We know that we need to talk to teens about consent. Actually, we need to talk to all kids about consent. It needs to be a routine discussion, where we ask them things like, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?” and they get to say “Not today” and that’s the end of the hug. Or, “Do you want to kiss Great Aunty Jo?” and they say, “Not especially” and that means no kisses for Great Aunty Jo today.
However, as much as we have hopefully had those Q&A consent moments with our kids since they were small, we still need to talk to our teens about consent and sex.
They need to explicitly know the rules around what is acceptable.
We cannot leave it up to schools to teach consent. It’s our job, not the school’s, to make sure we don’t raise rapists (sorry to be so explicit, but it is what it is). Schools definitely have a role to play in ensuring teens exist in a respectful culture that doesn’t condone inappropriate sexual behaviour or sexism or criminal acts of any kind. But, like I said, it’s our job to ensure our kids aren’t assholes.
It’s not enough to assume that we’ve raised a decent person who would never take something from someone when it hasn’t specifically been offered. We must assume nothing when it comes to talking to our teens about consent. Nothing.
It’s black and white
They may be a ‘good person’;
we might ‘trust them to do the right thing’;
we can wholeheartedly believe that we’ve instilled in them the ‘right values’;
and still, we need to have a direct conversation with our teens about sex and consent.
For so many reasons, consent is a difficult topic to talk about. Which is bizarre for something that is really very black and white. A yes or no question. A this, not that. An on or off thing, at the end of the day.
No doubt about it, talking with teens about sex is awkward AF.
Most teens will probably ‘la la lahhhh’ over the top of their parents trying to teach them anything at all. We simply need to speak louder.
Here are a few suggestions to help get the topic on the table, make yourself very clear, and ensure that your teen understands in no uncertain terms what consent is.
How to talk to teens about consent
1. Make it a formal thing
This is not a casual conversation. It’s not one to throw over your shoulder as you’re driving the car, or bring up randomly at dinner. Instead, explain to your child that you have something very important you want to speak to them about and make a time that suits you both. Tell them not to be nervous, they’re definitely not in any trouble!
2. Set privacy boundaries
Make sure your teen knows that you’re not having this conversation to find out about their sexual activity or that of anyone else. The discussion is going to be an open one, that’s not specifically about anyone at all. Acknowledge that this is probably going to be an uncomfortable conversation, but they can ask you anything at all and you will do your best to answer.
3. Define exactly what consent is
Definitions are extremely important here. Ask your teen what they think ‘consent’ means and make sure they are right on point.
For the record, consent is essentially when someone gives permission for something to happen.
In the context of sex, consent is therefore when everyone involved in having sex is happy to participate. They don’t feel forced, pressured, threatened or tricked into having sex. They are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol and can therefore make an informed decision for themselves. It’s also important to note that they can change their mind at any time and withdraw their consent. This famous video about tea and consent nails it perfectly:
After you’ve watched the video together, check in with your teen and ask them what they think consent means.
4. Define what sex is, too
When we talk about consent and sex, we are not just talking about sexual intercourse. Consent must be given for any kind of touching, kissing or holding. Being respectful of other people’s sexual needs and boundaries is an essential part of enjoying sex. The only way to know what those boundaries are is to politely ask.
Remind your teen that if they are not comfortable asking someone about their sexual boundaries, then they are not ready to have sex with them.
Talk to your teen about what they think is and isn’t sex. Why do they define it that way? Do they think everyone would agree? What does that mean for consent?
5. Ensure that yes definitely means yes
If your teen has had sexual experiences (see above), ask them some questions like: “How would you know if someone wanted you to kiss them?” and “How can you tell if your partner is ready to have a sexual relationship?” and “How would you know if your partner wanted to go to the next level?”. The answer, of course, is always “Because I asked them and they said they were ready.”
The tricky area, of course, is when someone might saaaaay they are happy to have sex, but they are really scared that if they said no, your teen might not like them anymore. So the partner says yes, even though they really want to say no.
Make no mistake, to have sex in this situation is still coercion, but it’s complicated. So it’s just really very important that your teen helps to create a safe space around sex. They need to let every partner know that it is completely up to both of them if things go further or not. That not going further will not change how your teen feels about this person. That sex is a mutual thing and both of them need to be happy in order for it to be enjoyable.
Also remind your teen that this goes both ways: is your teen completely happy to have sex with this person? Right now at this exact moment?
6. Everyone’s prerogative
It’s not just a woman’s prerogative to change her mind, it’s everyone’s. Just because someone said yes, doesn’t mean they can’t say no later. Even if it’s just a couple of minutes or even seconds later. Never assume that your partner (or yourself) are okay with how things are progressing. It’s up to everyone to always check in with our partner to confirm their ongoing consent.
For the record, this includes the person who initiated sex in the first place. They can change their mind, too.
Let’s face it, it’s the way to have good sex anyway: asking your partner if they like what you’re doing as you go along.
7. Drugs or alcohol means no
The law is very clear on this: if someone is so inebriated by alcohol or drugs that they can’t talk or stand, they can’t have sex either.
How will your teen know when someone has had too much to drink to give informed consent? The fact is, there’s no real way of knowing. The bottom line is that if your teen is not sure, then they shouldn’t have sex with that person. Instead, they should ask that person if they feel safe and comfortable right now. Do they need your teen to call someone? Or arrange a lift home?
Could your teen call you in this situation? For a friend? For themselves? The answer is: yes, of course. Any time of the day or night.
Again, stress to your child that when kids are drinking or taking drugs, they are not able to give informed consent. It’s your teen’s responsibility to make the right choice in this situation. The right choice is to make it a rule that until your teen is old enough to understand the nuances of alcohol and consent, they won’t have sex with anyone who has been drinking or taking drugs.
8. Respect, always
The world of teens and sex can be a very fraught one, and underpinning everything is often a complete lack of respect for girls. I don’t want to be sexist here, but that’s a fact. It is essential that we teach our boys that girls are their equal, their friends and their allies. They are not mysterious creatures that are there to be experimented on, boasted about or slandered. No, no, no.
Boys need to stop that shit immediately and, even if they’re not the ones doing it, they need to call out the boys who are. It doesn’t have to be a huge deal, just a simple, “That’s not cool” or “You shouldn’t disrespect girls like that” or “I’d never say that about a girl” is all they need to offer. As long as they are clear that saying bad shit about girls isn’t on.
Everyone needs to send a message loud and clear that disrespecting girls will not be tolerated. Your teen boy needs to be the kind of boy who makes sure a drunk friend is safe.
9. Back to consent
Before you wrap up your chat, take it back to consent again.
Ask your teen to remind you exactly what consent. Suggest they give you a couple of examples of what not giving consent might look or sound like.
Wrap it up by asking them to pledge that they will never pressure anyone to do anything they don’t want to do. Instead, your teen will always ask for and receive consent from someone before they proceed with anything even remotely sexual. They will keep checking in as a way to (a) ensure consent is ongoing and (b) get better at the sex thing.
10. Keep talking
This formal chat is just the beginning. Keep the conversation open and check in with your teen about boundaries, respect, responsibility and, above all, consent as often as you can. Talking with teens about consent is not something to take lightly. It is all of our responsibility to keep kids safe.
Have you been able to talk to your teens about consent? How did it go?