My two sons are 24 and 21. They would both be disgusted if anyone were to suggest that sex was something to be done to someone, rather than with someone. Am I proud that they understand consent? Not overly. As a mother who desires to raise emotionally intelligent young men, consent doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I want them to understand about intimate relationships.
Over the past few years, the term consent has been elevated and is now firmly embedded into formal education. None would argue that kids should be taught that all people must gain wholehearted agreement before every sexual encounter without using cohesion, pressure, manipulation or force, or the use of drugs or alcohol, and that there is never a time when sex should be taken from someone. However, in our discussions at school and home, I hope we also remind kids that consent is a legal term, not the gold standard for sexual activity. All our kids deserve to know that consent does not ensure fulfilling sexual experiences. There is so much more to healthy relationships.
Let me pause for a minute and ask you what you hope for your child’s future romantic relationships? My hope is that my own boys experience sex as an expression of proven love, trust, and emotional intimacy. I’m a bit old school and still talk to my own children about sex being safest in the context of commitment, when you know someone and have an opportunity to talk through shared desires and needs. When talking about consent, I suggest working backwards – start with the end goal in mind.
In this blog I want share six things I wish all kids knew about consent. These thoughts aren’t specific to our boys or girls, and stack up regardless of their sexual orientation. I find myself coming back to them in conversations I have with teens (and young adults) time and time again. It’s my hope that they help you guide your young one as they grow.
Being nice is not the starting point. It’s critical that we teach our teens that “nice” is not the best starting point for a relationship – honesty is. Watch out for both boys and girls believing that being “caring” means that someone else’s happiness is theirs to carry. This can easily extend into the way they communicate about sexual activity, and the pressure they feel to please someone else at their expense. An extended conversation is that twisting someone’s arm or changing their mind is not consent.
It’s all sex. This might seem obvious, but it really isn’t. I always tell teenagers that sex has a beginning, middle and end, and it is all sex. All sexual activity shapes our teens concepts of trust and intimacy. Too often teens put some sexual activity in the “it doesn’t count” basket. We need to teach our teens to watch for signs of hesitation during all sexual activity. Once our teens hear, see or feel even the slightest signs of hesitation, I encourage them to “believe their partner”. Regret is much more likely when someone says “yes” when they want to say “no”, says “yes” when they aren’t completely sure or says nothing.
Tune into intuition. When a child is faced with a strong negative emotion, it may be a sign that they are operating outside of their boundaries. Please teach them this! Because teens are so emotion led, I find this the most helpful reference point for them. The stories I hear reinforce how easily both our boys and girls disregard their feelings. Although emotions often speak clearly, they are so easily dismissed or minimised or excused or justified.Intuition is a safeguard against danger. I want to encourage all our kids to channel their internal nudge into real action.
Consider compatibility. Sexual curiosity does not always develop at the same pace that responsibility, common sense, self-awareness, or communication skills do. That means that someone’s readiness for an intimate relationship can’t be based on sexual attraction or a moment of passion. Teens often assume that the two go hand in hand, but they don’t. Development is different for all teenagers, so there can be a noticeable difference between two young people. Typically, our girls develop 18 months earlier than our boys. Mutually negotiated relationships are difficult to achieve when the gap is too wide which can be painful for teens who are “in love” to accept.
Question the base-line narrative. The typical narrative is that our boys are pushing for consent while our girls are feeling pressured to give. This can lead our kids to all sorts of assumptions and expectations of each other. It can also leave them feeling trapped in someone else’s story, or feeling tentative about communicating their truth. While soft pornography in movies, music and in social media drip-feeds some really destructive messages, your voice still has a huge impact. I find that young people genuine struggle to identify what healthy relationships look and feel like and are looking to us for guidance from the trusted adults around them.
Know yourself first. Consent is based on the assumption that young people know their mind, wants and desires for the body, and have the capacity to express them clearly. That’s a tall order for any young person! Although wiling participants at the time, it’s in hindsight many teens realise they didn’t get what they hoped, which makes for some brutal self-reflection. These are the hard lessons of growing up that our kids need to be ready to cope with. The physical, social and psychological repercussions of sexual activity are real, and so can be their limited capacity to process them. Although ideal, and something we can’t fully control, delaying sexual activity does give them time to get to know who they are and what they want in life.
Build Foundations Now. Like so many of these high stake issues, our kid’s capacity for them has been in the making for many years. The foundational principles that apply to sexual consent also apply to non-sexual relationships, and can be taught in childhood. You! Who? is my new online show for tweens, and the very first episode is going to be about communicating “no” well. If you have an 8 – 12-year-old and want to teach them about consent, you might like to use this as a starting point. CLICK HERE to find out more.