Teaching kids about consent

Reading the details about the young woman who was raped on the Stanford campus recently, and having two daughters of my own, got me thinking about the importance of teaching our kids about consent and respecting other people’s boundaries.

My first job out of college was as a Sexual Assault Prevention Educator. I visited high schools and colleges throughout Orange County and taught students how to avoid being and committing date rape and sexual assault. Before this job I had no idea how common date rape is. However, after rarely leaving a classroom without having at least one student approach me to share his or her experience,  I quickly realized the magnitude of the problem.

1 out of 6 American women is the victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime.

The disclosures didn’t stop in the classroom either. I can’t tell you how many times at dinner parties and social events I wound up in a corner talking with someone about their experience with rape, once they found out what my job was. It was staggering. Even more surprising was how often the perpetrator was someone the victim knew. It was not the scary man in the dark alley as many of us picture, but rather someone the victim knew and often times, trusted.

As parents, it is crucial that we talk to our kids about boundaries and that they understand the concept of consent.

Sex without consent is assault.

It sounds simple. However, the issue often becomes complicated.  Consent means that the other person says “yes” to sex or sexual contact. This includes kissing, hugging and touching.

How does consent become complicated?

Problems arise due to early our experiences, misperceptions, miscommunication, embarrassment, trying to avoid hurt feelings, intoxication and/or prior sexual relationships.

  • Our childhood experiences

Unfortunately, children, especially young girls, often learn that they are not in complete control over who touches their bodies. How many times have you seen parents force their kids to give a relative a hug hello or goodbye when they don’t want to? Although this may seem innocent enough, it sends a dangerous message:

Kids learn:

It is more important to protect someone’s feelings then say “no” to being touched.

Obviously parents are not trying to teach this, but it is wrapped up in the “manners” lesson and over time many of us learn that our bodies are not entirely our own.

It is good practice to ask your child for permission before you touch them and make sure you are respecting their boundaries.

  • The problem of misperceptions

With my job as a prevention educator I would describe this scenario to teens:

A 17 year old girl shows up at a party. She is wearing a very short skirt, tight top, high heels and lots of make-up.

I would ask the girls, “Why might she dress like this?” Without fail, they would say: “To look pretty!” “Because she feels good!” “To impress her date!”

I would then ask the guys: “What might you think if you saw a girl show up at the party looking like this?” The answer I got every single time…”Because she wants to have sex.”

This is a problem. Assuming someone wants to have sex because of how she looks or is acting is not the same thing as receiving consent.

  • “No” means “no,” or does it?

When it comes to consent it’s important to be really clear: both on asking for sex or sexual contact and for agreeing or not agreeing to it.

I spoke with many teens who thought that often times “no” really means “yes” or “maybe.” Part of the problem is that it takes guts to ask for what you want and/or say what you mean. Laughter, nervous giggling and tone of voice can further confuse the message.

This confusion starts as children. Think about how often kids laugh while saying “no” or ‘stop” to tickling. Many times their “no” is ignored because it doesn’t seem believable.

It’s important to teach our kids that if they say “no” they mean it and if they hear “no” they listen.

When it comes to kissing, touching or having a sex, a clear yes is required for consent. You can’t assume anything. If you aren’t sure, clarify.

  • It’s too embarassing to discuss

Another statement I heard a lot as a prevention educator was:

“I’d be so embarrassed if someone asked me to kiss them!”

Being able to talk about sex or sexual contact is important for so many reasons: from gaining consent to discussing birth control.

Even if they are embarrassed it is crucial that people give and gain consent before any sexual interactions in order to avoid serious problems.

  • Trying to avoid hurt feelings

Many times teen girls tell me that it’s hard to say “no” when they really like the other person. This is understandable. However, our sons and daughters need to know how to speak up when they aren’t ready for something and communicate in a clear and confident manner. This skill will serve them well in many aspects of life from giving or denying consent to dealing with peer pressure and making healthy choices.

It’s also important to learn that just because someone isn’t ready for the same level of physical contact doesn’t mean they don’t like you and to respect their boundaries.

  • Intoxication

It is crucial that teens know that they cannot give consent if they are intoxicated. Even if they say “yes” it doesn’t count if they’ve been drinking or doing drugs. Consent is only valid if the person is sober. Furthermore, it is never okay to have sexual contact with someone sleeping or passed out. This may seem obvious, but happens all too often.

It’s important to talk to your son or daughter about how using alcohol or drugs can also cloud their judgment and that they are more likely to make choices or decisions that they wouldn’t sober.

  • Previous sexual relationship

Consent is required every single time there is sexual contact. It’s easy to assume that if two people have had sex before, that consent is automatic. However, a person has a right to say no at any time. That includes before or during sex. If at any point someone says “stop” or “I’ve changed my mind” you no longer have consent.

Teen boys used to try to convince me while I was teaching that they could reach a point where they wouldn’t be able to stop. This simply is not true. We all have control over our bodies and need to respect our own and each others boundaries.

As parents, it is our responsibility to make sure that our sons or daughters understand consent. This video illustrates consent perfectly. Please watch this AMAZING 2-minute video with your son or daughter. They do an outstanding job of teaching about consent in a fun yet powerful way. Click here to watch it now.