Teaching Kids About Sex and Consent

In the wake of Steubenville, there’s some great stuff being written about how to teach kids about sex and consent.  How do you teach your sons and daughters what consent is?  What rape is?  Is it ever too early to start talking about it?

There’s also the issue of the bystanders in the Steubenville case, whom I don’t see quite as many people focusing on, but to me the presence of those bystanders is horrific.  How could a room full of people stand by and not only not object, but take pictures and laugh?  And how do we teach our children not to do that, to instead be the person who stands up and says, this is not okay?

From my own experiences and the experiences of family and friends I’ve talked to about these issues, here are some Thoughts.

#1. As your children become older and become more curious, be able to talk to them academically about sex, including all its varieties.

There’s a persistent perception even among adults that sex = penile penetration, which is not even remotely true.  But who teaches kids it isn’t?

By the time I was a teenager, I had lots of questions about sex I wanted to ask someone I trusted.  And they weren’t the sorts of questions I could get answers about from published materials or people I didn’t know—these weren’t factual questions, they were sticky moral questions, questions about what’s okay and what’s expected and how adults handled certain things, and I needed to trust the source.

When I started having these questions, I had almost no notion of anything that came between the extremes of dry kissing and penetrative sex.  I had little knowledge or understanding of digital penetration, of oral sex, of kink, of fondling, even of French kissing.  I tried to ask questions about what these were, and whether they were “okay,” and when they were “okay.”

My parents never wanted to talk to me frankly about sex in its infinite variety.  I’m sure this is understandable to all the parents out there, but I do think it’s dangerous.  For instance, when I was a teenager I would not have realized digital penetration was rape, because I didn’t realize digital penetration was a way of having sex.  I would have known doing it to someone without consent was sexual assault and wrong, but I wouldn’t have called it rape, whereas now I absolutely, unequivocally do, because I know now how many different ways there are of having sex, and that a penis in a vagina is only one of them.

Your kids should also be fully aware that consent is required for each different sexual act.  That just because a young lady consents to having her breasts touched does not mean she has promised anything else.  That reaching a certain level of sexual intimacy on one date does not in any way guarantee either “advancement” or even the same level of sexual intimacy on the next if one of the partners has a change of heart.  That if there is any specific sexual act a person finds uncomfortable, she (or he) is not ever, ever obligated to do it—even if society “expects” it, even if it’s considered “normal”—and that there is a whole range of sexual activity (and inactivity) out there, so capitulating to a sex act one finds uncomfortable is not, and should never be, a prerequisite to being able to find a loving relationship.

(Being able to speak to your children frankly about sex and answer their questions has the added benefit of making sure they are aware enough to explore their sexualities in a healthy manner.)

#2. Make sure you differentiate any teachings of morality—religious or otherwise—with regard to consensual sex from the universal immorality of any nonconsensual activities.

I said above that I had a lot of questions as a kid about what was “okay” and “not okay.”  Part of the reason I’ve used these phrases is that my parents had very firm ideas about morality with regard to consensual sex.  Many people do: we stigmatize it; we slut-shame women; we rate movies with consensual sex scenes as “more inappropriate” than movies with outrageous levels of violence; we make kink taboo and shameful . . . we teach girls “purity;” we emphasize waiting until love and sometimes until marriage; we frown on people who “sleep around.”  And even if we try not to judge other people’s decisions, most of us do teach our children the religious and moral mores we want them to have.

With so much morality tangled up in consensual sex, perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising to us that some young people have trouble differentiating the wrongness of “I’m having sex before marriage and my parents told me that’s WRONG!” with the unequivocal wrongness of, for instance, hitting on a drunk woman.  If the act of sex is already “wrong,” then any sexual activity is breaking the rules, and all feel taboo.

Obviously, the vast majority of people who, say, don’t believe in sex before marriage for religious or moral reasons also realize, at least intellectually, that rape is a whole other level of wrong.  But I think we do a disservice to our children when we don’t emphasize, strongly, the differences between the “wrongness” with regard to sex qua sex and the wrongness when there is an issue, any issue, of questionable consent.  I would like to live in a world where, when a young woman is date raped, she never, ever, ever walks home feeling like she did something wrong.  I would like to live in a world where young women (or young men) always recognize when they simply have some morning-after regrets versus when they’ve been pressured in a way that is not okay.  I would like to live in a world where shame at the act of sex occurring never prevents a woman (or man) from reporting the crime of rape.

Parents, if it is your wish to impress on your children a morality with regard to sex qua sex, please, please make sure they know that if they make different decisions from those you desire with regard to their consensual sex lives, they should still have strong and firm knowledge of the ethics of consent.  That they might make the decision to have sex before marriage, or before love, or with someone older, or with someone of another gender than you’d prefer they have sex with, or on camera or for money or with multiple partners or whatever, but they should still know that no matter what, CONSENT is the ironclad, number one, paramount thing that differentiates right from wrong.  No matter what other morality you teach your children about sex, please, please teach them that even if they end up disagreeing with you and exploring outside of what you’d approve of, their consent always must be obtained, and they must always obtain their partners’ consent.  Make sure they know that someone who is drunk cannot consent, that someone is asleep cannot consent, that people they are in relationships with are not obligated to consent, that pressuring someone beyond what she is comfortable with is wrong, that a power imbalance can interfere with consent, that a person who has “promised” can reverse her (or his) decision at any time, that someone who has initiated can reverse her (or his) decision (and at any point), that sex is never “owed,” and that all of these apply not only to traditional penetrative sexual intercourse, but to all types of sex and sexual activities in their infinite variety.

#3. If possible, try to ensure that your children have both male and female trusted adult figures in their lives who can talk to them about sex (if there are people of various sexual orientations and with various sexual practices who can be trusted to speak appropriately and academically to your children about sex, that’s a bonus).

This is a tall order in some cases, and may not be possible (or may be impossible for parents themselves to engineer).  But I think there is a great deal of value in, say, a father / much older brother / other male figure with no ulterior motive telling a young woman that she never has to “just go along with it,” that she can change a yes to a no at any time and the guy should stop, that some guys will not believe in this and will tell her otherwise and they are wrong.  That a good partner will make sure the young woman is enjoying herself and that the two of them are on the same page every step of the way.  I think there is a tendency, sometimes, for young women to assume all men have certain expectations, and that they will be considered prudes or “cock teases” and will be accused of leading men on if they break these expectations—and I think it makes a difference when a trusted MALE person with no sexual motive tells young women that no, this is not some “sexual etiquette” that all men expect from young women, that it is perfectly okay when they take charge of their own consent at any point and for any reason.

Similarly, I think it is important for mothers and older sisters to talk to young men about sex and consent, to make sure they understand how terrifying it can be for women to be walking home alone at night or to be approached by a strange man; to make sure they know how real the threat of rape is for women—even tough women, even strong women; to make sure they can recognize the types of situations when a woman might feel pressured even when the man doing the pressuring has no idea he is guilty of such.

And the reverse, of course, is also true; fathers should make sure their sons know that it’s right and good to be respectful of the women in their lives, and that they should obtain explicit and enthusiastic consent and watch out for their female friends; and mothers should make sure their daughters know how entirely they own their own bodies and how inviolate their consent is.

I strongly believe that both mother and father figures should talk to both the young men and young women they mentor, because the same words have a different meaning when they come from the other side of the gender divide.

#4.  From the time your children are a young age, inculcate in them a respect for people’s physical boundaries and a respect for women’s physical boundaries in particular.  Inculcate in them, also, a disparagement for people who disrespect said boundaries.

Children are impressionable.  They pick up on the little comments, on the attitudes of their parents.  If you’re watching a movie with your kids, and if a boy pinches a girl’s bottom and you wince and express discomfort and say that wasn’t okay, your kids will grow up with the perception that, hey, that’s not okay.  If, as your children grow up, they hear a serious conversation every so often about sexual harassment—how strongly you feel about a current case in the news, how grateful you feel your spouse knows what’s what—they will attempt to model their behavior after what you’re endorsing, and from an early age they will begin looking down on the behavior you scorn.

I don’t think the human ego can or should be discounted when teaching our children to be decent people.  If part of the reason a young man finds it so unthinkable to take advantage of an inebriated young woman is that he’s always looked down on the type of man who would, well, I don’t have a problem with that.  I don’t think it’s an unhealthy use of the human ego to train our children to think, “I would never do that, even if I’m tempted, because I am better than that.

Part of the reason I think this is important is how great an influence peer pressure can be.  The respect of one’s peer group is important to most young people.  If a teenager’s comments make it clear he looks down on certain acts and ways of thinking, he can influence his peers not to be that type of person.  (Conversely, if teenage boys are bragging about how they manipulate girls into bed, I think it far more likely their peers will strive to do the same.)  As soon as the football players in Steubenville began touching an unconscious girl, they should have gone from “cool” to “despicable” in the opinions of everyone in the room.  But they didn’t—because the onlookers, even if they didn’t participate, even if some in their cores might have felt discomfort, did not find what they were seeing to be hateful enough. And that’s a problem.

#5.  Encourage your children to want to be the person who speaks up, and make sure they can recognize sexual bullying or assault.

I can’t remember when my parents first taught me about bullying.  I was tiny.  But I wanted, more than anything, to be the type of person who beats bullies round the head with a stick (metaphorically, but still).  I remember being in elementary school and halfway regretting that my school didn’t have a bullying problem, because I was full of all this energy to show off how I would be that person who would stand up and step in and run the bullies off.  I walked around with my eyes peeled for a big kid cornering a victim.  (Yes, I freely admit this was messed up, that I wanted to be the hero badly enough to (sort of, in an abstract way) want bullying to happen.  On my watch, so I could stop it, but still, this was definitely messed up.  Give me a break, though; I was five.)

I was lucky enough to go to a very tame school all the way through high school; no one ever got stuffed in lockers, I never saw anyone threatened out of his lunch money, and I only knew what swirlies and wedgies were from books (and man, I did and still do find them horrific; kids do that to each other??).  And later in life I hope I’ve always lived up to my childhood desire to stand up when I see something happening.

But that’s not the point.  The point is, when I was about . . . fourteen? . . . a kid I knew walked into one of my classes grinning about how he’d just smacked a girl on the ass in the cafeteria line.

I knew this kid.  I liked this kid, a lot.  He was cool and fun and funny and I enjoyed hanging out with him.

A girl in the class immediately high-fived him and made an admiring comment about how she wouldn’t have thought he had that kind of guts, and way to go.

I should have objected.  I should have said hey, not cool, and rained on their fucking parade.  But I didn’t, even though I’d always wanted to be the type of person who did, because . . . I didn’t feel sure enough they were doing wrong.

I didn’t have enough of a frame of reference.  This guy was fun and nice, and he was also the polar opposite of creepy—he was very short physically, was good-humored and often silly, and was generally a non-imposing, nonthreatening type of person—and a girl had just high-fived him to boot, and I was left feeling vaguely uncomfortable but wondering if I just “didn’t get it.”  If ass-smacking was an acceptable thing kids did to flatter each other these days and if I was only feeling a bit of discomfort because (being the geek that I was) I wasn’t keenly aware of the cutting edge of teenage social mores.  I’d had relatively good sex-ed from both my parents and the school, but I still didn’t know enough about sexual culture, and didn’t know what to do with ass-smacking that I wasn’t sure anyone objected to—the people around me seemed to think well of the guy for doing it, and not having seen whether the girl in question was offended or flattered by it, I didn’t feel sure enough of my social understanding to say anything.  So I kept my mouth shut.

It says something, I think, that I still remember this incident.

The point is this:

  1. Encourage your kid to be the kind of person who stands up.  (For me, I think a large part of my desire to be that person came from reading about book heroes, but it also came from my parents encouraging me to be different and teaching me that it was a value to stand out from the crowd.  They taught me how wrong bullying was and (independently) encouraged me to speak my mind and stand up for myself and others, and as far back as I can remember I perceived “peer pressure” as something to be competed against and by God, even five-year-old me would win!)
  2. Make sure your kids know enough about institutional sexism, about rape culture, about power imbalances, and about consent that they’ll know when what they’re seeing is wrong.  You don’t have to use words this big when they’re five, but they should know even that far back that it’s not okay for, say, boys to try to look up girls’ skirts and say it’s part of a game. And as they get older, they should be able to look at a social situation and know whether something bad is happening.

Point 2 is where I fell down, I think, that day when I was fourteen.  I don’t blame myself, really, because even as an adult ass-smacking is a tough call to make—after all, it can be friendly (among one group of my friends now, for instance, we smack each other on the ass all the time in both same-gender and opposite-gender smacking combinations, but this is a group in which mutual consent has been given[1]).  So, it can be complicated for an observer to suss out what the social relationships are and whether someone needs an advocate, and other types of sexually charged acts can likewise have complicated contexts.  But looking back, I think this particular incident was pretty simple: we had a guy bragging about smacking a girl’s ass in the cafeteria line, with no evidence she had consented to the smacking or was remotely flattered by it, and, in fact, the implication that this was not an encouraged act between two friends, since he found it something to brag about getting away with.  If I had been able to parse all that at the time, if the situation had not felt so alien and questionable, I would have spoken up—but it did, and I didn’t.

I’m not in any way trying to excuse or explain the people who stood by in Steubenville, by the way.  I find them to be reprehensible people and it sickens me that they exist in this world.  In a more just world, they would all go down for accessory to rape.  So no, I’m not trying to paint them as less responsible.

But the kids at Steubenville aren’t the only people who have ever stood by.  People do it all the time, everywhere.  People stand by because they’re afraid; they stand by because “she’s drunk but, well, she’s acting like she wants it from him . . .”; they stand by because sexual interactions can be complicated and murky and sometimes we’re not sure what’s wrong.  Sometimes women (or men) act like everything’s okay when it’s not; sometimes men (or women) claim it’s all in good fun when it’s not.  Different social circles have different acceptable interactions, from hugging and touching to, yes, things like ass-smacking or Frenching-while-drunk, and if you’re an observer, sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between friendliness and assault.

Which brings me all the way back to point #1.  The more we talk about sex with our kids, the more we discuss all the variation in the panoply of sexual interactions, the more frankly we have conversations about consent in a thousand different situations and read articles together and debate media together and make sex and consent not a thing we sweep under the rug or distill to “tab-A-slot-B-wear-a-condom” or titter and blush about but something we talk about, seriously, academically—the more understanding our children will have before they’re suddenly in situations they don’t have reference frames for.

And hopefully, if that ever happens, they’ll stand up and say no, we will not allow this, this is not the humanity we signed up to be a part of.

  1. Wow, I, uh, feel like this sounds more obscene than it is.  In that particular group it’s just sort of our version of a hug.  For the record, I would never dream of randomly touching someone’s posterior if I didn’t know the person, and likewise find it unacceptable when people I don’t know or don’t have that relationship with do it to me.  This goes back to point #2: Consent is key.  The same act becomes right or wrong depending on whether the people involved are on the same page.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Kids About Sex and Consent

  1. InMyBook

    You bring up many valid points, but you oversimplify raising children, particularly teens. The goal is to raise our children with sound moral values. If the parents strongly believe that sex before marriage is wrong, then equivocate when teaching this to their children, it is very confusing and can be taken as a green light by rebellious teens. Can you imagine saying, “Sex outside a marital commitment is wrong and not in anyone’s best interest, BUT if you disagree and choose to have premarital sex, then these are the scenarios you might meet up with and this is how you should stand strong…?” Teens resist listening to their parents’ opinions, so the time to discuss all this with them would be when they are preteens. From my experience, teens are too embarrassed to speak to their parents about sex, especially if it is regarding issues opposed to the parents’ teachings. Quite frankly, every generation changes and confronts different social and sexual scenarios. I certainly would never have conceived of all this going on many years ago when I was a young mother. I feel enraged reading about these rapes. What is wrong with these boys that they think they have the right to do something like this? It is abhorrent that onlookers laughed and joked and did not intercede and say, “Stop, this is not okay.” However, I do think it would be a rare teen who would be able to break from the drive to be accepted as part of the group. It would take an unusual amount of individual security. A huge factor in this tragedy is the drinking that went on. The guilty boys who raped the victim and the cheering on-lookers were all drunk, and the victim was too drunk to fight them off or to even know what was going on. I am not excusing anything because of the drinking, but rather making the point that children need to be taught how dangerous being under the influence is and how vulnerable it can make them to despicable acts such as those that occurred in Steubensville.

  2. slhuang Post author

    Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    you oversimplify raising children, particularly teens. […] Can you imagine saying, “Sex outside a marital commitment is wrong and not in anyone’s best interest, BUT if you disagree and choose to have premarital sex, then these are the scenarios you might meet up with and this is how you should stand strong…?”

    I’m sure I’m oversimplifying, as nothing as complicated as interacting and teaching children can be fully summarized in a blog post! And I agree with you that all of this education needs to start before children have grown into teenagers. That said, I don’t think you’re giving teenagers enough credit. I think young people are much more capable of nuanced thought than you’re giving them credit for . . . but in most cases they need to be taught that nuanced thought (and yes, I can certainly imagine saying what you posit, and probably would if I had kids!).

    I’m not a parent, but I have been a teenager, and not to get too personal about my own life, but I had a lot of confusion when I was younger about morality as related to sex. Just for example, it took me a long time to differentiate between the abstract morality I had been taught and my own sexual boundaries, which is, I think, a very dangerous place for a young person to be. Being able to say, “I’m not comfortable with this and that’s okay, full stop,” rather than, “I’m probably only uncomfortable with this because of XYZ imposed morality, so maybe I should do it even though I don’t want to . . .” has been a journey for me. It took a lot of frustration, and some excellent older (non-sexually motivated) mentors* to help me figure it out.

    Anecdotes do not equal data, of course, but I do hypothesize that this could be the case for other young people, especially as there can be intense social pressure not to be considered certain stereotypes (“prude,” “uptight,” etc.). I think it’s supremely important for children to be able to figure out their own sexual moralities, be entirely solid on the notion of consent, and be confident saying, “No, I don’t want to do that. Not because my parents or my religion told me not to, but because I don’t want to.” And maybe they don’t want to because of religious or moral convictions, and that’s just fine, but if young people then decide to question those convictions, that should not ever be a reason they feel it’s suddenly more okay to be pressured into any sexual activity (or to pressure someone else into a sexual activity!). That’s all I’m saying.

    And who knows, maybe most people don’t have this sort of confusion — although I think it unlikely, considering how many conversations about it I’ve had with other people — but I don’t think I’m alone in being desperate for some reason a room full of teenagers would think it’s perfectly okay to rape a girl, tape it, and then laugh about it online. Something went wrong with ALL those teenagers’ understanding of the world — not just in the minds of the rapists. And regardless of whether they were confused about how wrong what they were doing was, I think it’s a valuable thing for young people to have strong education about consent independent of any other morality teachings.

    * I was very lucky to have these people to talk to, I acknowledge.

    I certainly would never have conceived of all this going on many years ago when I was a young mother.

    Do you think it truly happened less, or it was just more easily covered up and/or more often not reported? (Honest question.)

    It’s my understanding that social media played a huge part in the Steubenville case, and helped prevent a cover-up by the town. Rape has also always been overwhelmingly under-reported; it’s possible this sort of crime is not becoming more common, but is becoming less tolerated.

    However, I do think it would be a rare teen who would be able to break from the drive to be accepted as part of the group.

    And this is one reason I think parental teaching is so important.

    A huge factor in this tragedy is the drinking that went on. The guilty boys who raped the victim and the cheering on-lookers were all drunk, and the victim was too drunk to fight them off or to even know what was going on.

    I know you are not trying to victim blame, InMyBook, but you’re walking close to it. Female rape victims don’t get raped because they drink, dress provocatively, or walk alone at night. They get raped because men choose to rape them. Let’s keep the comments here clear of anything that implies otherwise.

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