The Power of Consent
For a word that simply means giving permission, “consent” certainly has become loaded.
It's the cure for rape culture, say feminists and family physicians. It’s overrated, others, such as Rush Limbaugh, say.
Psychologist and author Lisa Damour may have put it best: “Given that we also grant consent for root canals, gaining mere permission seems, to me, an awfully low bar for what should be the joys of physical sexuality.”
Lest we forget, the joys of physical sexuality is what we are aiming for — happy, healthy sex or intimacy for young adults who know their own boundaries and can make sound, respectful decisions. But the path there — which begins years before — is long and, when done right, punctuated by lots of small, meaningful and potentially awkward conversations along the way.
What should teens know about consent? How can parents best explain it, even before their kids reach those crucial teen years? And does it all have to be so painfully awkward? (Yes and no).
Below are 14 ways for parents to tackle the topic — now, before the crucible of sex and consent on college campuses comes into play.
Start as Young as Possible
In short: conversation about consent should begin long before anyone is sexually active.
“Healthy boundaries apply to so much more than just sex or partnership, and we should begin teaching our children as early as possible,” wrote Anne Theriault in The Washington Post.
That’s a core tenet of consent — boundaries. There’s a through line from teaching your 2-year-old that she does not have to hug or kiss an adult if it makes her uncomfortable, to the sense of autonomy, self-respect and control we hope that same teenaged girl will have when she decides whether or not to be intimate with one of her peers. Same goes for boys.
How young? As young as 1, some suggest. The word “no” becomes meaningful to children around 12 to 18 months. As they mature, a parent can teach a child the power of words like “no” and “stop,” and the importance of always asking permission. That, plus ongoing conversations about private parts, with the correct anatomical names, and body safety — i.e. “My body is my body and it belongs to me” — can help get kids started on the right foot, even in preschool.
Gut Feelings Matter
“Trust your gut” may not seem a likely lesson related to consent, but it’s incredibly powerful. Even a young child knows what it means to get a funny feeling about someone, even if they can’t explain why, and the same goes for a petulant teen.
Research shows that gut feelings are not unfounded — the brain picks up on subliminal signals, especially when someone is making a risky decision. Sex and intimacy definitely rank up there when it comes to risk, not just physical, but emotional.
To boot, teaching young people to trust their instincts, gut or intuition is teaching them to value their own opinion about their own safety, comfort or security. They get to say what works — or doesn’t — for them and their body.
Body Language Matters
So much about sex and relationships goes unspoken, a primary challenge when it comes to consent. One could go into the reasons why — a culture of shame and silence around sex, for one, or a teen’s general state of emotional confusion on a daily basis. But while we work on the communication skills and emotional intelligence, we can also teach our sons and daughters how to read body language.
These are lessons that can start very young. For a toddler, a parent can describe how someone is looking or acting and attribute an accurate feeling — “You see the way Chris is turning his body away from you, I think that means he doesn’t like the way you are playing with him.”
For older kids, simply pointing out the subtle cues in a movie scene or in a show can help them become more astute. Some kids will find decoding nonverbal communication more challenging than others, and those with learning or attention issues may need additional support.
If you’ve laid the groundwork, it’s then possible to ask questions that really cut to the chase, like: “How can you tell if someone is interested in you?” or “How can you tell if someone is ready to kiss you?” or “How would you let someone know that you’re interested in them?”
Consent Isn’t Just About Sex
Young people can and should develop a variety of strong, healthy boundaries, and not just for sex — or even physicality. It’s important to teach a child that it’s okay to say "no" or "stop" to any kind of contact that makes them feel uncomfortable, from roughhousing to simply holding hands, as little kids are wont to do.
We do that by getting them into the practice of asking for permission, and then respecting the other person’s answer, whether or not it’s the answer we want to hear. Taken in those terms, consent can be about almost anything: cookies, screen time, tickles.
A corollary is teaching children that hearing the words no or stop doesn’t mean the other person doesn’t like them or want to be friends. It can be kind and firm. A boundary is different from a rejection.
Consent Isn’t Just About Sexual Assault
Of course, the widespread public discourse about consent tends to come from highly publicized sexual assault cases, especially in this #MeToo era, like those involving Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby.
These are fairly stark examples of abuse of power and the inability to freely consent. But while they are of course important to discuss, they don’t quite trickle down to the small, everyday sexual interactions that young people are trying to navigate.
The goal of consent isn’t just to prevent one final, unwanted result — sexual assault. Consent culture is about building self respect and autonomy all along the way.
Consent is for Both Boys and Girls
When you picture someone giving consent, who do you picture? And when you imagine someone respecting that boundary (or not), who do you picture? Most of the stories we see and hear about consent present a young man who wants sex and a young woman who does not — or cannot — say no, and the destructive consequences that ensue. But that doesn’t tell the entire story.
The truth is that consent pertains to both women and men, both girls and boys, young adults and young people of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Consent, interestingly enough, does not discriminate — not if it’s done right.
It’s More Than ‘No Means No’
Of course, the power of the word “no” is incredibly important — and one of the first lessons we learn about consent. And “no” was the unequivocal bright line for conversations about consent for a very long time: Sex between adults was considered consensual as long as nobody said “no.” But as the conversation about sex, consent and sexual assault became more nuanced, it became clear that “no” was not enough.
For one, “no” typically puts the onus on the person who is being pursued, potentially the person with less power. There are myriad reasons why saying “no” might not be possible, like alcohol, drugs, coercion, fear or disability.
To put it in a way children would understand: Just because someone didn’t say no doesn’t mean they said yes.
It’s Also More Than ‘Yes Means Yes’
In the last two decades, there’s a new bar for consent: “Yes means yes.” (A 2008 anthology about women’s sexual power even claimed it as a title, “Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape”). The idea is that consent should be affirmative, it should be empowering and it should be something each party can give — enthusiastically. (See: “Consent Should be Exuberant.”)
But in truth, there’s even more to it than that. Yes to hugging doesn’t mean yes to kissing or anything more. Yes right now doesn’t mean yes 20 minutes later. Consent can be given or taken away at any time.
Yes is affirmative, but it is also discrete.
Consent Should be Exuberant
And when it is, it’s great.
Peggy Orenstein, in a wonderfully complex and compelling piece about young men and consent for California Sunday Magazine, quoted one young man saying this: "I’ll put it out there...Affirmative consent is really hot. It’s exciting when the girl’s saying, ‘Yes! I want you to do this.’ ‘Yes! I want you to do that.’ It’s a pretty awesome thing for both of you to have that sort of connection.”
Alcohol and Drugs Affect Consent
The woman Brock Turner raped at Stanford University had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit of .08. (He was also drunk.) She has no memory of giving consent, although Turner claims she did. The woman Bill Cosby was convicted of assaulting had been given a sedative, likely quaaludes. Countless date rape cases have been enabled by rohypnol, or roofies.
It seems almost absurd that it needs to be said out loud: Mind-altering substances can inhibit a person’s ability to give consent freely.
For a more mature teen, it’s useful to be brutally honest on this topic. Alcohol and drugs can lower inhibitions — that’s one reason awkward young people tend to imbibe. Lowered inhibitions can make sex or intimacy more likely. And it can also complicate the situation.
It’s difficult to accurately read body language or assess the nature of the situation if you're drunk or high, and it’s difficult to honor your own boundaries if you’re inebriated as well.
Of course, no one should feel like it was their fault if they were sexually assaulted after drinking or doing drugs, but being upfront about the effects of drugs and alcohol can help teens navigate consent.
It’s the Law
When talking to a teen who may be on the verge of leaving home for college, underscore that consent isn’t just a nice-to-have, or what someone does in a best-case scenario. There are laws and policies enforcing consent — and, as such, consequences if you don’t honor consent.
Age of consent laws, for examples, outline how old a person needs to be in order to legally consent to sexual activity. In some cases, the age of the other person matters as well. These are different in each state.
There are laws based on a person’s capacity to consent. Was this person coerced into having sex? Was this person under the influence? Do they have a disability or a vulnerability that makes consent, of their own free will, impossible?
And, more recently, there are affirmative consent policies, particularly on college campuses. Judges aren’t looking for the “no,” they are looking for the clear “yes.”
These are the legal points upon which sexual assault cases are tried.
It Doesn’t Have to be Intimidating
Sexual assault. Rape. Rape culture. It’s all devastating to think about — and the seriousness and violence involved can make talking about consent seem too big, too difficult. Luckily, it doesn't have to be. This amazing video, “Consent: It’s Simple as Tea,” teaches all the right lessons — particularly about how to react when someone withdraws consent — but about tea, not sex.
There’s a clean version, for those offended by a bit of cursing, and a companion video just about consent for kids, too.
It Takes Practice
When it comes to bringing up the topic of consent with your kids, practice makes perfect. That’s why experts advise to start young and have many different kinds of age-appropriate conversations about consent as your child grows up. The more conversations you have, the more normal it will all feel — for everyone involved.
It also takes practice for each individual to initiate and engage in conversations about consent themselves. There’s no way to learn but to do it. In an article about affirmative consent on college campuses, a male student admits to trying on various lines, like “You O.K. with this?” “Do you still want to go ahead?” and “Hey, you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”
Just. Keep. Talking.
As is clear by now, consent isn’t a one-time topic of conversation right before your child has sex for the first time. Ideally, it’s ongoing — hooked onto whatever the news or popular culture dredges up — and nuanced.
Even young adults steeped in the culture of consent, and aware of the laws, can still have murky hook-ups and moments of regret, levels of gray area that don’t quite constitute sexual assault but also don’t feel like A+ sex, either. The hope is that they can still talk to a trusted adult about what happened and how they feel — not just peers who are fumbling through their college years just as awkwardly.
Plus, simply broaching the topic of consent puts a parent ahead of the pack. According to one Harvard study, 61% of young people said they had never spoken with their parents about "being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex" and 57% said they'd never talked about the "importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex."
All that’s needed to change those numbers? A conversation.