Discussing Sexual Consent for Teens

The month of April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, so we will be posting a series of blogs the next couple of weeks that deal with preventing sexual assault among our youth. Today’s blog will discuss sexual consent. Regardless of whether you hope that your teen will wait until marriage to engage in sexual activity or you believe your teen is already sexually active, the topic of consent is vitally important to discuss with your child. The topic of consent is actually about giving your teen the tools and skills to have healthy and happy romantic relationships. (You can also read our previous blog, Teaching Teens What a Healthy Relationship Looks Like.)

Young people do not always understand what assault and consent actually are, let alone how to talk to partners about sex. In healthy dating relationships, both partners should know each other’s wants, goals, fears and limits. Each person should be able to communicate their needs honestly without fearing their partner’s response. Communication, respect, and honesty are the building blocks of healthy relationships, and consent is about all of those things.

Consent is more than simply saying “yes” to something. It must be given without feeling pressured and in a clear state of mind. Explaining the concept of consent also means teaching youth that it’s just as important that they respect others’ limits and wishes. Our culture’s media tends to show sexual relationships that move very quickly, but teens need to understand and learn that real romantic relationships rely on respect and trust, and this takes time.

Tips to Discuss Consent with Your Teen

Parents should take the time to teach youth these concepts:

Consent looks like:

  • Consent is ongoing
  • Consent is clear and unambiguous
  • Consent can be given or retracted at any time
  • Consent can only be given in a clear mindset
  • Both partners feel safe and comfortable

Consent does NOT look like:

  • A partner who is silent
  • A partner who is disengaged, nonresponsive, or visibly upset
  • A partner who is incapacitated because of drugs or alcohol
  • A partner who gives any answer other than an enthusiastic “yes” when asked if it’s ok to continue
  • A partner who is pulling away or trying to avoid being touched
  • Assuming a partner that says no just needs to be coaxed into saying yes
  • Assuming that flirting means your partner wants sexual activity
  • Assuming that wearing sexy clothes is an invitation for anything more
  • Pressuring someone into sexual activity by using fear or intimidation
  • Assuming you have permission to engage in a sexual act because you’ve done it together in the past
  • Repeatedly asking someone to engage in a sexual act until they eventually say yes

Ways to obtain consent:

  • Asking permission before you change the type or degree of sexual activity with phrases like, “Is this OK?” or “Do you want to _____?”
  • Periodically checking in with your partner, such as asking, “Are you enjoying yourself?”
  • Confirming that there is reciprocal interest before initiating any physical touch.
  • Letting your partner know that you can stop at any time or asking, “Are we moving too fast?”
  • Providing positive feedback when you’re comfortable with an activity.
  • Explicitly agreeing to certain activities, either by saying “yes” or another affirmative statement, like “I’m open to trying.”

Give Teens a Positive Way to Decline

One of the most common and difficult situations in adolescence is when two people really like each other and are dating, but one of the partners would like to engage in more sexual activity than the other. Few teens have the confidence to establish and stick to a firm boundary because they’re afraid that if they refuse an activity, their partner will think they are no longer interested in them or that the relationship is over. Give your teen some skills for saying “no” in a positive way. Teaching them how to say “No, but…” will help them to navigate relationships throughout their lives. For example, your teen might say “No, I am not ready to have sex – but I do like when we kiss. The farthest I’m willing to go right now is _____.” This type of statement allows your teen to clearly define their boundary without making their partner feel like they have been rejected or dumped.

Avoid Common Mistakes in your Conversation

Sexual consent is an awkward conversation to have, and many parents make the mistake of having limited talks with their teens. Sons get very different conversations than daughters, discussions focus on boyfriend / girlfriend situations only, etc. However, there are lots of potential problems or awkward situations that should be discussed as part of a sexual consent conversation. If you are a parent, be sure to include the following in your talks with your teen:

Drugs / Alcohol. Parents tend to avoid mixing drugs into their sexual consent conversation – perhaps too many awkward topics in one discussion! – but several research studies show that heavy drinking is among the most meaningful predictors of sexual assault in college. Parents should be clear that a person who is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol cannot consent to sex.

Equitable Gender Conversations. Typically, parents will give their sons only enough information about consent to prevent them from assaulting someone and their daughters only enough information to prevent their own rape. In reality, teenage boys and young men can feel pressured or coerced into situations despite saying no and young ladies can place a lot of emotional pressure on their partners to go further than they want. Both genders need to respect their partner’s boundaries. Girls should be taught to back off when someone says no and boys should be told that they can decline any activity that feels uncomfortable. (It’s also important for both genders to understand that even if a young man is visibly or physically aroused, that is not consent.) The consent conversation should really be about building an enjoyable, equitable relationship, so it should sound similar for both males and females.

Changing Boundaries. Many young people assume that once they have had intercourse with someone once, there is permanent consent for future sexual activity. This is not true. Parents should be clear that everyone has a right to decline sexual activity regardless of previous history.

Power Dynamics. Parents tend to focus their discussion on boyfriend / girlfriend situations, but what if your teen is approached by an older mentor, teacher or friend. When an authority figure pressures a teen, they might feel like they don’t have the right to say no. It’s important to reemphasize that a sexual relationship should be equitable. Each party should have equal say in the relationship and they can so ‘no’ regardless of the power differential in the relationship.

Final Thoughts…

Everyone should be taught that no means no, and maybe does not mean yes. Teens need to learn that they get to define their own personal boundaries, others need to respect them (as they need to respect the boundaries established by their peers), and they have the right to change their boundaries. In fact, it’s perfectly normal for boundaries to shift during the course of a romantic relationship or friendship. You might offer your teen an example. Perhaps a teen is comfortable holding hands and hugging in the beginning phase of a relationship, but isn’t ready for kissing or touching. That’s a boundary. As the relationship progresses and trust builds, that teen might shift the boundaries a bit to include kissing or touching.

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