The Most Important Sex Education Lesson of All: Consent
How to raise boys who won't assault women.
Posted Jan 17, 2018
Of the handful of young men I’ve seen in therapy who admitted to sexual misconduct, Ryan surprised me the most. Polite and thoughtful, Ryan was also more humble and less sexually experienced than you would expect from such an attractive and athletic high school senior. After hooking up with a girl at a friend’s party (with the friend’s parents safely away for the weekend) Ryan invited her to go upstairs to one of the vacant bedrooms. He interpreted her acceptance as a good sign he’d get ‘lucky.’ She voluntarily lay next to him in bed, eagerly returned his kisses, and even allowed his hands to wander a bit. However, when they wandered further he was rebuffed. A few moments later he tried again, but this time got angry when she stopped him. “What the hell were you thinking when you came up here?” he barked. She asked to leave, but he prevented her from moving. She asked again and fortunately he relented.
This event happened several years ago, well before the ‘me too’ movement lifted the veil on men’s sexual aggression. Ryan, however, did not need this kind of consciousness raising. He did wonder though what propelled him to use force in a sexual encounter. I had the same question. How can we reverse the message that this behavior is socially acceptable, and teach boys the importance of consent? To start, we need to reconsider our approach to sex education. First, it has to start at home, where the most important messages can be delivered, and second, it can’t wait until puberty hits.
Beyond the birds and the bees: Sex, more than any human behavior must be rooted in our values. This is a straightforward proposition if you subscribe to the (usually religious) tenet that a walk down the aisle should precede any sexual relations. While it might be more complicated for parents who are comfortable with their teen’s sexual experimentation to come up with a compelling value-driven message, the truth is every parent needs to talk more about sex to their children.
Before going further, let’s get something out of the way. Even if you believe in abstinence before marriage, this cannot be the only thing you talk to your son about. A landmark 2005 study showed that abstinence-only sex education programs were correlated with both higher teen pregnancy rates as well as incidence of sexually transmitted diseases. The authors argued that only a comprehensive sex education program would curb our nation’s teen pregnancy rate, which is one of the highest in the industrialized world.
So, when I say talk to your kids more about sex, I don’t mean who does what to whom. What parents (and educators) often leave out of the birds and the bees discussion is that every sexual experience, even Ryan’s inebriated Saturday night miscalculation, is a contract that involves mutual trust, intimacy, and pleasure. We often leave out the fact that sex is fun, and should feel good to both parties. You don’t have to tell your son how to make his partner enjoy sex, just that he has to. This way he will know that her needs count as much as his.
It is really important to explain to your son that any intimate contact, including a random hookup, creates a relationship. Sex changes how two people feel about each other. Yet boys are always surprised when their regular hookups (what we used to call “friends with benefits”) develop feelings for them. One young man told me his best female friend wanted to hook up with him before college because he had more experience. He could not, therefore, understand why after the third time things got weird between them.
Peggy Ornstein, the author of Girls and Sex, shed some light on this subject when she compared how American girls’ early sexual experiences compared to girls from The Netherlands (a country with one of the lowest rates of teen pregnancy in the industrialized world). In a LA Times Op-Ed piece entitled “Worried About Your Teenage Daughter? Move to the Netherlands,” Ornstein cited a study that showed American girls ‘hooked up’ at an earlier age, had more partners, and were less likely to use birth control than their Dutch counterparts. Furthermore, while American girls were more likely to lose their virginity under pressure from boys or peers, or because they had a chance to, Dutch girls said their early sexual activity took place in “loving, respectful, relationships,” with boys they knew well. They also felt more comfortable talking with their boyfriends about what felt good, how far they wanted to go, and what kind of protection they would need when ready. While American girls’ sexual experiences were driven by what their partners wanted, Dutch girls felt that their needs played a big part in the experience.
Why, when it comes to sex, do teen girls in the Netherlands have it so much better than here in the USA? It comes down to how Dutch moms, dads, doctors and teachers talk to all teens about sex. While here in the US the focus tends to be on the risks and dangers of sex, the discussion in the Netherlands starts at a younger age, is more candid, and focuses on “both the joys and responsibilities of intimacy.” In other words, they talk about sex in the context of a relationship, and are honest about how it should feel.
This approach has become even more important in the internet age. The gateway to pornography has already swung open and parents need to counter the vivid images and messages portrayed there; ones that are chauvinistic at best and misogynistic at worst. (I plan to write an upcoming blog about teenage boys and porn).
If you teach your son to be responsible for his own feelings, as well as for his partner’s physical and emotional well-being, consent will become second nature. Though these conversations might be uncomfortable, the more at ease you are talking to him, the less awkward he will feel talking to her.
Sometimes yes means no: We also need to help our boys understand that consent means different things to boys than it does to girls. Research suggests that men view consent as a single event while women understand it to be a process. This was Ryan’s problem. He interpreted the girl’s going upstairs as a green light for sex. This is not an outlandish conclusion. If the girl is only up for kissing why would she follow him into the bedroom? However, more likely, she did not know what she wanted. However, once she figured it out Ryan needed to change his expectation. It would have been better for him to talk calmly about his expectations than to act on them.
It is not easy for adolescents to gracefully traverse these waters, especially when they have been drinking. A teenage boy is too busy working up the courage to push things further to step back and wonder if the girl really, really wants to. It’s not that complicated, however. A simple question “is this OK?” can not only clear things up, but will also help a girl to feel safe and taken care of. Of course, he also has to be ready to take no for an answer.
The ultimate conquest: The mindset that men should dominate women is so embedded in our culture, that for the past fifty years (until this past summer) it was boldly dramatized in of all places Disney World. On the Pirates of the Caribbean ride an animatronic auctioneer displayed a woman to a group of pirates. In hopes of increasing the bids he instructed her to “Shift yer cargo, dearie, show 'em your larboard side.” Your son probably saw this scene, and most likely with you by his side.
While it’s unlikely that we will shake this narrative anytime soon, it is worth noting that sex is one of the few places that males are permitted to experience vulnerability. Where women often need to open up before they have sex, men need to have sex before they can open up. Boys are trained from an early age to be ashamed of vulnerability; big boys, after all, don’t cry. It is seen as a threat to their masculinity, and this is something boys and men always prove. This is why some people say masculinity is measured in numbers—how far you can throw a football, how much money you make, and the most compelling statistic of all, how many women you take to bed.
The key here, is not to raise weak men, but rather, to help them understand that it is only a man secure in his masculinity who can sometimes let his guard down, express feelings, and ask a woman “is this really ok?”
This is a complex topic with room for many opinions. I welcome your comments.
Stanger-Hall. Kathrin F. , Hall, David W.and Vitzthum,Virginia J. (Editor). Abstinence-Only Education and Teen Pregnancy Rates: Why We Need Comprehensive Sex Education in the U.S. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3194801/ Retrieved 1/12/18
Ornstein, Peggy. “Worried about your teenage daughter? Move to the Netherlands: LA Times Op-Ed Page 4/8/16. http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0410-orenstein-girls-sex-dutch-20160410-story.html. Retrieved 12/20/2017
Cowling, Mark & Reynolds, Paul (1984). Making Sense of Consent. Ashgate: London, UK.