Teaching your teen boys about consent
Recently I was asked to write something specifically for parents of boys and young men. When I teach consent I include everyone, no matter how they identify, or who they are. Although statistically some people are more likely to be perpetrators of harm, and others are more likely to be targeted, I have seen that the consent skills that I teach are helpful to everyone.
It’s also so important for everyone to understand that many, if not most of us, struggle with these skills for many reasons. A lot of humans have a hard time saying no, even when it’s within a low stakes situation. A lot of humans really struggle with hearing no, and a lot of humans really don’t know how to ask for what they want, let alone feel comfortable asking for it in a clear way that will avoid miscommunication.
But it is also totally understandable that parents may be especially concerned about teaching their teen and tween boys about consent, since they are statistically more likely to become a perpetrator of sexual assault, or be on the harmful end of a consent accident, or not know how to recognize that they are with someone who is having unwanted sex. I’ve written a blog about how consent is not simple and about unwanted sex, and you can read it here.
Another reason that boys and men, and the parents of boys and men, may have special concerns about understanding consent and learning consent skills, is because there are still many societal expectations and myths that leave boys and men feeling that they must initiate physical intimacy, and take charge of intimate situations in a responsible and knowledgeable way. The flip side of these expectations and myths leaves girls and women feeling that they will be judged if they initiate or try to direct intimate situations, or if they have more experience or knowledge of sex. These beliefs and societal conditioning create a veritable minefield for young people to navigate when they want to be physically intimate.
The miscommunications that ensue from differing socialization and conditioning lead to many consent accidents and/or unwanted sex. Consent accidents and unwanted sex overlap, but they are also not always the same. However, they can both be avoided by learning consent skills. I’ve also written about this in the blog piece about consent and unwanted sex.
So, how do we teach our young people, and especially our boys, consent skills? Ideally we would be doing this from infancy, by modeling and teaching autonomy, self advocacy, and respect in all interactions. And also by having explicit conversations about healthy relationships, boundaries, and understanding ourselves and others. But even if you’ve never had a conversation about consent with your 13, or 15, or 18 year old, there are things you can say, model, and role play with them right now that will help them going forward.
Hearing No Graciously
Hearing No graciously is a key consent skill. If I had to pick one skill as the most important consent skill, this would be it. Not only is this an important and essential skill for all young people, learning to hear no graciously has the benefit of sparing them the embarrassment of awkward silences or confrontation after hearing a no. In fact, one way to get them to buy into learning this skill is to explain to them that they are going to learn the coolest possible way to navigate hearing a no.
The first step to teaching your young people this skill, is to start with a discussion about why people could have a hard time saying no. You might want to share a time when you had a hard time saying no, and what the result was. You could ask them to help you come up with reasons why people might have a hard time saying no. Together you’ll create a list with reasons such as:
They don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings
They are afraid that someone won’t like them anymore
They want to fit in
They are afraid of the other person’s reaction if they say no
They think “real men” never say no to sex
Their “no” has been ignored or violently opposed in the past, which has led to them feeling that there is no point
And so on…
This is a great time to bring up power differentials, or reasons why some people may have more power in a situation than the other person, and how that could affect someone’s ability to say no, or ask for what they want. This can include age, social status, and so many other factors, even whether or not someone has a ride home.
It’s also very important to teach your young people about the freeze and fawn trauma responses, which are the most common responses to sexual assault. One very dangerous myth about sexual assault is that it is always a loud and aggressive act with lots of fighting and yelling. In reality, most sexual assaults happen very quietly and with very little movement, because the person who is scared is having a freeze or fawn response. I have written a blog piece on the freeze response, and you can read it here.
Once young people have a better idea of how hard, or even impossible, it might be for people to say no, they see the benefit of asking more carefully, and being aware of the need to recognize enthusiasm. We want them to understand that people may really struggle to set a boundary, or say no, and that when they do set a clear boundary despite this struggle, they are creating safety for both people, and that that clear no is truly something to appreciate.
In fact, we encourage people to not only appreciate, but to thank others when they say no. This can sound like, “Thanks for letting me know what you want and don’t want”, or “Hey, that’s cool, I’m glad you told me”, or “Thanks for taking care of yourself. I want you to feel comfortable to tell me no at any time.” Encourage your kids to find a way of saying thank you that feels right to them.
People may find that thanking others for saying no feels awkward or weird at first. It’s certainly not something that we’re used to! But I promise you that with just a little bit of practice it starts to feel second nature very quickly. And it feels much better to thank someone when they say no, rather than be upset, or suffer an awkward silence.
When we thank others for saying no to us, we let them know that we are safe people for them to express their authentic boundaries around, and it creates more comfort and intimacy in the long run.
One of the best ways to teach this skill is to model it, by thanking and appreciating your kids when they assert new boundaries or express a desire for physical autonomy. This doesn’t mean thanking them if they say no to doing the dishes! But if they express a need for privacy, or tell you that they are too old to have their bum patted or their hair tugged, this is a great time to appreciate their ability to recognize and express their changing needs and wants. In this way you are giving them the experience of what it feels like to have their boundaries and autonomy respected and appreciated, and you are showing them how to do this for others. I have written a blog piece about why it’s important to respect your kids’ boundaries, and you can read it here.
So, we have talked about starting discussions and modeling behavior. There is another way you can teach your kids consent skills, and that is by playing games and role playing with them. A great role play for learning to hear no graciously is to pretend that you are the person that they are going to ask out next week, and say no to them, giving them a chance to prepare a “cool” response to a possible no. It’s best to do this when kids are younger and still think it’s fun to role play, but even with your older teens you could be goofy and pretend that you are them responding to a no in terrible ways, prompting them to show you better ways to do it.
Studies have shown that in North America most parents are waiting for their kids to ask them questions about sex and relationships, while most kids are waiting for their parents or caregivers to talk to them about it. Even if it feels awkward, or they roll their eyes, it’s important to take the lead and start the conversation.
Recognizing A Lack Of Enthusiasm
Being able to recognize a lack of enthusiasm is such an important consent skill! Reading body language in general is important, and many factors can make this quite challenging.
When I teach young people I will demonstrate an example of how someone might say yes in a totally unenthusiastic way. I will hang my head and stare at the floor, while saying “Sure. I guess.” in the most depressing tone possible. I’ll then ask the class if what I just said was consent, and invariably there will be a small contingent in the group, usually male, that will say yes, that was consent. And when the rest of the class says no it wasn’t consent, they look surprised.
Reading body language and recognizing enthusiasm or a lack of it doesn’t come naturally or easily to everyone, and some of our kids may need it spelled out, and to practice the skill. Even our neurotypical kids.
This is a great skill to learn through modeling and role modeling. In my workshops I have young people play a game to practice experiencing and witnessing a lack of enthusiasm. They sit in a group of three, and take turns being the “no” person. The other two people ask them questions that make it hard to say no, but they have to say no anyway. The only rule is that questions about sex or violence are not allowed. People may ask questions like, “Can I give you a lot of money?” or “Can I take you to your favorite restaurant?”
Then they go around in a circle again taking turns being the “yes” person. This time the other two ask questions that make it hard to say yes, but they have to say yes. No one actually does anything, and no questions about sex or violence, this is simply about the experience of saying yes when you don’t want to. People may ask questions such as, “Can I tickle your feet?” or “Would you give me your phone?”
Then we unpack the experience and talk about what it feels like to say the opposite of what we want to say, and what it looks like when other people do it. That can lead into a very productive conversation about why people might say yes when they don’t really mean it, and recognizing a lack of enthusiasm, both in others and in ourselves.
Knowing That We Can Always Change Our Minds
In our book, Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators, we dedicated a whole chapter to this topic, because it is so important. Another myth that circulates widely is that there are certain circumstances where one is obligated to provide sexual intimacy.
Whether it’s because they said yes to kissing and making out, or to a relationship, or a dinner, it’s important to make sure that all young people know that they are never obligated to provide intimate touch to anyone.
And when it comes to their physical autonomy, they are always allowed to change their minds at any time, anywhere, for any reason. Even if they were the one that asked for the physical intimacy to begin with. Consent is a thing given from moment to moment, and they need to know that it’s totally normal to be unsure,have changing feelings, or a new reaction to a changing situation.
Starting a conversation about people changing their minds could be based on questions about something you’ve seen in a show or movie, or again, something that happened to you in the past. Ask them what they think about people changing their minds at different points in an intimate situation. I’ve written more about changing your mind in a blog post that you can read here.
Porn Is Not Reality
When talking to young people about porn, I like to use my co-author Marcia Baczynski’s line: “Learning about sex from watching porn is like learning to drive by watching The Fast and The Furious!” And I add, “You’re not going to get your license, you’ll probably get a ticket, and you may end up in a terrible accident.”
Many parents feel too awkward to speak to their young people about porn, and seem to hope against hope that they’re not being exposed to porn until they’re old enough to be able to understand what they’re seeing. Perhaps they hope that when they do see it, they will somehow magically know that it’s an unrealistic depiction of sex.
What I think most parents don’t understand is that the average first exposure to porn is happening at younger and younger ages, long before children are emotionally or intellectually prepared to see it. On top of that, mainstream porn - the free kind that is most accessible to kids - has over the years become more and more aggressive, humiliating, and coercive.
Many young people talk about their first exposure to porn as a confusing, disturbing, and compelling experience. They may be traumatized, and they also may feel that if they talk to anyone about it that they will be in trouble, or have their internet privileges revoked.
It’s so important that we talk to our kids about porn before they stumble onto it, and promise them that if they see something online that bothers them or concerns them, that they won’t be in trouble if they bring it to us.
If you are first talking to your kids about this at an older age, be non judgemental and don’t shame them. You can let them know that it’s normal and natural to be curious about sex, but that you want them to be aware of the dangers of miseducation and disinformation that are part of mainstream porn.
Talk to them about how people communicate and ask for consent in caring relationships. Be sure to let them know that behaviors that typically lead to female pleasure are almost never shown in mainstream porn. Tell them that most women and girls do not enjoy being humiliated or coerced into sex. Show them youtube videos of men talking about how hard it has been for them to stop compulsively watching porn, and how porn use has impacted their intimate relationships.
I will write another whole blog post on the subject of revenge porn and the sharing of intimate photos online in the future.
Help them to understand that they are being exploited by a multi billion dollar industry that is manipulating them in order to get them to spend more time looking at porn. Direct them to educational sites that will answer their questions about sex, like scarlateen.com and amaze.org instead.
There are many good Ted Talks on the subject that you can watch together, or you can bring it up in short conversations that don’t make your kids shut down, and show them that the topic is not off limits. The important thing is to have these discussions, no matter how awkward it is to begin. As a parent of adult children, I can tell you that I wish that I had known more about how porn was changing, and that I had talked with my kids when they were young about how to navigate a world with easily accessible porn.
Social Media Has Pros and Cons
Social media can be a lifeline for young people to find kindred souls and a wonderful way to learn about the world. And it can also be a hellscape of targeting and bullying, full of rabbit holes leading to “alternative facts”
Young men have a lot of questions about the world and their place in it, and at the same time they are socialized to feel that they must already have the answers to everything. Many confusing societal messages create insecurity and make them vulnerable to proclamations from men who seem very successful and certain of themselves.
Your young boys and men may be exposed to many unhelpful ideas and misinformation in the manosphere. They have more than likely seen statements ranging from women being agents of chaos(Jordan Peterson), to women are objects to be exploited(Andrew Tate) to encouragement to commit sexual assault(incel groups). They need a counter to all this disinformation, and they probably won’t tell you about everything that they’re seeing and hearing.
It’s more than likely that they’ve encountered at least some of these ideas online, and that eventually they will be exposed to most of them in one form or another. Create open lines of communication so that they feel comfortable to tell you if they are being drawn to some of the ideas they’re hearing. While we want to give them the antidote of truth and common sense, it’s also important to listen to them and really hear what they’re thinking.
You can prepare for these conversations by investigating what is readily available online - searching a few questions about women and ‘female behavior’. Many of these sites have their own language and phrases,such as “beta”, “social justice warrior”, “chad” etc., and it’s good to be aware of them in case they come up in discussions.
It’s tempting to attack the charismatic leaders of the manosphere, or mock them. This approach risks putting you in the position of the enemy that they’ve been warned about. I would encourage asking them questions that make them think instead, such as, “What has this man said that makes sense to you? Why?”, or “What would you think about your sister/mom/friend’s sister being treated that way?” or “What do you think your friends would feel about being rated on their looks?” and especially, “What do you want in a relationship?”
This last question can lead into a conversation about two other consent skills that we teach; checking in with yourself to notice what you want, and learning how to ask for that clearly. These are skills that we could all get better at, and everyone needs a practice of regularly checking in to notice our changing wants and needs, as well as to practice asking for what we want clearly. When we are good at noticing what we really want, we are less likely to fall prey to others telling us what we should want. I’ve written more about asking for what you want in another blog post, and you can read that here.
A simple little exercise/game to play with your youth is to have them spend a minute asking you, “What do you want?” Each time you say something you want, they say “Thank you. What do you want?” The only rules are no wants that have to do with sex or violence, and no expectations of having those wants met. You can say you want a sandwich for lunch or for the universe to be bigger. Have fun with it. After a minute of thinking up things you want, then it’s your turn to ask them for a minute. At first you might be surprised at how challenging it is to think of and ask for things, but it gets easier with practice.
Explain how, similar to the porn industry, these men and their organizations make millions of dollars from the boys and men that follow them. Then you can point them to non profit organizations such as A Call to Men, and NextGenMen, that are there to answer young men’s questions for free.
It’s also a great idea to give all young people the information they need to understand the mental health dangers of social media use, and how to enjoy the positive aspects of the web by being in control of their internet use, rather than having their internet use control them. In our book we have a chapter on taking consent skills online with us, in hopes of being safer, and creating a kinder and more compassionate virtual environment.
I’ve covered a lot here, and you can learn more at my site, www.creatingconsentculture.com, or by reading our book, Creating Consent Culture: A Handbook for Educators. I will be releasing a book specifically for parents and caregivers next year.
Order the book here!