With Bill Cosby’s lawyers back in court, “The Daily Show” backtracking after a tasteless “knocked-up” tweet, and the Stanford rape case still raw in many minds, we might add a family activity to our summer schedule:
A heartfelt talk about what “sexual consent” is and is not.
I know. You’d rather swim in milfoil. But these high-profile stories, coming one after another as they have, provide an opportunity to talk to our sons, and our daughters, about respectful relationships, power imbalances and consensual sex. And while the conversation might seem daunting, or too early for our own kids, many professionals argue otherwise.
One expert even suggested we start the “consent” conversation when our child is 2. Others assure us that talking is way better than not talking, no matter when we start.
Besides, we can report in the fall that what we did on our summer vacation will likely have positive lifelong implications.
“I think back to my own youth and I don’t remember ever having frank conversations with my parents about consent,” said Michael Kasdan, a writer and editor for the Good Men Project, which began in 2009 as a forum to discuss what it means to be “a good man” in the 21st century.
The website, goodmenproject.com, is filled with provocative and thoughtful essays and resources.
Interviewed recently for the Canadian Broadcast Co., Kasdan said the Stanford rape case, in which an affluent white swimmer’s light jail sentence was met with outrage, provides an opening “to have big, serious, uncomfortable discussions about these types of things that require social change.”
More fodder for conversation can be drawn from Cosby, whose lawyers in his sex-assault case argued again in early July that the accuser should be forced to testify and face cross-examination.
And from “The Daily Show,” which drew widespread outrage in June for a tweet reacting to the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Texas regulations on abortion clinics by making light of a powerful gender imbalance:
“Celebrate the #SCOTUS ruling! Go knock someone up in Texas!” The show later recanted.
As the father of a 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, Kasdan is fully aware of just how tough such a conversation can be. He’s just starting to navigate this path, using the following suggestions from the Good Men Project, plus a few others who have a keen interest in helping us get this right:
Learn what your child knows. As early as possible, ask your child what he or she thinks the word “consent” means, to them and to others. With younger children, you might talk about toys and food and the differences between “asking,” and “taking.” Teach them how to accept no and to accept contrary ideas.
View “consent” as far broader than its relationship to sex. Psychotherapist Lisa McCrohan, who penned a popular essay on Upworthy’s website titled “Five Everyday Ways to Teach Your Kids About Consent,” suggests that we teach our children about consent by asking them for it often. “May I brush your hair?” “May I have a hug?” We don’t have to do this with every daily task, she said, but these questions teach children their “no” matters. And when these children become teenagers, such concrete experiences modeling consent will make them more likely to respond to others with equal respect.
Turn the consent conversation around. “Men are so defensive when it comes to talking about male privilege,” said Ryan Avola, who runs a Canadian program called iGuy, which helps middle-school boys think critically about masculinity. That defensiveness leads some men to lash out at women, instead of looking inward. Avola’s strategy is to turn things around and talk to boys about the negative experiences many girls and women have at the hands of otherwise “good men.”
Encourage your son to see himself as one of the many good men who would never hurt a woman. Related to the above, “empower the good men of all ages in your life,” said Leslie Morgan Steiner, author of the 2009 memoir “Crazy Love.” Teach them “to become aware of the prevalence of rape, to educate themselves about the apparent normalcy of many rapists, and what it looks like when a woman is vulnerable to sexual attack.”
Teach our sons that they, too, have a right to not be touched. Ask them if they know how to say no to a woman or partner. Ask them how they express their boundaries. If they have a sense that they have that right, emphasize they must extend that right to others.
With older sons, talk about the what-ifs. “What if a young woman is incapacitated by drugs or alcohol?” Make sure she is safe; find her friends. “What if someone is not accepting ‘no’ and you see it happening?” Step in, preferably in a group of two at least, and start a conversation with the potential perpetrator. Advocate for the person being pressured or victimized. Call the police if you need to.
Teach our sons it is not weird to ask for consent. While no potential partner can consent while intoxicated or otherwise drugged, young people might be in a situation where they are unclear about a potential sexual encounter. In those cases, our sons have a responsibility to stop and get clarity.