Most teens today are aware that consent is “a thing.”
They hear “No means No,” they know about the #MeToo movement and sexual harassment. They may have heard about high-profile assault cases on college campuses and the effort in these institutions to reduce “rape culture”
For pre-teens and high school students, the concept of consent can still be a little abstract. They may think they get the idea intellectually but not really know how to apply it in their own lives.
It’s a complex topic, one many adults don’t even fully understand.
But as today’s culture continues to emphasize the importance, it’s increasingly necessary that we teach teens about consent so that they both understand what it means, and more importantly, can apply it to their lives.
Teaching teens consent can be uncomfortable
And yes, it may be a little uncomfortable to talk about sex in such detail. But it’s how you make sure your teens are making informed decisions, and it reduces the likelihood that they will feel pressured to engage in sexual behaviors that make them uncomfortable or that they aren’t ready for. (You may also like to read: What I Wish My Mom Taught Me About Sex When I Was a Teen)
Sex education is important. It’s been proven time and time again. We know students who receive formal sex education in schools are shown to have sexual intercourse later than students who have not had sex education. Sex education does not encourage teenagers to have sex, it does quite the opposite.
But also, teaching consent could help your tween or teen fall victim to sexual violence. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused or assaulted by age 18.
No one should ever apologize for setting boundaries, particularly as it relates to your body.
And being real about today’s world, teaching teens about consent can also protect them from the consequences that result when two people are not on the same page about any kind of sexual encounter.
Here are ten basic principles of consent your teen should know.
What to Teach Teens About Consent
Anyone has a right to say no.
I was amazed to learn (from feedback at my workshops on consent education) that some teenage girls don’t realize saying no to sex is an option.
Wow! How did we fail to communicate that? Be on the record that your child—of any gender or sexual orientation—always has the right to say no to any activity that involves their body, whether that is intercourse or a hug. Give your child permission to say no to unwanted physical contact from anyone, whether that is a kiss from a relative or a pat on the rear end from a teammate.
One person’s No always trumps anyone else’s Yes.
Sex should happen only when both parties are fully on board. No matter how much a partner wants to do something sexual, the not-ready person has the final say. Consent means both parties agree.
You can say no without being rude.
Teens have told me it’s helpful to have sample language to use when they want to say No without harming their relationship with the other person. So give them examples of things they might say, like:
“I don’t want to go any farther tonight.”
“What we’ve been doing feels really good; let’s just keep doing that.”
“Hey, let’s take it slow.”
“I really like you, but I’m not ready for that.”
Arming our teens with language they can have at the ready can be a powerful weapon for them to get out of sticky situations.
You can change your mind at any time.
Sometimes young people think they’re okay with doing something sexually and then realize they’re not.
They don’t owe it to the other person to continue. They might break the moment by moving (getting up to use the bathroom, maybe), then say something like, “I’m sorry, I thought I was ready to do that, but I’m not.”
The partner may be disappointed, but he or she should not be mad. The partner’s disappointment matters less than their own bodily autonomy.
Teach your teens to listen to their bodies. If you start to feel uncomfortable, the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up, or your stomach is hurting, it means you are not feeling good about what’s happening.
Side note: It’s unfair to lead someone on. If you know full well that you don’t intend to do a sexual activity, don’t say or imply that you will—that’s dishonest. But it’s fine to be unsure what you want to do or to change your mind.
It’s okay to ask someone to do something sexually, but it’s not okay to pressure them.
True, sometimes that’s a fine line. But it’s never okay to use guilt (“But you’re so hot and you got me so horny…”), emotional blackmail (“If you really loved me, you would ___”), or threats (“If you don’t, I’ll tell everyone you did”). If your teen feels pressured, they can say so: “Hey, you’re being really pushy about this.”
Ensure your teen knows that healthy relationships involve two partners who respect each other.
No one owes you sex, even if you’re in a relationship, even if you’ve done it before.
Sometimes teens feel that if they’ve done a sexual activity with a partner once, they have to do it again.
Nope. Each romantic or sexual encounter is a separate event, and the people involved can choose what they do and don’t do each time.
Most adolescents don’t understand this, which is why some teens have a problem having stable romantic relationships.
They also don’t owe you an alternative activity. Two people may get each other all hot and bothered, but that doesn’t obligate anyone to give the other an orgasm (via oral sex, hand job, or whatever). Each person can take care of it themselves later.
When you say no, mean it.
It’s unfair and confusing to say no if you actually want to do something and just want to be persuaded.
Don’t play games with a partner; that’s a form of disrespect. Plus it may come back to haunt you later when you do mean no and the person thinks you’re just playing again.
Understanding consent is not just about you. It’s about communicating your feelings to your partner.
When you say yes, mean it.
It is hugely unfair to say Yes to a sexual activity and later say you didn’t want it. At its worst, that leads to people being charged with sexual assault for what was actually sexual consent. Even in less extreme forms, it undermines trust between the genders and within a given relationship. Part of being mature enough to engage in any sexual behavior is owning the choice you make (and any consequences).
Saying yes should mean you’ve discussed issues such as contraception, if you or your partner has any sexually transmitted diseases (if either partner has been sexually active, you should be tested), and any other relevant issues.
Don’t expect someone to read your body language or guess how you’re feeling.
It’s fine to start with body language, like moving someone’s hand if it’s gone somewhere you don’t want it. But if that doesn’t work, use clear language like: “No, please don’t do that” or “Hey, slow down; I’m not ready for that.”
If someone won’t listen to your no, get mad.
Sometimes, there is a power imbalance in a relationship, and if things start snowballing from a physical standpoint, it can be tough to stop.
If polite words don’t work, it’s time for warrior words and maybe actions. A sexual partner who isn’t listening to your No and ignoring your personal boundaries is not treating you with respect.
In fact, they’re committing sexual assault. It doesn’t matter your gender or sexual orientation.
Get louder, push them away, run out of the room—whatever it takes to stay safe. Someone who won’t honor your no about something as important as sex isn’t honoring you as a person. You deserve better.
This post was contributed by Jill Whitney, LMFT. She is the mom of two twenty-somethings and a licensed marriage and family therapist in Connecticut. In addition to her clinical work, she conducts workshops on talking about sexuality, writes at KeepTheTalkGoing.com, and has been quoted in dozens of articles on relationships and sexuality. She’s passionate about improving communication about sexuality, especially between parents and kids.
Looking for more information about how to talk to your teens about sex and consent?
Sex Education for Teens is a valuable book you can give your teenagers if you are struggling to have these important conversations.
Parenting teens is hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. These articles may help:
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