It's not an easy thing to talk with your kids about sex. We live in a culture soaked in sexuality—it's used to sell everything from cars to toys to clothing to the food we eat—and as parents, while many of us are more effective than ever at talking with our children about the normality of masturbation, losing their virginity, and how to practice safer sex, we are decidedly less-so when it comes to properly educating our kids—our boys, especially—about how to identify and ask for consent. Our society is plagued by a worsening epidemic of sexual violence, and as a mother—and a survivor of sexual assault, myself—I feel compelled to do whatever I can to change that.
It's practically impossible to scroll through social media or watch the news without seeing some report of sexual assault, but the focus of these stories always seems to be on what we should be doing better to help victims in the aftermath of their suffering. But when the subject of prevention comes up, the emphasis is often placed on what girls should to do protect themselves: they should avoid wearing provocative clothing, they should never walk alone at night; they should take self-defense classes, and never get drunk at a party. There is little mention of what should be done to stop our boys from growing into men who are capable of committing these heinous acts in the first place. I think we believe that if we teach our kids the difference between right and wrong—assuming that it goes without saying that sexual assault is the latter—then we've done our job. But the issue simply isn't so black and white. It's a multi-faceted, complicated equation of improperly conditioned sexuality, violence, and the psychological and sociological dynamics of gender inequality and sexual politics. Rape culture is fueled by misinformation and lack of proper education, and it's never too early to start teaching children the proper definition of consent.
The following, based on my own experience as a parent, who, as a result of my sexual assault, has focused on making sure that my children, now teenagers, understand and can draw clear boundaries when it comes to their bodies, are just a few ways you can begin an ongoing dialogue about this challenging subject:
1. If your children are still very young, encourage them to ask for permission before showing physical affection—"Let's ask Sarah if she wants a hug right now." Also, never force them to receive affection from someone, even if it's a family member, if they don't want it.
2. Teach your children to respect the power of the word "no," that when someone tells them to stop doing something, they need to immediately cease their behavior. Encourage them to say no, as well, and continue saying it, loud and clear. If their friend doesn't honor their "no," tell them that it's okay to not want to spend time with that person anymore.
3. Talk with your child about the importance of "gut feelings." Explain that sometimes, we feel weird inside when we sense that a person or situation isn't right, even if we can't really say why. Tell them they should always listen to that inner voice, that as human beings, our brains are wired that way in order to protect us from danger. Emphasize that they should respect their instincts.
4. As your children get older, you can get more specific about their sexuality and consent. Teach them that consent means asking for and waiting to hear a "yes"—it does not mean continuing to touch someone sexually until they hear the word "no." They might roll their eyes at you, they might say they already know it all, but remember, by continuing to talk about it, you are normalizing the discussion of consent, which will help them actually have that discussion in a potentially critical moment.
5. For children in middle school, and on into high school, you can use examples from the media—movies and television, especially—to discuss what healthy sexuality really is, and how consent is often inaccurately portrayed. I was sitting with my 15-year-old son just a week ago, when a sex scene in a movie showed a man and woman kissing, despite the fact that the woman tried to push him away. The man then shoved her onto the bed, lifted her skirt, and started having sex with her. "Do you think that's what a man should do?" I asked my son, casually, and the question ended up launching a more detailed, nuanced discussion about how to identify and respect a person's non-verbal communication. At every opportunity, reemphasize and reinforce what you have taught about respecting a person's "no."
In this digital age, with the Internet at their fingertips, all the parental controls in the world won't keep our children from seeking out the answers to any questions they might have about their bodies and sex. It's natural for them to be curious, but if you start an open conversation with them at a young age—if they know you won't scold them or tell them that they are too young to think about "those" kinds of things—they will be more likely to come to you for information rather than other, often erroneous, sources.
Telling children that sexual assault is wrong is not enough. If it was, a woman wouldn't be sexually assaulted every two minutes in the United States. If that horrifying statistic is ever going to change, we need to make the issue of consent a more detailed and integral part of sex education. We need to arm our children with proper knowledge and fully-informed, innate tools they can use to navigate the complex, muddy waters of sexually-charged situations. Then, and only then, will we stand a chance at shifting the tide.
Amy Hatvany graduated with a degree in Sociology, which inspires and informs much of her writing as she tackles timely and controversial issues in her novels including mental illness, domestic abuse, and alcoholism. She is the author of IT HAPPENS ALL THE TIME, BEST KEPT SECRET, OUTSIDE THE LINES (a Target book club pick in 2012 and a Costco Pennie's Pick in 2013), THE LANGUAGE OF SISTERS, HEART LIKE MINE, SAFE WITH ME (a Good Housekeeping pick), and SOMEWHERE OUT THERE (a Target Recommended Read).