of Canada, the Order of Newfoundland, an Ashoka Fellow (2002) and Ashoka Globalizer (2011). Ms. Gordon was awarded the Commemorative Medal for the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in Education (2002) and the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for significant achievement and remarkable Service (2012).

Ms Gordon is also the founder of Canada’s first and largest school-based Parenting and Family Literacy Centres, which she initiated in 1981. They have become public policy and have been used as a best practice model internationally. Ms. Gordon is the recipient of several prestigious awards recognizing her contribution to innovation in education. In 2009 she received the Public Education Advocacy Award from the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

Ms. Gordon speaks and consults to governments, educational organizations, and public institutions. In the late 90’s The Nelson Mandela Children’s Foundation brought Ms. Gordon to South Africa to share her parenting expertise. Ms. Gordon has also presented to the World Health Organization, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the United Nations, among others.

As a leading expert on empathy, Ms. Gordon has had several dialogues with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has expressed that programs like Roots of Empathy will build world peace. Ms. Gordon has been featured in several documentary films and scholarly books. She frequently appears in popular print and electronic media.

Her book Roots of Empathy, Changing the World Child by Child is a Canadian best seller and available in several languages.

For more information on Mary Gordon, visit the Roots of Empathy website.

Session Info: 
Should Ontario amend the Family Law Act to incorporate court-ordered parent coordination?

Siera Stampone

In the family law, there has been a shift away from traditional litigation as families are encouraged by judges, lawyers, and government to resolve conflict through alternative dispute resolution (ADR) processes (e.g., mediation). ADR processes have been identified as a means to minimize parental conflict allowing for greater empathy to the needs of children and providing for quicker and more satisfying outcomes for parents. Nevertheless, for some parents conflict continues even after a parenting agreement has been reached. Parent Coordination is an alternative dispute resolution service that assists high-conflict parents in implementing their co-parenting agreement with the best interests of the child as the focus. In 2013, British Columbia made amendments to the Family Law Act that allows judges to court order a Parent Coordinator, without the consent of a family, to assist a family with living out their parenting agreement. Currently, Ontario has no provision surrounding parent coordination services; a Parent Coordinator can only be ordered upon consent of the parties. This presentation will report on the results of an in-depth literature review and key informant interviews about whether Ontario should amend the Family Law Act to incorporate court-ordered parent coordination, informed by the British Columbia model.

The crossover crisis: Understanding the link between child maltreatment and youth in conflict with the law

Jacob Murray

This presentation will explore how children in foster care are more likely than their non-foster-care peers to become involved with the youth justice system; and how a civil society can better support children in their families, or in foster care, to divert children from engaging with the criminal justice system. Children in foster care are more likely to come from socially disadvantaged families because many of their families of origin lack the necessary social and financial resources to meet their children’s basic needs because parents lack well-paying work, or the necessary social supports that allow them to positively cope with personal stress and the stressors or parenting. While the foster system aims to help children and families, it is often a challenge to meet the high-level of cognitive and social-emotional needs that many foster children have. If we choose to apply an empathetic lens, recognizing the multifaceted nature of children’s lives, we cannot ignore the psychological trauma many children in foster care face. It has been identified that a key facet for supporting children in care is to encourage service and care providers to establish healthy and positive relationships with the children they are tasked with protecting so that children will learn to build caring and trusting relationships with adults and mentors.  When society chooses to protect and support all children, we also choose to envision and create a better future, where all children can reach their full potential.

Attitudes toward those who have offended sexually

Sarah Wiley

There is often a perception that those who commit sexually violent crimes are ‘monsters’ who are removed from society and are deviant or sick. These are just some of the many myths and misconceptions about people who have offended sexually. In reality, sex offenders are found in every demographic, with the only distinguishing factor being that they are overwhelmingly more likely to be men (Statistics Canada, 2008). Research has found that the public generally fears sex offenders and, unsurprisingly, holds very negative views toward sex offenders. Interestingly, crimes of sexual violence are viewed negatively even in comparison to other crimes, highlighting the intense emotional reactions that are tied to acts of sexual violence.


Holding these negative attitudes toward sex offenders leads to intense isolation and stigmatization of the offenders. This makes it very difficult to use early intervention and prevention strategies for people with problematic sexual thoughts and feelings, such as in the case of a person with a pedophilia, as individuals are very unlikely to seek help on their own. Moreover, misconceptions allow some perpetrators to go undetected because they do not fit the stereotype of a sexual offender.


Sexual violence is a horrible crime and perpetrators need to be held responsible. Stigma toward sex offenders, however, is making the problem worse rather than better. These false beliefs and negative attitudes toward people who have sexually offended are a barrier to reintegrating former perpetrators within the community. If we work with individuals who have sexually offended to rehabilitate and reintegrate them through programs such as restorative justice, recidivism rates can be lowered along with rates of sexual violence. It is critical that we begin to see people who offend sexually not as horrible monsters, but rather as people who have complex problems and make mistakes. This will require leaning into our own discomforts and approaching people who have sexually offended with compassion and curiosity. Once we shift our understanding and begin to learn more about sex offenders and what they need to heal, only then can we truly put an end to sexual violence.

Public Service Announcements

The SMF Sex Therapy course (SMF 309), facilitated by Carm De Santis, utilizes Public Service Announcements (PSAs) as a knowledge translation and educational tool to discuss sexually relevant issues within our current socio-political and cultural context. Seven PSAs will be presented as a medium by which to explore empathy:


The Disclosure of Sexual Assault 
Chelsea Davies-Kneis, Demtria Giannakopulos, Lindsay McNeil

Empathy is elicited by encouraging viewers to listen to sexual assault disclosures to support the healing process and encourage victims of sex assault to feel less guilt, shame, and embarrassment when sharing their experiences.


Sexual Harassment: On the Line
Celeste Bortolus, Lydia Notten, Brittany Saukel

Western culture, social media platforms, and online gaming chat rooms are often negative and unwelcoming spaces for female identified individuals. Suggestions are made to bring positive proactivity to online spaces to ensure a safe and fun community for everyone.


Shame Leads to Silence
Josslyn Gabriel-Harper, Jasmine Chan, Amanda Da Costa, Cassandra Flurey

During this time of women speaking out against sexual assault and harassment, men need encouragement to ask questions about the toxicity of masculinity and the impact it has on gender inequality. Men are also encouraged and empathetically supported to be reflective and share their vulnerable selves while challenging the discourse of hegemonic masculinity.


Communicating Consent
Priscila Carrara, Erin Dean, Daria Kondrateva

The importance of consent is illustrated by tackling the misinterpretations of consent. A focus is placed on the legal and personal consequences of sexual assault, and the importance of enthusiastic consent, to encourage and foster healthier and more positive sexual experiences.


“Sex-cessfully” Overcoming Sexual Difficulties
Marissa Chicoyne, Giovanna Facchini, Anna Scriver

Sexual challenges are a fact of life and it is important to shift the dialogue on sexual difficulties from problematic to empowering. By changing how we talk about sexual difficulties, people can feel more confident in facing, and potentially overcoming, their sexual problems.


50 Shades of Grey is Not Your Guide to BDSM* Play
Angela Bambino, Sabrina Da Cruz-Neiva, Celeste Lalumiere

‘Risk awareness’ begins with adequate and accurate education about the guidelines of kinky sexual activity. By debunking myths and deconstructing mass media portrayals of BDSM, an accessible and empathic understanding of the activities and practitioners is fostered.

* BDSM: Bondage and Discipline, Dominance and Submission, Sadomasochism


Diversity: ‘The Unspoken Power of Empathy’
Vaidehi Chavan, Alicia Hois, Madeline Keltie

Sexuality is part of our socio-political-cultural fabric. We are reminded of the diverse ways sexuality is expressed and experienced in our social world and we are encouraged to see differences without threat and judgment, and instead with empathy and respect.

Empathy and altruism in surrogacy

Katy Fulfer

This presentation is an initial foray into thinking about what a philosophical account of empathy might contribute to clarifying ambiguity around “altruism” in surrogacy.


Although payments for surrogacy are criminalized in Canada in the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, Health Canada is in the process of clarifying what sorts of reimbursements are legally acceptable. In the What We Heard Report, which summarizes feedback received through their 2017 public consultations, some responders point to the need, and the difficulty, of acknowledging and valuing emotional labour performed by surrogates and intended parents. This difficulty has a tendency to lead to discussions about payments for surrogates, and to controversies around payments. Indeed, the report indicates that financial transactions in surrogacy are still contentious amongst some Canadians.


If regulation is going to meaningfully provide ethical protections (see section 2 of the AHR Act), then we need a better conceptual tool for thinking about power and vulnerability in surrogacy, especially in relation to vulnerabilities relating to emotional labour. I suggest that invoking altruism—either to argue for or against unpaid surrogacy—is not the best strategy. Although altruism is often invoked when describing emotional labour in this context, the concept is fraught with ambiguity. According to some, “altruism” is equivalent to saying “not-exploitative” or “less-exploitative-than-commercial-surrogacy.” Sometimes “altruism” indicates motivations women express for becoming surrogates, or refers to intangible benefits they receive from the process. Some feminist critics have interpreted “altruistic” motives or benefits as indicative of coercive forces that reinforce women’s oppression and pronatalism.


Instead, I explore whether an account of empathy might provide a more helpful way to theorize about emotional labour. In particular, I turn to the phenomenological accounts of Edith Stein and Hannah Arendt, as these theorists offer tools for appreciating embodied empathy and structural injustice. While this approach will not resolve the debate between whether unpaid or paid surrogacy is preferable, it will offer tools for analyzing power dynamics that relate to emotional labour in surrogacy—dynamics that might be present whether surrogacy is paid or not.

fMRI studies of women with postpartum depression/anxiety: Towards a model of feminist science?

Meghan Riley

This presentation starts with the premise that fMRIs of women exhibiting symptoms of postpartum depression might be used to practice feminist science as recommended by feminist philosophers of science such as Grossi, Jordan-Young, Rumiati, and Fine. For instance, since such fMRIs only study the brains of postpartum depressed women, they would not compare the brains of women and men and try to find differences between them. However, because the research begins with the assumption that only women have postpartum depression and that most cases of postpartum depression are caused by hormonal changes during and/or after pregnancy, and because the lack of evidence via fMRI may lead to decreased access to treatment, I argue that future fMRI studies of postpartum depression should include men exhibiting PPD symptoms and should also always be paired with a consideration of social factors and self-assessment.


This argument engages with empathy in that it supports Gillian Einstein’s recommendations that “neuroscience, especially affective neuroscience, really must ask […] the organisms being studied what it is like for them” (157). That is, because sympathy and empathy are distinct, and because it is difficult, if not impossible to truly understand an experience one has not had, the lived experience of women and men exhibiting postpartum depression and/or anxiety symptoms must be taken into account. This argument further engages the importance of examining this topic with a focus on intersectionality, as I document how many of the studies focus on white, middle-class women, and thus further fail to consider the social and socioeconomic class factors that may lead to postpartum depression and anxiety.

Gender euphoria and its life-saving importance: An auto-ethnographical study

Sam Tacit

This presentation will discuss my autoethnographic research regarding my experiences as a nonbinary individual, and my relationship to an understudied aspect of trans experience called gender euphoria. The purpose of this research project is to highlight, via my personal experiences, how academia, activism, and mainstream social discourses surrounding gender identity and the complexities of experiences regarding gender are not discussed with enough variety or nuance. This research explores my relationship to my body, my communities, my spirituality, and as an act of resistance against cis-heteronormative ideals of gender identity, sexuality, and appearance. It is explored via a critical lens of affect theory, which explores the labour that emotions perform for individuals, collectives, and societies as a means of social control and cohesion.


The theme of empathy dovetails with my research, as this thesis explores how to be empathetic toward oneself and one’s gender identity, and more broadly, how to be empathetic toward trans people and our experiences. Outside of a purely academic standpoint, studying gender euphoria and asking trans individuals to share their experiences can help in shaping policies regarding trans peoples’ rights and freedoms, medical care, planning therapeutic strategies, reduce social stigma, and encourage trans individuals to develop healthy coping strategies and to propagate self-love and resilience.

Perceptions of self-efficacy and attitudes about sexuality among students in undergraduate human sexuality courses

Eva Clark-Lepard

Researchers have been interested in learning about sexual attitudes and people’s ability to manage their sexual health for decades. However, new research is required as societal views are continuously shifting and many are becoming more aware and empathetic. The aim of this project was to investigate changes in student attitudes and sexual self-efficacy after taking an undergraduate human sexuality course at McMaster University. A novel questionnaire with items on STIs, contraception, masturbation, reproductive anatomy, reproductive physiology, consent, unwanted pregnancy, sexual orientation, and paraphilias was used. This questionnaire was delivered at the beginning and the end of term in biology-based and psychology-based human sexuality courses. The results illustrated that responses from the psychology-based course changed on more self-efficacy and attitudinal items than the biology-based course. The category of items where student responses shifted the most was the self-efficacy of sexual communication and consent items. These findings may be used to inform Canadian universities’ sexual health promotion programming as well as undergraduate human sexuality course curriculum.



  • SMF Speakers
  • Speaker addressing guests
  • Eva Clark-Lepard addressing guest
  • Picture of Assistant Prof. Denise Whitehead with SMF speaker
  • Speaker Addressing guests at SMF 2018
  • Speaker addressing guest at SMF 2018
  • Picture of Professor Toni Serafini with SMF students
  • Picture of SMF staff with speakers
  • Picture of Jacob Murray with SMF students
  • Picture of Jacob Murray with Assistant Professor Denise Whitehead
  • Mary Gordon presenting keynote at SMF 2018
  • Picture of Mary gordon with Assistant Professor Denise Whitehead