After I wrote my blog piece on Teaching Your Teen Boys About Consent, it wasn’t long before I was asked to write a companion piece for parents of young people who have been socialized as female. As I said in the previous blog, when I teach consent I include everyone, no matter how they identify, or who they are. Although some genders are more likely to perpetrate harm, while other genders 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.
And there are also certain myths and socialized behaviors that parents of girls and young women will want to confront head on as young girls and femme people are by far the most targeted group when it comes to sexual violence. Girls and female identified youth may also be so influenced by media and societal messaging that they may feel that it is required of them to have unwanted sex, or to ignore their own feelings and prioritize the sexual desires of others. I’ve written a blog about how consent is not simple and about unwanted sex, and you can read it here.
One very harmful stereotype that persists is the idea that if a girl is assertive about her sexual desires, or even asks a boy out, then that lowers her value, or means she is a ‘slut’. Or as the girls in one 5th grade classroom said recently, “No way I would ask a boy out! No one does that!”, much to the dismay of the boys. This old idea that only boys are supposed to have desires and ask about them, while girls are only supposed to respond with a yes or a no - with some believing that they must say no first no matter what - leads to disconnection, miscommunication and suffering all around. And it is imperative that everyone in an intimate interaction feels entitled to ask for what they want in order for there to be true consent.
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 girls, about consent myths, dangerous socialization and media messaging, and 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, being able to ask for what we want, 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.
Saying and Hearing No Can Be Hard
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 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
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…
Ask your girls and young women if they sometimes have a hard time saying no to their friends, or if they feel guilty when they do. Reassure them that there is a lot of media and social pressure for girls and young women to always be congenial, friendly, non-confrontational, and likeable. After a lifetime of being molded to always be nice, empathetic, and polite, it is a lot for us to expect that they will suddenly have assertiveness skills in an interaction that may be the most confusing and most high stakes situation they’ve ever been in. We need to have compassion for this particular challenge, and help them to have self compassion for having to unlearn unhelpful socialization, and learn new skills.
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. They should understand that the fact that someone has some kind of power over them, or even if they just have more experience or are more popular, that that can make it harder to prioritize their own feelings and needs.
It’s also very important to teach your young girls and women 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. If people have a freeze or fawn response without understanding what happened, they may blame themselves or be confused by their reactions to being assaulted, and subsequently become less likely to disclose about the assault or report it to authorities.
When talking about the autonomic freeze response, this may be a good time to bring up other disconcerting automatic reactions of the body. It’s common and normal for all genders to have arousal responses and even orgasm during sexual assault. When this happens it can leave the victim with a lot of guilt or confusion, if they don’t understand that this is an automatic and evolutionary response, and out of their conscious control. Signs of arousal - wetness or an erection - are not consent.
There is another myth that boys and men cannot be assaulted by girls and women. Although it is less common, anyone of any gender can be a victim of sexual harassment or assault, and anyone of any gender can perpetrate harm. Make sure your young people understand this. Consent is for everyone.
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. Everyone can get better at understanding that they have a right to say no, and also at hearing those no’s.
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. And young women and girls who are used to being appreciated and applauded for expressing their boundaries will notice when they get a different reaction from a new person in their life.
You can also teach this skill to your girls by modeling it, by thanking and appreciating them 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 say they don’t want a hug, 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 girls and young women is to have them practice saying no to things they don’t want. You can say you are going to pretend you are a jerk, and when they say no, whine and say, “Come on! Why not?” or keep asking the question over and over. This gives them a chance to practice saying no, and to recognize what it looks like when someone is not respecting their boundaries. Hopefully you can use your drama skills and have fun with it. But please model appreciating their boundaries more often than you role play being a jerk, so that their predominant experience is of how things should be.
Two things I want young women to know is that it’s lovely to be empathetic and let people down easily when they’ve been brave enough to ask, but that when someone is not hearing their no, or is questioning their no, then they have no more obligation to be nice after that. That is when they must put all their attention on their own emotional needs and safety. The second thing they should understand is that if someone does not respect their boundaries or hear their no around everyday low stakes interactions, that is an indication that that person may still have to learn the consent skills needed to have positive intimate interactions.
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 - in ourselves, as well as others - is such an important consent skill! Checking in with ourselves to notice how we’re really feeling about something is something we all could get better at. And reading body language in general is an important skill, which not everyone finds easy to do.
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.
It’s a good thing for young women to understand how poorly understood their very clear communications may be. Not because it is their responsibility to compensate for this inability in others, but because understanding that this is a possibility may help them to more quickly understand and react to a confusing response.
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. Girls and young women often comment that the experience of saying yes when they want to say no feels familiar to them.
Unfortunately it’s a common experience for girls and young women to override - or not even recognize - their own feelings of discomfort or anxiety because they feel that they must meet what they’ve learned are societal expectations for belonging to a group, or being in a relationship.
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 essential. Another myth that circulates widely is that there are certain circumstances where one is obligated to provide sexual intimacy. Many girls, young women, and even older women(!) believe that sexual intimacy is something that is expected and owed to others depending on the situation.
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. Or nude pics. Or any kind of intimacy.
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.
One thing I make sure to emphasize with young people is that it is totally normal and common to be unsure about what we want, and that we need to have compassion for ourselves when we’re unsure, and give ourselves time and space to figure out what we really want.
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. Have them come up with some ways to say that they’ve changed their minds. I’ve written more about changing your mind in a blog post that you can read here.
Asking For What You Want
One form of power differential that occurs in many relationships and intimate interactions is when one person is more comfortable asking for what they want, and the other person is more accustomed to tolerating things they don’t like. This isn’t always a gendered dynamic, but gendered socialization is practically designed to produce this dynamic.
In our book we refer to a social experiment that was featured on a British TV show in 2017. Five-year-olds were separated into groups of boys and girls and served lemonade that was not very tasty by a nice woman. The boys spit out the lemonade and said things like, “I don’t like it!”, while the girls would sip politely and say things like, “Thank you, but I don’t want any more.”
We can all see how this differing socialization can and does lead to very different modes of dealing with conflict, or even just differing desires. It’s absolutely a recipe for disaster, and the more we investigate these differing socializations, unpack them, understand them, and learn to navigate them, the better equipped we will all be to deal with the inevitable miscommunication.
What every girl and woman needs to understand is that they are entitled to have wants and desires, that their wants and desires are just as important as anyone else’s, and that true consent means that their pleasure is prioritized. No matter what messaging they may have received from movies, TV, and other media, they are allowed to explore their desires, ask for what they want, and expect to have their wants and needs respected and valued.
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. Specifically, it is made for the male gaze, and often features men being violent and humiliating young women, who are often shown to have been tricked or otherwise coerced into the sex, but then magically enjoy everything being done to them.
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. In an interview with Howard Stern, the young musician Billie Eillish spoke honestly about how seeing porn at a young age led her to believe that she should enjoy sexual acts that in reality she didn’t, and when she was in situations when she was not enjoying herself, she forced herself to comply rather than saying no, because she thought that she was “supposed” to enjoy it. You can read about her thoughts expressed in the interview here.
It’s so important that we talk to our kids in an age appropriate way 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. Have a discussion with your girls and young women about how the vast majority of porn is made by men for men to watch, and how it does not usually portray the kinds of sexual acts that make women feel safe to open up and enjoy sexual intimacy. I will write another whole blog post on the subject of revenge porn and the sharing of intimate photos online in the future.
Many people think that girls won’t look at porn, or that if they do, that they won’t get addicted to it, or watch it compulsively. But anyone of any gender can become an out-of-control user of porn. Help young people 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.
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!