Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Maryville, Steubenville, Anywhereville: Talking with Kids about Consent and Sexuality

This article and this one discuss sexual assault cases that have been in the news recently. Both revolve around high school boys who had sexual relations with a girl who was heavily under the influence of alcohol, at least one to the point of being unconscious. I wrote about the Steubenville case and links to sexualized and objectifying media in this post. The links provide information about the cases, which as the mother of three daughters are haunting. What I’d like to talk about today is how we can work to prevent these kinds of cases by educating our children about the issue of consent and sexuality.

In order to help children thrive, parents need to connect with them through talking often and openly, build competence by providing kids with information about physical development and facts about sex and sexuality, and encourage confidence through helping kids think through specific scenarios that might cause difficulty and making a plan to handle them.

Parents can use popular media depictions to start those conversations. Television shows aimed at teens such as Pretty Little Liars provide many different opportunities to talk about different situations in which teens may find themselves, like nonconsensual physical touch. Use both specific media and real life examples of positive, reciprocal ways that people show affirmation, kindness, love, affection, appreciation and attention towards one another and examples of ways that are inappropriate.

Directly teach your child that each person’s body is their own and they have the right to say what does and does not happen to it. Tell them that no always means no, and whenever, wherever, or for whatever reason a person says no, it must be respected. You can begin modeling this early with children by not forcing physical affection on them when they don’t want it. For example, if someone wants to hug them and they don’t want to be hugged, teach them that they can offer a polite handshake instead.

Middle school is a time when many adolescents will touch one another in the school hallway. Oftentimes, this happens without the consent of the person being touched. Talk with your child about why non-consensual touch is not okay, even if it does not appear to be hurting anyone. Role-play with them how they might handle it if someone touches them without their consent, and what they might do if a friend engages in non-consensual touching. This is just the beginning of the kinds of conversations that you’ll be having your kids about consent. Let me share a personal example, when one of my daughters was in 6th grade, a group of boys came up behind her in the school hallway, surrounded her, and pushed her. This happened more than one time before she told me about it. They didn’t hurt her, but they made her uncomfortable and she felt threatened. She didn’t know how to handle it.  When she told me about it, we talked about and role played ways that she could respond, including a strong and direct verbal directive such as, “Stop touching me.” She tried these with no effect, so our next move was to talk to a trusted teacher. Once the teacher got involved, we were able to solve the problem. I hope that my daughter learned a few things from this situation 1) that her body is her own, and she has the right to say “no” to anyone who violates her personal space, 2) became comfortable with how to say no, and 3) learned how to ask for help from different people in different settings.

Adolescents need to be inundated with information about the importance of consent. The issue of consent tends to be blurry for children at this age when mood altering substances are involved. Have frank conversations with your adolescents about the fact that drug and alcohol use can decrease inhibitions, and that once someone is clearly unable to make informed decisions, then everyone should consider that person unable to give consent. Once again, use role-play or very specific scenarios as a way to talk about controversial and difficult situations that may require increased assertiveness.

Although it may be hard, parents need to talk with their adolescents about very specific cases, such as those in the articles linked above, and ask questions like these:

  • “Do you think this girl gave consent? Why or why not?”
  • “If you were the initiator in a situation where alcohol was involved, what would you do to make sure that you obtained consent from your partner?”
  • At what point do you know that the other person cannot consent to sexual behavior?”
  • And talk with your adolescents about their responsibilities as a bystander. “What would you do if you were at a party and saw someone having sexual relations with a person who was passed out?” “What would you do if you heard about or were shown pictures or videos of someone who appeared to be involved in a sexual activity when they were unconscious?”
  • Brainstorm possible solutions, such as finding the nearest adult, calling a parent and getting them involved, directly intervening, gathering a group to intervene, or calling the police. All of these are possible solutions that might be best in given situations. Providing your adolescent with the chance to think and talk through these difficult situations will leave them better prepared to respond if the chance arises.

I asked Dr. Dae if she had any final thoughts on talking with your children about consent. She said, “Remember that this is a series of discussions throughout childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. When you are open to having the dialogue, discussions will come more easily.”

From early on, we must begin talking about the concept of consent. Once our children reach middle school, we need to be sure that they understand what consent means, in which situations one can never assume consent, and how to seek help when they or someone else is having their right to consent violated. It is not okay for anyone anywhere to go through the kinds of things described in the stories above, and it’s up to adults to be sure that every child is taught  that there are no “blurred lines.” No means no, and when someone is incapacitated for any reason, they cannot give consent. That’s all there is to it. When we as a group teach this lesson and stand against behavior that violates it, our voices will be heard.

After I posted this, several people in the Pigtail Pals, Ballcap Buddies Facebook community talked about the idea of teaching children the concept that only “yes means yes.” The reasoning is that, at least in our culture, people are often cajoled and coaxed into changing their answer when they say “no.” So, we can also focus on teaching kids that only the word “Yes” means “yes.” If someone seems unsure, says maybe, changes their mind, doesn’t say anything, whatever the case may be, consent should only be assumed if someone has said “Yes.” 

What other ideas do you have for teaching children about consent, from young children on up to adolescents?  

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5 comments on “Maryville, Steubenville, Anywhereville: Talking with Kids about Consent and Sexuality

  1. Pingback: Old Dominion Frat Case: No laughing matter | Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

  2. Pingback: Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker on Teaching Kids About Consent | The Achilles Effect

  3. Pingback: Teaching Kids About Consent: Yes means yes | Dr. Jennifer Shewmaker

  4. Pamela
    July 26, 2014

    I like the idea that consent isn’t the absence if a “no,” but should be an enthusiastic “YES!”

    • Jennifer Shewmaker
      July 26, 2014

      Exactly! I tell my kids: If you’re unsure if your partner wants to do something, then assume they don’t.

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