Why (and How) We Should be Talking about Consent

The news of the Stanford rape case has been impossible to avoid in the past few days. It’s difficult to talk about, to hear about, and to read about, but I do have to say I’m glad to see some of the conversations that have been the result of the outrage. We should be talking about the alarming frequency of sexual assault, about the injustices that victims often face, and the way the culture perpetuates rape. We do need to do something.

For me, though, it’s not enough to sign petitions or commend the victim for her message. I want to do something that makes a difference. As difficult as it is for me to hear about and talk about sexual violence, it’s not something I can just ignore, especially because I have children.

This case has me thinking about the conversations I will inevitably have with my daughter about the possibility of rape. It makes me physically ill to think that I have to tell my daughter that something like 1 in 6 women will experience sexual violence. To tell her that she should be careful when she drinks. To explain why she shouldn’t go certain places alone. It’s disgusting to me that we have to teach our daughters to not get raped – and that, even if we do tell them all the ways they can protect themselves, it’s still possible that they might.

 It’s disgusting, too, that there’s this expectation that we tell our daughters not to dress a certain way. That when something happens, so many people wonder if the victim put herself in a situation to be raped or whether or not she was wearing something that might’ve provoked the attacker. I’m ashamed that our culture still thinks this way when we know that women (and men) are raped all the time regardless of what they were wearing or how drunk they were (or weren’t).

 

Instead of being angry all of the time, I want to stop feeling helpless and start doing something. I want to teach my children about consent. I went looking for articles about how to teach kids about consent, and actually didn’t find too much in my google search. This article from Bustle is pretty helpful – it gives some tips about how to talk about it with different age groups. This program is specifically targeted to middle schoolers.

And then I saw this open letter from Huffington Post on Facebook. And then I made the mistake of reading the Facebook comments on it.

Here’s the problem. Commenters disagreed because their sons were taught to “respect women.” They didn’t need to tell their sons not to rape because they were doing the parenting thing the right way. One man explained that he’d made it 37 years without raping anyone because his daddy taught him that he’d whoop his ass if he ever hurt a woman.

And yet, I wonder how many of these angry commenters who cannot be bothered to teach their children about consent will tell their daughters not to dress like a slut, or to stay away from dark alleys. I wonder how many would agree that a girl is a “cock tease” if she fools around with a guy but then stops before it leads to sex. Our culture sends mixed messages about how women should behave. Our culture is pretty confusing when it comes to how we respond to rape.

So, again, I want to consider what I can do. I can teach my children about consent. In thinking about how to do this, I’ve figured out a few things.

Talking about Consent Means Facing your Fears

The idea that we would talk about consent, for some, seems to imply to them that they are admitting that their child could someday commit rape. I understand why that would be a super difficult thing to even consider, but I don’t think we need to look at it that way.

If we teach consent in ways that are beyond sex, we are teaching our children how to respect one another. We can teach them to understand boundaries. We can teach them that they are the only one in charge of their own body (and, in turn, help them recognize that they are not entitled to others’).

Yes, starting the conversations about consent might ultimately mean you are thinking about sexual assault. But teaching kids about boundaries and helping them to see that everyone has a right to their own body isn’t a bad thing.

Talking about Consent Means Doing the Best you Can

The Bustle article mentioned above is a little difficult to digest because it reminds parents to respect the boundaries of our young children. How many parents stop tickling when their child says stop? Or doesn’t ask their child to give grandma a hug? I know I’ve failed miserably in many ways when it comes to respecting the boundaries of my kids. But, I’m trying to be better, and I’m trying to remember how consent operates in a larger way – what it means to understand and respect boundaries; how this can help them understand that they have a right to their own boundaries.

Keeping it age-appropriate makes sense. My kids are both middle schoolers now, and anyone who has gone through those awkward grades and ages know that so much happens to our bodies in those years. And, kids notice. Teasing and relationships and puberty – all that and more make up those middle school years. Helping kids to understand what consent means, helping them to be respectful and empathetic, and teaching them how their behaviors affect others just seems smart.

Talking about Consent Doesn’t Stop

I dread talking about sex with my kids. Knowing that part of those conversations will involve consent makes it even more unappealing. But I know that talking to them now in an age appropriate way will not necessarily carry over into high school and beyond. Discussions of consent today can also include social media: asking for permission before posting about others. Not body shaming. Etc.

 

I want my daughter to know that she has a right to her own body, and that she doesn’t owe anyone anything. I want my son to know the same thing. I want both of them to understand that everyone has different ideas about what’s okay and what’s not, and that we have to always, always respect that. That only yes means yes. That consent can be revoked at any time. That everyone deserves respect and recognition of their own boundaries.

 

The Huffington Post article I mentioned above is pretty provocative. I do understand why it made so many parents uncomfortable. What parent wants to look at their child and explain what rape is and not to do it? But, I believe we’ve got to change the way we talk about sexual assault. I believe it’s my duty to have the tough conversations with my kids. I always tell them, I just want you to be good people. And that includes having a clear understanding of consent.