Off To College Is Too Late For The Consent Talk
I am a fan, and a friend, of both Amanda Hess and Heather Corinna, and it should come as no surprise that I think this piece in Slate is really useful. However, the preface to Amanda’s interview situates it with college back-to-school season. From a news standpoint, this makes sense. The US media is belatedly and rightly focused on colleges mishandling sexual assault (Emma Sulkowics’s performance art activism at Columbia is the latest story to get broad coverage). But from a parenting perspective, it’s an easy, comforting and wrong way to analyze it.
Heather Corinna, who has been down this road more times than I can count with interviewers much less savvy and receptive than Hess, positions consent and bodily autonomy as a lifelong process and a part of parenting that starts in the diaper stage. Hess had the good sense to let Heather get her ideas out. In my own parenting, I reached the same conclusion, and I started talking about consent with my own kids as toddlers, something I wrote about in this old post that recently went back into circulation after a Facebook page picked it up.
Good News/Bad News:
- By the time kids are off to college or college aged, they may have established patterns and expectations for consent and communication that have already shaped their relationships and sexual development.
- But getting in front of that curve doesn’t have to be uncomfortable, as it’s easy to make a fairly seamless transition from the kind of broad consent-and-autonomy discussion I wrote about in If She’s Not Having Fun You Have To Stop, to the kind of more express advice teens will need to navigate their own needs.
It’s Better To Be Early Than Late
I think it’s fair to say that a lot of young people experience a lot of partnered intimacy, kissing and more, years before they finish high school (though for various reasons big, public studies focus on penetrative sex and it’s hard to find good data on how kids develop to that point). They’re working out on their own who kisses who, who puts their hands where, and even if they are not having intercourse or oral sex, they are forming expectations and patterns. If we let them absorb a culture that boys initiate and girls gatekeep (the heteronormativity! The penetrocentrism! Do we even have a pop-culture paradigm for same-sex adolescent partners? For nonpenetrative intimacy that is a goal in itself and not a waystation? And we definitely don’t have pop-culture paradigms for anyone too far outside the mainstream … trans, non-binary, etc.) then it’s just blind luck whether they find the wherewithal to question that. Of course as a parent I hope my kids will keep developing and changing right into adulthood, so maybe they can make use of things that I say in their late teens and twenties even if those things might have been more useful earlier. I hope that, but I’d rather be out in front.
I think part of the reason that some parents don’t want to talk about consent and sexuality with their kids, or about reproduction and STIs with their kids, is the view that bringing it up sends the message that the parents think they are ready. I think that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — to the extent it sends that message, it means I didn’t start early enough! Kids are going to hear and see references to things like pregnancy and condoms all through their lives. If they hear, “you don’t need to know what that’s about” until their mid-teens, and then their parents suddenly say, “okay, I guess you’re old enough to hear this now,” well, they may take that as an indication that they’re the right age to make use of the information. I understand why that becomes fraught for a lot of parents. If these things are treated as a matter of scientific inquiry, like why the sky is blue and why some birds nest on the ground, suitable for an explanation in age-appropriate detail at any time, then it sends no such message.
Folks with a certain set of cultural leanings seem to be integrating the notion that the one “big talk” model doesn’t work with sex, biology and safety. Well, it doesn’t work with sexuality, relationships and consent, either. A “big talk” will never time it right. It will always be too early, or too late, or both. I think in the age of the internet, kids less often live in an information vacuum. Once, if a kid didn’t get an answer from adults, the only other option was friends, who were generally clueless. Now, there’s an opposite problem: too much information, widely varied in quality and accuracy, slant and agenda. Parents can’t keep their kids from getting information by refusing to answer questions. They might as well say, “go look for the answer yourself and don’t tell me what you find,” because it has exactly that effect.
The Shallower the Slope, The Smoother the Ride
The way our children integrate consent into their lives has a learning curve. I don’t know of anyone who thinks we should start teaching our kids about consent by talking about sex. As Heather points out in the Slate interview, the first lessons in consent are about kids, privacy, autonomy and their own bodies. We can teach them that they don’t have to give their uncle a kiss if it makes them uncomfortable, and that they can bathe themselves alone when they’re able.
Our children’s first experiences of negotiation don’t happen in the sheets; they happen over dolls and toys. It’s a lot better to learn what’s making your needs known and what’s bullying your partner when the question is “do we play school, or alien robot attack.” It’s a lot better, and it’s highly transferable. The kid who thinks, “I have to play the space game that I don’t like because the other kid wants to” is not going to suddenly act differently with a prom date, and the kid who thinks, “anything I do to make them play my game is fair, because what I want is all that’s important” will think exactly like that after prom, too. They will, unless we step up as parents. I don’t believe it’s “helicopter parenting” to talk to our kids about how they play with each other. I believe it’s helicopter parenting to jump in and direct them. That’s counterproductive. Giving them the solution keeps them from ever developing the skills, and it’s the skills that are the point. But neither is a “life is tough on the savannah” approach good for all kids, and talking to them and guiding them about how they interact with their peers has always worked for me.
I think the way we can teach this stuff is to think about the big picture early, and start teaching the general principles long before our kids are thinking about dating and intimacy. It’s easy to connect it back.
Think about what I might want to say to my kids about consent as teens. Things I want them to know:
- Yes means yes. You should affirmatively make sure your partner is good with what you’re doing.
- You have to be able to communicate about what you and your partner want in order for everyone to be happy and have fun.
- There is no such thing as “working out a yes.” Just because you can get someone to say, “okay, I’ll do what you want,” doesn’t mean they are into it or enjoying it, and it’s not fun unless it’s fun for everyone.
I don’t have to wait until they’re having sex to teach those values. We don’t even have to be talking about sex for me to teach those values. I can teach those values to kids old enough to ride bikes and play Minecraft. I told my kids at two, “it’s not fun unless it’s fun for everyone.” I’ve already said, “it’s not right to guilt-trip your friends into playing Minecraft because that’s what you want to do.” The moral principle doesn’t really change, so I’m dealing with the day-to-day of having friends over and having elementary school relationships. But at the same time, I’m laying the groundwork for the conversations I’m going to have with them as teens: whatever you do with your partners, it’s not okay unless it’s good for everyone. If someone’s not having fun, you want to make space for them to say they want to stop, and you have to listen and respect that. You have to talk to each other about what you want to do so you’re both having fun. Just because you can get someone to say, “okay, I’ll do what you want” doesn’t mean they’re really into it. The principles are basic life lessons about being fair to other people, and expecting that people are fair to us. Only the details change with age.
Values Are Inherited
Our culture makes a big deal about adolescent rebellion, and by doing so convinces people it’s the norm, when in fact people generally adopt their parents’ values to a large extent. Popular culture focuses on the exceptions mostly to give voice to parents’ fears. But what usually happens is that your kids pay more attention to what you believe than you appreciate at the time. They hear everything you say … including “put away your laundry” and “clean your room.” (Getting them to do it is beyond the scope of this post. And, sometimes, my capabilities.) They see what you do, they hear what you say, and they integrate it so much that, whether they adopt it or reject it, it’s part of them.
And there’s the problem. They see us more clearly sometimes than we see ourselves, and if we’re full of shit, they feel it even if they can’t articulate it. If the way somebody thinks about sex and consent is that boys will always push for whatever they can get and girls are either the “good kind” or the “bad kind,” they are going to have a hard time communicating something different to their kids. People who think that “some girls” are “asking for it,” raise daughters who can’t tell their parents if someone does something they didn’t agree to. People who think that girls say no when they mean yes, at best, will teach their sons to ignore anything that is a soft refusal right up until they’re sure they’ll get in trouble. Those attitudes pop up in the comments on anything about rape. Those trolls are not all antisocial teens or loners living in isolation. Some of those comments are from parents who show up at my school’s PTA meeting; that’s what they say when they don’t have to stand by it, and that’s what their kids will sense, and my kids are going to have to deal with that.
Protect Yourself At All Times
Feminists call out almost any attempt to shift a discussion of rape onto what the survivor could or should or might have done as victim blaming. Because it is. And feminists usually jump on every discussion about how women should restrict themselves to “prevent” themselves from getting raped, because it takes the focus off the rapists, and because it’s not effective, and because it’s not fair. That’s correct. And people sometimes respond by saying, “are you saying there’s nothing we can do?” Well, I do know something we can do. And it’s not teaching my daughter self-defense (though there are other reasons to do that, and the physical confidence that comes with it is a positive, etc.)
The most important thing to teach our kids is to respect their own boundaries as much as they respect others’, and respect others’ as much as they respect their own. The way the culture works to create victims, the most effective way, is by gradually telling some people that they have to go along with things they don’t want. There’s more to it, of course. Abusers have ways of finding kids who lack supportive adults, who are cut off and vulnerable and won’t be listened to; all that is complex and not what this post is about.
This classic from Harriet J. says it best:
[W]omen are raised being told by parents, teachers, media, peers, and all surrounding social strata that:
it is not okay to set solid and distinct boundaries and reinforce them immediately and dramatically when crossed (“mean bitch”)
it is not okay to appear distraught or emotional (“crazy bitch”)
it is not okay to make personal decisions that the adults or other peers in your life do not agree with, and it is not okay to refuse to explain those decisions to others (“stuck-up bitch”)
it is not okay to refuse to agree with somebody, over and over and over again (“angry bitch”)
it is not okay to have (or express) conflicted, fluid, or experimental feelings about yourself, your body, your sexuality, your desires, and your needs (“bitch got daddy issues”)
it is not okay to use your physical strength (if you have it) to set physical boundaries (“dyke bitch”)
it is not okay to raise your voice (“shrill bitch”)
it is not okay to completely and utterly shut down somebody who obviously likes you (“mean dyke/frigid bitch”)
If we teach women that there are only certain ways they may acceptably behave, we should not be surprised when they behave in those ways.
And we should not be surprised when they behave these ways during attempted or completed rapes.
Our culture bombards our girls, especially, with lessons that they can’t set boundaries and expect them to be respected. We shouldn’t be surprised when many rape survivors say they froze and just tried to shut down and hope it ended soon, or that afterwards they didn’t know what to call it or what to do about it – not making a fuss is the demand so much of our culture makes on girls and women. Calling it rape, treating it like a violation, when it’s about to happen, or while it happens, or in the immediate aftermath, is an act of will that many survivors can’t just tap into.
Our culture teaches boys some terrible lessons, too, and I don’t just mean the ones about ignoring what their partners say or do. I mean the ones boys learn about ignoring what they want, about putting the culture’s expectations about how they “should” be ahead of what they themselves want. I mean the messages that cause people to ignore the sexual abuse of juvenile inmates when the abusers are women, the ones that allow women who molest boys to tell everyone, including probably themselves, that it’s okay because boys always “want it,” I mean the messages that make it hard for grown-ass men to say to their partners that they’re ever not in the mood. That’s real, too, and it’s really about the same thing, when you get right down to it. It’s about boundaries and whether we have a right to them.
We can do better with the next generation. No matter how overwhelming the culture around us seems, there is a time in our kids’ lives when their parents are the most important people in their world and we can teach them — if we believe it, if we commit to it — that their boundaries mean something, that they don’t owe anyone access to their bodies, that if something feels wrong it’s okay to want to stop, it’s okay to need to stop, it’s okay to say stop, and it’s okay to expect to be listened to. We can teach that. If we tell them, and if we believe it, they’ll believe us.
The kind of self-defense I can give my kids is the belief that they have a right to set their boundaries, and that so does everyone else. If they feel wrong, if they have the sudden urge to put their clothes back on and leave, then they should and they absolutely can — that’s real self-defense, the kind that matters. And the great thing is that if they know that for them, they learn it for their partners, too. I don’t have to wait until they’re packing for college to have that talk. I started teaching that in preschool.