With the rise of the Me Too and Time’s Up movements and mounting allegations of sexual misconduct against many high-profile figures across industries, it’s clear that our society is in need of some serious conversations about consent.
And considering the often frightening state of sex education in the U.S., it may be necessary for parents to lead these discussions at home. While it’s important for all young people to develop healthy ideas around consent, there’s a sense lately that this goal is particularly needed for boys. Indeed, the accused sexual predators filling news cycles skew heavily male. Additionally, male survivors of sexual assault face a greater sense of stigma and have fewer resources than their female counterparts.
HuffPost spoke with sex educators who have sons about how they talk to their own kids ― as well as the students they serve ― about the idea of consent. Here’s what they shared about their approach and their advice for fellow parents.
“We really need kids to get the ideas about consent in their hearts and minds from an early age because this makes it much easier to translate it into sexual consent,” sex education expert Amy Lang, who has a 17-year-old son, told HuffPost.
“It’s important to introduce the concept early, so children start understanding that their bodies belong to them ― and that a person needs to not only ask first before touching, but also make sure it is OK, and if it isn’t, then they don’t touch,” sexuality educator Robin Wallace-Wright told HuffPost. “This is an important protective behavior against abuse for any child to learn.”
Wallace-Wright, who has a grown son and daughter, said that parents also need to tell their children what to do if someone doesn’t respect their “no” and explain that they must always tell a trusted adult ― even if the perpetrator told them to keep it a secret.
Lydia M. Bowers emphasized the importance of building the framework around consent practically from birth, not just to protect children but also to help them develop healthy mindsets and behaviors.
“The messages we send, intentionally or not, to young children now are carried with them into adulthood,” explained Bowers, who is a sex educator with a 3-year-old son. “We often think about things from the mindset of ‘I don’t want my child to be a victim someday,’ and forget that the perpetrators were all children as well. It’s important for us to look at behaviors now and think, ‘What will this look like in 5 years? In 10 years? In 15 years?’”
Establishing Bodily Autonomy
Teaching consent begins with teaching bodily autonomy. All of the sex educators who spoke to HuffPost said they started by teaching their children to to respect their own bodies and other people’s bodies.
For nonverbal children, this might mean talking through your actions while changing diapers, bathing and playing with them ― and being mindful of their responses, said Bowers. “Young children need nurturing touch and comfort as they learn to trust, but we also teach consent by respecting when they don’t want touch.”
“Parents should not make children feel obligated to participate in tickling, cuddling or other physical displays of affection if it’s not what they want,” she added. They should honor their children’s “no” responses to show that they can create boundaries and expect them to be respected.
“If my child wants me to tickle them, but I only stop when he’s crying, what message am I sending him? What will that look like in 15 years when he’s engaging in physical activity with a partner?” Bowers said. “If I, instead, tickle, then pause and say, ‘Are you still having fun? Should I tickle you more?’ and stop or continue based on what he says, then he’s receiving a different message: That consent can be given and revoked, and that checking in and making sure everyone’s enjoying it doesn’t ruin the fun.”
For sex education teacher Kim Cavill, this also applies to adults like doctors. Cavill explained that her 5-year-old son had eczema partially around his groin area and backside, which his doctor needed to examine. “My child knows that the doctor has to secure his permission before just taking his pants down,” she said. “The doctor has to ask, ‘Can I see your bottom? Is that OK?’ before the exam. It’s not my permission, it’s his permission.”
Cavill noted that she and her son have also discussed situations in which she can override their refusal of permission, however. “Obviously, my kids wouldn’t consent to a flu shot, because they hate them. So I say, ‘I understand you don’t want this, but I’m still legally responsible for your body and believe this shot is going to keep your body safe. Because right now this is my responsibility, and I’m going to make the choice for you, even if you disagree,’” she explained. “It all takes extra time but considering what I do, that time is well worth the investment.”
Teaching To Respect Others’ Bodies
Bodily autonomy is a two-way street. It’s important to teach kids to respect others’ bodies as they expect others to respect their own. Establishing this concept can also happen early on.
“When children are playing with toys, you can explain how they need to ask first if they’d like to use a toy that doesn’t belong to them and then wait to get the OK from their friend or sibling before playing with it. And if their friend or sibling says no, they need to respect that response,” Wallace-Wright explained.
“In the same way, you can show your child that they need to respect others’ boundaries, including yours,” she continued. “If he looks through your purse to find and play with your phone without asking, you gently take the phone away from him and explain that ‘You need to ask Mommy first before you go into my purse and take my phone.’ Or if he pulls his sister’s pigtails and then runs away because he thinks it’s funny, you explain that he might think it is all in good fun, but his sister’s pigtails belong to her and he needs to ask her if it’s OK to pull them before doing so. And if he can’t ask first, then he shouldn’t do the behavior.”
Cavill said it’s important to establish social norms and expectations about how to interact with another person’s physical space. When kids are young, they often express their anger with hitting, which can create a teachable moment.
“It’s not just, ‘No, we don’t hit.’ I say to my kids, ‘You just hurt that person’s body and now that person is crying because their body is hurt. Did you ask before you hit? No? You can’t do that. How would you like it if someone hit you?’” Cavill explained. “So we’re establishing that it’s not just morally wrong because we said it’s bad to hit. It’s also wrong because you violated someone else’s physical autonomy and ownership over their own body.”
Bowers said the being the recipient of a ‘no’ also offers a lesson in consent, and how to respect a no without blaming the other person.
“It’s OK to feel disappointed when someone doesn’t choose to engage in a physical connection with you, but what you do with that is your responsibility, not theirs,” she explained. “Empathy allows us to, in spite of our own disappointment, feel appreciation that the other person is respecting themselves and their agency, and we can recognize that a hug turned down is not an indicator of rejection.”
Laying Out Guidelines
“Children with communication disorders or intellectual disabilities may be on different times, but typically developing children tend to start asking [sex ed-related] questions around the age of 5,” said Cavill, who started giving her kids the building blocks to understanding sex and their bodies around potty training time.
Cavill said she went through the anatomical names for body parts and set expectations for what’s appropriate or inappropriate when it comes to an adult interacting with children’s bodies.
“If you start early, it becomes innate,” she said. “When I first talk about sex with a young child, I note that it’s something that grown-ups do with one another ― because to a preschooler, anyone over like 14 seems like a grown-up. After I basically explain what sex is, I emphasize that no one ever has to do anything with their body that they don’t want to do. Sex is always supposed to be a choice. And it’s private.”
Bowers also laid out the privacy guideline. “Consent includes respect for bodies, so it’s critical that children understand that their bodies are inherently good, that body parts have jobs and that includes making us feel good,” she told HuffPost. “Children can learn the difference between feel-good behaviors that are public (sucking a thumb) and private (touching genitals). We know that touching genitals feels good, but that it’s a private activity that can be done in a bedroom, and not out in front of others.”
Walking The Walk
Educating your children can also involve educating the adults are you. “Kids watch how we interact with the world on a daily basis, and one of the most powerful things we can do is to be the person you want your child to eventually become,” said Cavill. “There are moments when I’ve made other adults uncomfortable, not in a way that’s vengeful, but simply because I confront things that I don’t believe are right, regardless of someone else’s discomfort.”
Cavill said she doesn’t let problematic comments fly by, whether she knows the person who said them or not. She says she responds with statements like “I respectfully disagree with what you just said. And here’s why.” And she makes sure her children see her do this.
“If my children never saw me do that and then I decided to have a conversation with them when they’re 16 about how to counteract harassment that they’re witnessing in their own peer group, that conversation wouldn’t go nearly as well if I hadn’t built a foundation for seeing what that looks like in real life.”
Letting The Conversation Evolve With Age
As a child reaches the age of becoming sexually active, consent should remain top of mind, but the the discussion can evolve and become more detailed.
“When my son was a teenager, we’d talk about how asking first [before you touch someone] shows that you respect and value the other person and the fact that their body belongs to them. Respect also involves looking at that person as an equal, so what they want has as much value as what you want,” Wallace-Wright said, adding that she also emphasized “emotional boundaries” and the fact that you can’t assume to know how another person feels.
“So, if he’s on a date and having a great time and at the end of the date he wants to kiss his partner, he cannot assume that she wants to kiss him even if she’s smiling. She may be smiling because she’s having fun, or she may be smiling because she’s nervous and can hardly wait for the date to be over,” she continued. “Thus, he needs to say – ‘I had a great time, is it OK if I kiss you?’”
Although her son’s initial reaction was “That’s totally weird, Mom ― not going to do that,” Wallace-Wright said they discussed that this behavior feels weird or awkward partly because it’s seldom modeled in pop culture. “It’s rare to find a movie where someone asks first,” she noted. “However, ‘Call Me By Your Name’ demonstrates asking for consent, and it is one of the sexiest scenes in the movie — dispelling the mistaken belief that asking is not sexy!”
Wallace-Wright said she and her son also focus on developing empathy. “We talked about how his date might feel if he kisses her without asking and she didn’t want to be kissed. How would he feel if someone touched him in a way he didn’t want? It can feel really violating.”
She also stressed that in any romantic encounter, having a partner be really into the interaction is what makes for a great experience. And, if your partner isn’t feeling comfortable and you try to make her change her mind, that’s coercion and not consent.
“What you have just demonstrated is that what you want ― what may feel good for you ― has taken priority over the fact that you are with another person, and in a healthy, equal relationship what both people want has to be respected and honored,” Wallace-Wright said. “Your partner deserves to have a choice, just like you deserve to have a choice. And whichever one of you is initiating needs to push through the awkwardness and ask because that is what shows you respect and care about each other and that is what makes for a great experience.”
In discussing consent and violation of boundaries, it’s also important to point out that the definition of sexual assault includes many forms of unwanted sexual contact and that it doesn’t have to be forceful or violent.
“Discuss how cat-calling, gestures, or even staring a person up and down is violating their boundaries. There is a difference between making a genuine compliment like, ‘I really like what you are wearing,’ versus saying, ‘Looking nice’ while running your eyes up and down that person’s body. The first is genuine, and the second is an act of entitlement and power ― ‘I get to let you know what I think of your appearance whether you want me to or not.’”
Knowing It’s Big And Complicated
These lessons are just part of the bigger, complicated picture of healthy relationships and consent.
Lang said she talks to her teen son about verbal and nonverbal consent. “Let them know that getting verbal consent is important as they are learning to be sexual with someone else and that eventually, as the relationship deepens, they will be able to read and understand nonverbal consent,” she explained. “Also, if their gut tells them that their partner said ‘yes’ but isn’t really into it, they need to back off and pay attention.”
Cavill emphasized that consent is not the only defining factor in what constitutes good and healthy sex, but rather the gateway to a larger conversation.
“That’s not where the work stops,” she said. “You still have to communicate about sex. Consent is the beginning of the process, it’s not the end. And that’s hard to convey, not just to young people but to adults.”
Bowers recommended a number of children’s books about consent.
“Some of my favorite books to read with children include Miles Is the Boss of His Body by Samantha Kurtzman-Counter and Abbie Schiller, which talks about consent and bodily autonomy without any connection to sexuality, as well as any of the children’s books by author Jayneen Sanders,” she said.
Deborah Chilcoat, who works for the Baltimore-based Healthy Teen Network, recommends parents turn to age-appropriate resources, ranging from in-depth lesson plans to simple videos, like Blue Seat Studios’ “Consent for Kids.”
Lang said she also uses media as educational opportunities with her son. “We watch TV shows together, like ‘Riverdale,’ and there are lots of opportunities to talk about consent,” she noted.
Talking About Pornography
“Perhaps the most important conversation for young people in general ― not just boys, but I will say with a special emphasis on boys ― is about pornography,” Cavill said. She recommended discussing the topic when a child is around 10 to 13 years old, the age range when kids usually start to see it online.
“This is not because pornography is inherently immoral or bad, but because generally speaking, most online pornography is produced by men for men’s consumption. A lot of it is blatantly misogynistic,” Cavill said.
“So we have to say, straight out, that pornography is sex for entertainment, not sex in real life. They’re two different things,” she added. “Watching pornography as preparation for having real sex is like watching ‘Star Wars’ and thinking you’re ready to fly the next space shuttle.”
If parents don’t have those conversations, then the misogyny and violence that some find erotic in porn may make indelible impression on their kids, who won’t have the contextual understanding to know that’s just part of the entertainment element and not necessarily how sex goes in real life.
Cavill recommends Amaze’s short animated video about pornography to help guide that discussion.
Remembering These Lessons Apply To Everyone
“This information applies to boys and girls and non-binary identified people,” Wallace-Wright emphasized to HuffPost. “In addition, it applies to both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. Everyone needs to respect boundaries and ask for consent.”
In the same vein, she also cautioned against falling into harmful gender stereotypes.
“‘Boys will be boys’ is just an excuse for disrespectful behavior and is actually quite disrespectful to many boys and men,” Wallace-Wright said. “It implies that boys are incapable of controlling their impulses and that bad behavior is normal or actually even expected. Boys and men are thinking human beings and can control what they say and do as easily as women can. All human beings should be held accountable for the choices they make.”