Consent Is Not The Gold Standard: The Most Important Conversation You May Not Be Having With Your Teens

Brock Turner. Austin Wilkerson. Jacob Anderson. Jordan Johnson. William Beebe. All the names are too many to list here, but they all share one thing: they were “good boys” from “good families” who committed (and in most cases were convicted of) rape on their college campuses.  As parents of boys, we read these names and think “not my son!”  As parents of girls, we think “please not my daughter.”  But the reality is that at least 1 in 6 girls will be sexually assaulted while at college, and that boys— even “good boys from good families”--are usually the perpetrators.[1]

The prospect of this, from either side, is terrifying to a parent whose child is soon headed off to college.  So what do we do?  It’s quite simple, really.  Laurie Halse Anderson talked about it in her brilliant January 2019 TIME article, and I will repeat it here: as parents, we need to be talking to our boys.  As uncomfortable as the subject is, we need to be having very open and honest conversations with them about sex and about rape.  We need to share the facts with them, and we need to share our values. 

Ideally, conversations about consent start when our children are toddlers and continue in age appropriate and ever more sophisticated ways. Ideally, parents have been having open conversations with their sons about sex, love, and relationships for years before the departure to college is imminent.  But even if that’s not the case in your family, it is never too late to start; what’s critical is just that you do. 

Here are the five primary things our children need to know as they prepare to depart for college:

1.       They need to know about sex.  Period. It’s that simple.  And I don’t mean just what they’ve learned in elementary or high school health class; they need more detailed information than is provided in most schools.  They need to hear that not everyone is having it, and that it’s okay if they don’t.  They need to hear that if they do, they have a responsibility to themselves and their partners to make sure it is safe and consensual.  They need to hear and see what a loving, healthy relationship looks like and have that held out as the ideal.  And most importantly, they need to hear that pornography (which at least 90% of young boys and 60% of young girls are exposed to by the time they reach age 18 and is increasingly violent in nature) does not represent real life, or the way we expect them to conduct themselves with their partners. 

2.       Our children need to hear in as clear a way as we can state it:  It is not okay to have sex with someone without their explicit permission.  It is not okay to push past another person’s “no.”  It is not okay to coerce someone into having sex.  It is not okay to talk someone into having sex.  It is not okay to have sex with someone that has been drinking any impairing quantity of alcohol.  And it is not okay to have sex with someone that is asleep, unconscious, or passed out.  What seems obvious to most of us as adults is not being understood and internalized by too many boys and young men.  It has never been more imperative that we, as adults, make these values abundantly and explicitly clear—both their safety and the safety of the partners they interact with depends on it.

 3.       Our boys need a clear understanding of the long-term consequences of rape.  Laurie Halse Anderson describes countless teen boys being oblivious to the impact a rape has on a survivor and asking her why rape survivors suffer depression for so long when the rape itself took only minutes.  To combat this, our sons need to hear that according to numerous studies cited by RAINN, 94% of women who are raped experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during the two weeks following a rape, and 30% of them still experience those symptoms nine months later.  Our sons need to understand that 33% of women who are raped contemplate suicide and 13% of them actually attempt it.  They need to know that the significant majority of survivors, whether victimized by an intimate partner or a stranger, experience professional or emotional issues, including moderate to severe distress, or increased problems at work or school.  They need to hear and understand that rape harms. It destroys lives. In the mind of a survivor, a rape doesn’t just last a few minutes; in many cases it lasts a lifetime.

 4.       Our sons need skills for dealing with rejection.  They need to experience and be taught empathy, and to understand others’ feelings.  They need to know that no matter what they have done for someone (buy them dinner, helped with their organic chemistry homework) that person owes them nothing, and that no matter how far they’ve explored sexually, their partner has the right to say no at any point.  They need to learn to respond to a “no” by saying, “thank you for telling me, I would never want to push you to do something you didn’t want to do.” They need to hear from us that they will be okay if the person they are interested in does not reciprocate that interest—or changes her mind; there is nothing they can do to change that and that is okay.  Our boys need to be taught that friendships with women are valuable, and that that friendship should not be viewed as a consolation prize.  They need to hear from us that it’s normal for rejection to hurt like hell, but that they will survive it.  As Suzanne Degges-White, a professor at Northern Illinois University, says, rejection and all the feelings that go with it needs to be normalized not catastrophized.  As parents, we have a powerful role in helping our sons and daughters process and address these feelings in a healthy manner.

 5.       Finally, our boys need to understand that there may be life-long legal consequences to their actions.  Being a “good kid” from a “good family” isn’t enough to protect them from the consequences of their decisions. Every state has a legal definition for consent, as does the federal government; our children need to understand the fundamental concepts codified by these laws.  Most, if not all, legal consent definitions establish that a lack of verbal or physical resistance does not constitute consent; and that neither a preexisting relationship nor the manner of dress of the other person constitutes consent.  A young man who does not listen to the “no” they’ve been given, takes without asking altogether, or forces himself upon someone may have their name included on one of the online lists being published of campus assailants, have their pictures plastered across the front pages of papers across the country Brock Turner style, face criminal conviction and registration as a sex-offender, and be expelled from school.  In this era of #MeToo, survivors (rightfully so) are using their voices more forcefully to let the world know what has happened to them; perpetrators of this kind of violence can no longer count on their victims or the justice system to brush these offenses under the rug. 

The prospect of discussing all of these things with our children may feel daunting, particularly if these are not the kinds of discussions that have been had over the years leading up to college.  These conversations may even feel unnecessary, because when we look at our children, we remember the babies they once were, the tiny little humans we’ve invested eighteen years in raising.  We think we know them, we know the good in them.  Most of us hear stories of rape or read the statistics and think, “thank goodness not my son, not my child.”  But here’s the reality: Brock Turner is also someone’s son, Austin Wilkerson was once someone’s sweet baby boy.  When we forget that and insist our child would never violate someone, we risk not providing our children with information critical to their success. 

So as our sons and daughters head off to college and begin their lives, let’s aim to teach them that legal consent should be deemed the bare minimum; the gold standard is a fully-consenting wholly-enthusiastic partner if and when both parties are ready.  Let’s make clear we expect them to be the Carl-Fredrik Arndts and Peter Jonssons—the two young men who stopped Brock Turner’s assault—of their college campus.  Let’s share our values, help them understand the gift of a healthy relationship and then send them off full of optimism and excitement for the futures that lay before them. 

 

Christy Keating is an attorney in the State of Washington and a Certified Parent Coach®.  After spending nearly twenty years as a King County Prosecutor where her specialty was prosecuting sexually violent offenders, she started The Heartful Parent, which encompasses Savvy Parents Safe Kids.  Under both branches of her business, Christy provides parent coaching and education services and teaches parents how to protect their children from predatory behavior.  She is an expert in child sexual abuse prevention and although she has been called a parenting expert, she maintains she is not an expert parent!  She lives in the greater Seattle area with her husband and two children.  To subscribe to her weekly newsletter, visit her websites, linked above.


[1] According to a 2000 report from the Department of Justice, 96% of sexual assault offenders reported to law enforcement are male.  For that reason, I am focusing on the epidemic of male-perpetrated rape here, but I do not mean to minimize or ignore the fact that women can and do commit rape as well.  Parents of girls should also be having the same conversations with them, as well as others about safety.  Further, while I do not subscribe to the idea of “good boys” or “good families” given the implication, inadvertently or otherwise, of white boys from wealthy families, I am using that phrasing here, as that is the language many have used to justify asking for or imposing lighter sentences on such perpetrators.