More than “No means No” and “Yes means Yes”: A Deeper Look into Consent

Stop what you’re doing right now and go listen to Radio Lab’s recent 3 part series “In the No” (here’s the link to episode 1. Beware, strong language and some graphic detail about sex).  Not often does something leave me speechless. This did. I still am thinking about this weeks after hearing it for the first time. Some aspects made my skin crawl. Some aspects made me question everything I thought I knew about consent.

The year 2017 gave rise to a powerful new movement, the “#metoo” movement. Decades of sexual harassment, abuse, trauma and exploitation are being uncovered and a global reckoning has emerged.  It is a thrilling and important cultural revolution that we are witnessing—the discussions and consequences surrounding sexual harassment and abuse of power have been long overdue. In the midst of stories of sexual violence allegedly (as few have gone through judicial system other than the court of public opinion) perpetrated by high profile public figures (Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Kevin Spacey to name a few), there have also been a few stories profiled in popular media which blur the lines between sexual assault and poor communication regarding consent.

One particular news story that broke out in January 2018 was about the comedian and actor Aziz Ansari. The story surrounding Aziz Ansari garnered a lot of controversy because of a markedly different narrative: it does not cover workplace harassment or portray a pattern of abuse. It is regarding an incident in which a woman goes out on a date with Ansari and becomes uncomfortable with his aggressive advances when they go back to his apartment. Though opinions on Anzari’s behavior differ drastically depending on which NYT op-ed you choose to read, the teaching points behind his actions are fascinating and powerful. What are we telling young people about consent? As young men and women stride through middle school, high school and college, who is talking to them about what consent means—how to give it, how to ask to ask for it? Who is talking to them about the verbal and nonverbal cues that frame acts of intimacy?

We talk about sexual activity and consent in Adolescent clinic a lot. A LOT.  I have also gone to middle schools to talk about healthy relationships.  I usually use this YouTube video to talk about consent. Kids love it – it gets the point across. Dr. Allen wrote a fantastic blog a couple of years ago about “Affirmative Consent”, which is absolutely the gold standard. However, the whole issue is a lot more complicated than that. Like podcast guest said in the 2nd episode (warning: this episode initially made me very angry, stick with it)– even if we want everything to be black and white, we still need to deal with the gray.

Conversations about respect, intimacy and consent are important topics of discussion during childhood, but become even more critical as teenagers take the leap from high school to college. In a 2015 national report from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women reported being sexually assaulted during college. The many causes and solutions surrounding sexual assault is a dense discussion that is beyond the scope of this post. The fact remains: before they take off for college, it is vital that teens begin having conversations with their parents about respectful relationships and the nuances of consent.

Recent studies have shown that parents are not always having these conversations with their teens. Making Caring Common, a project of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that many adolescents are going to college wishing they knew more about love, intimacy and respect. Of the 18-25 year olds surveyed, 70% reported that they wished their parents had taught them more about how to have a mature relationship. Most young people reported that they had never spoken with their parents about:

  • being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex (61%)
  • assuring your own comfort before engaging in sex (49%)
  • the importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you (56%)
  • the importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no (62%)
  • the importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex (57%)

Also, nearly 60% of respondents had never had a conversation with their parents about the importance of “being a caring and respectful sexual partner.”

Although the statistics and reports are certainly troubling, it is not too late to make a change. The responsibility falls on both educators and parents. Recent studies have shown that teachers that have had little or no training or support frequently teach sex and health education. It is now more critical than ever that educators and community leaders move toward making sexual relationship education a vibrant, nuanced activity while providing training and support to relationship and sex educators, including training in the ethical aspects of romantic and sexual relationships. For parents, it is important to take the time to sit down and have these challenging discussions with their teens.  Critical teaching points include talking to their teens about the markers and of healthy and unhealthy relationships—it is helpful for parents to frame these discussions with their own experiences, which invites frank and open discourse. Since teens are major consumers of social media and popular culture, it’s useful to talk about healthy and unhealthy relationships among examples from the media. Which examples are healthy? Which are unhealthy? Why? It is important that parents talk about skills that are needed to maintain a healthy relationship and how teens can protect their own sexual well being, as well of that of their partners.

It is exciting to live in a time of dwindling tolerance for sexual violence and marked consequences for abusive behavior—but it is not enough to uncover the crimes. It is now, more important than ever, that parents and educators use the momentum built through this movement to sit down with their teenagers to discuss what sexual health, intimacy, and consent really mean. If we, as parents, educators and health providers, use this time to reframe the discussion about respect, intimacy, and consent, and truly teach how teenagers how to be respectful partners, we can reshape the future. In the decades that sprawl before us, the parents and teachers of today have the capacity to prevent sexual violence, harassment and abuse and give way to a future that promotes respect, transparency and healthy relationships.

Resources for Parents

10 Tips on Talking About Healthy Relationships with Teens
Brief tips for parents, developed by Futures Without Violence, regarding how to talk with their teens about healthy relationships.

How to Talk to Your Children about Consent and Sexual Assault
Suggestions for how parents can talk with their children about consent and sexual assault.