If there’s one task the majority of parents dread, it’s talking to their kids about the birds and the bees. Few parenting rites of passage are as intimidating as “The Talk.” As awkward and uncomfortable as you might feel, however, it has never been more important to talk to your kids about sex, sexual assault and consent.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), child protective services substantiates or finds strong evidence of child sexual abuse every eight minutes. Justice Department statistics reveal that nearly 20% of girls between the ages of 14 and 17 have been victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. The National Sex Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) reports that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college.
Even more troubling, rape is the most underreported crime in the country, with 63% of sexual assaults going unreported, according to the NSVRC.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month, and its purpose is to “engage the greater community in prevention efforts” by spreading information about sexual violence, identifying resources for victims and promoting discussions about issues related to sexual assault and abuse.
The statistics show that sexual assault is a problem that spans both genders and all age groups, which means parents should be proactive in talking to their kids about sex, consent and related topics even from an early age.
Rather than limiting discussions about sexuality and consent to a single “talk,” parents should maintain an ongoing dialogue with their kids as they age, adjusting the tone and content of the conversation as their sons and daughters mature and begin dating.
Lisa McCrohan, a psychotherapist writing for Upworthy, says that teaching children about consent beings at birth, and that parents should immediately begin communicating messages to their kids that reinforce their sense of self-concept and self-worth. These early messages about consent include:
McCrohan says that even little things, like asking permission to hold your child’s hand, count. “As parents,” she writes, “we want to be intentional about what we are doing and why we are doing it.”
“No means no” is a popular mantra in any discussion of sexual assault. For young children, it’s important to respect their desire to decline unwanted physical contact, whether it’s a hug or hand-holding. By acknowledging and respecting a child’s autonomy over his or her body from an early age, parents help shape their child’s “inner barometer” on what types of contact feel comfortable.
Just because a child invites contact at one point doesn’t mean it’s carte blanche for all contact all the time. McCrohan says it’s important to teach children to hit the pause button every once in awhile to make sure they’re still okay with physical contact.
McCrohan says it’s also important for parents to “seek to understand” their kids. Instead of telling children how they should feel, parents should ask their children to share their thoughts and emotions.
Children may be small, but they have their own thoughts, bodies and dreams. More than anything, they need to know they matter — a concept parents can reinforce by looking their child in the eye and asking for their child’s opinions.
Hormones. Puberty. Braces. Problem Skin. School dances. The tween years — the preadolescent stage that spans ages eight to 12 — can be a tumultuous time for kids. It’s a stage when children are just beginning to interact with their peers in a sexually charged way.
Dr. Cora Breuner, head of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Adolescence, told US News that it’s better for parents to have a preemptive discussion about consent with their preadolescent children rather than a reactive one. “It should not be in the heat of the moment when they’re upset, but an open conversation families have with their children when it’s calm and quiet.”
Breuner also suggests using specific examples when talking to kids about sexual assault and consent. By giving children real life scenarios, parents can help them practice how they would respond to a situation if it happened to them.
This is also an age when parents should begin discussing the definition of sex, which should include frank discussions of all types of intimate behavior, as well as comprehensive talks about sexual assault. Breuner states: “You don’t want your son or daughter to be a victim or an instigator.”
Parents should also be sensitive to the possibility that their child might feel more comfortable talking to a health provider, such as a pediatrician or family doctor. “The parent should be OK leaving the room and trusting that the pediatrician or whoever the health care provider is, whether it’s a nurse practitioner or physician or whoever, will have a conversation about safety.”
According to Break the Cycle, a national nonprofit dedicated to providing comprehensive dating abuse programs to young people between the ages of 12 and 24, parents of teens should talk to their children about what a healthy versus an unhealthy intimate relationship looks like.
Even if you aren’t certain your teen is sexually active, it’s important to have this discussion early, as 85% of sexual assault victims are assaulted before age 25, and 40% of female sexual assault victims are assaulted before they turn 18.
Tips for discussing sexual assault and consent with teenagers include:
In addition to talking about what consent is, it’s equally important to talk about what consent isn’t. Teen Health Source has a helpful list of points that highlight what does not constitute consent:
Break the Cycle also encourages parents to talk to their teens about the importance of bystander intervention, which involves a third party stepping up to prevent a sexual assault from occurring.
According to RAINN, bystander intervention doesn’t have to involve physically pulling a perpetrator of sexual violence off of a victim. Teens can make a positive difference in a variety of ways, from offering a ride home to a friend who’s had too much to drink to calling security personnel when they observe someone acting in a sexually aggressive way.
Sexual assault on college campuses has dominated headlines in recent years. The following stats from RAINN highlight the pervasiveness of the problem:
College students are also much more likely to be a victim of sexual assault compared to non-students the same age.
Those statistics are bleak, but they illustrate just how important it is to reinforce the lessons you teach your children about consent before they go to college. Keep the communication lines strong, and let your college-bound child know that they can always come to you for support.
Heather Corinna, the founder and director of the sex education and advice website Scarleteen, told Slate that it’s important to raise the subject of alcohol when speaking to college-age children about consent. “Everyone needs to know that when people are intoxicated, or otherwise less capable of sound judgment, sexual behavior will be, at best, super dicey. You’re walking into something that could potentially be criminal, even if that’s not your intent.”
Corinna says it’s also important to talk about how alcohol affects the body, and to encourage young adults to hold off on sexual encounters until both partners are sober.
SexInfo, a resource developed by the University of California, Santa Barbara, stresses that it’s important for parents and educators to speak honestly about consent with young adults, who are likely to already be engaged in or exposed to sexual encounters.
Parents and teachers can help young people understand consent by giving examples of how to ask if a partner is willing to engage in sex:
By demystifying consent, parents and educators can help teens and college-age students understand why consent is important and how to ensure their partner is on board with intimacy.
Although most public schools offer sex education to kids at some point in middle school, sex ed information and resources that address LGBTQ students are woefully scarce.
As Casey Quinlan, a policy reporter at ThinkProgress, wrote at The Establishment, “When we ignore these experiences, we do serious harm to LGBTQ survivors.”
Quinlan points out that this exclusion is particularly harmful, considering that members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to be victims of sexual assault than those outside the community. A survey from the Association of American Universities states: “Rates of sexual assault and misconduct are highest among undergraduate females and those identifying as transgender, genderqueer, non-conforming, questioning, and as something not listed on the survey.”
“But still,” Quinlan writes, “the conversation about campus rape centers on the assumption that the perpetrator is a cisgender heteroseuxal man and the survivor is a cisgender heterosexual woman.”
Where traditional sex ed fails, parents can step in. IMPACT, the LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University, provides parents of LGBTQ teens with a list of resources for communicating with their children about their sexual health, consent and safety.
As the American Academy of Pediatrics states, communicating sex positive messages to children from an early age empowers them to grow up knowing “they deserve to have great sex” and to feel honored in their relationships. Kids who learn about sexual empowerment and consent from an early age grow up to be sexually empowered adults aware of their own boundaries, as well as those set by intimate partners.
How are you teaching your kids and teens about consent? Let us know @ASTROGLIDE.