Talking to teens about consent
by Linda Plenert
Last month’s column focused on teaching younger children about consent. This month the focus is on discussing consent with your teenaged children. A reminder from last month: consent is about the belief that each person owns their body and has the right to decide if, when, and who is allowed to touch them.
With young children, teaching about consent can help your child if a game that starts off as normal childhood curiosity about sexuality starts to feel uncomfortable. Even if it is just ordinary interaction, children can learn to check in with each other to see if their play is going OK for everyone. This teaches children to think about others and how they might be feeling.
Many parents are familiar with the good touch vs. bad touch education that is often taught in elementary schools. It is important to build on this concept when your children are in middle school and older. This is when various “touch games” become common: butt slapping, snapping bra straps, boys grabbing each other’s genitals or nipples etc.
Your teens may try to dismiss these behaviours but it’s important to discuss the ways that these games impact other people. Boys somehow pick up the message that girls like the attention, but most girls explain that it actually makes them uncomfortable. Behaviour that may be seen as just typical adolescent behaviour can actually be harassment (and sometimes assault) regardless of the genders of the people involved.
Middle school is when talk about sex often happens in same sex situations like locker rooms and sleepovers. In today’s popular culture there is a great pressure to objectify people sexually. Don’t ignore “locker room talk” but be mindful of your approach. When you hear comments like “She’s a hot piece of ass,” or “Look at that package!” casually remind your teens and their friends that people deserve to be seen as whole people – not just as their sexual body parts. They may roll their eyes at you, but if you keep your comments low key but firm (and avoid lecturing) your kids will pay attention to what you are saying. You are also acting as a role model.
Boys need to start learning about healthy masculinity in middle school. Men need to talk to boys about the positive aspects of masculinity. They also need to discuss what hasn’t been so good about masculinity and what needs to happen so that all types of guys (athletic, musical, academic, artistic, queer identified etc.) feel comfortable in their masculinity. How can men share power in their relationships rather than operating only from a “power over” viewpoint? Consent is really about sharing the power in a sexual relationship.
Parents who are willing to discuss sexual relationships with their teenagers often focus on “wait until you’re older or married to have sex,” or information about sexually transmitted infections, safer sex and using condoms. Youth education about sexuality often relies on negative messaging about sexuality. For example, older teens may get information in school about “date rape drugs” but they don’t get the opportunity to learn about and discuss issues like respect, consent and personal responsibilities in a sexual situation. This is where their parents can step in with conversations about the complex areas of sexuality that take time to think through.
Teens need to receive a clear message about consent. This can be a good way to start a conversation: “Before you have sex with someone, and that is every time you have sex with them, make sure they want to have sex with you. This goes for everyone – and whether you’re in a relationship with them or not.” Note that this holds true for married couples, as well.
Of course, that conversation needs to continue with how a sexual situation can go from “yes” to “no” at any time. You could say, “Everyone likes different things, sexually, and we need to respect people’s comfort level and boundaries, just as others have to respect yours. At any point when you feel uncomfortable or what you’re doing doesn’t feel right for you, please listen to that inner voice. If it’s the other person who feels uncomfortable or doesn’t want to continue, you need to respect them and stop.”
Consent is complex, so it’s important to find the balance between clear messages and oversimplifying the issues. You can discuss the words that give a clear message (Yes, that sounds like fun, OK, No) and the ones that don’t (I guess so, maybe, silence). Communication and consent are about more than words. Another clear message you can give is: “If you are unsure about how the other person feels, please ask so you can be sure.”
You may not feel comfortable with the idea of being so explicit with your children about their sexual relationships. However, as a parent, this is a very important conversation to have. Think about it as part of your parental responsibilities – you are helping to keep your children sexually safe. You are teaching them about respecting their own feelings and boundaries, as well as others’. These are important values that will help them in many aspects of their adult life. These are not simple conversations, so they will take some time. But know that it is time well spent!
Ate Anna welcomes your questions and comments. Please write to: Ate Anna, Suite 200- 226 Osborne St. N., Winnipeg, MB R3C 1V4 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Please visit us at www.serc.mb.ca. You will find reliable information and links for many resources on the subject of sexuality.