It feels as though a new sexual misconduct allegation arrives in my news inbox each morning. Inevitably, these stories are followed by people crying, “No. Not him!” and perpetrators half apologizing while they insist that they didn’t know any better. Crime report data tells us that “Only about 2% of all rape and related sex charges are determined to be false, the same percentage as for other felonies (FBI),” so this is not an epidemic of false reporting. If anything, it’s a cultural reckoning that demands we change the way we portray consent. So, let’s talk about consent and how we go about teaching consent to our kids.
Women like to be pursued.
She’s playing hard to get.
He’s just a joker.
If young girls didn’t dress suggestively
The game is half the fun.
Women trade favors for success all of the time.
No means yes.
He didn’t realize she wasn’t interested.
The politically correct brigade ruins everything.
Women ruin men’s reputations by accusing them of sexual misconduct.
She couldn’t expect him to stop there.
Boys will be boys.
I hate these blurred lines.
We’re conditioned to view romance and sex as a game, the chase, or men pursuing women. Someone we love belongs to us. Women want it, but they have to pretend to be frigid. Mystery and romance go hand-in-hand. Consent is implied and sex happens as a result of complex cues, suggestion, innuendo, and reading body language. Talking about sex kills the mood.
Yet, this attitude leaves us with a culture where men are accused of sexual misconduct and often plead ignorance. They are bumbling along in a mysterious world where women send mixed-messages and reputations are regularly ruined by false allegations. Even when men confess guilt, they are what Lila Loofbourow labels “male bumblers” in her eloquent article “The Myth of the Male Bumbler.”
These bumblers are to be pitied because they are simply players trapped in a game with unclear rules. These men might be talented, clever, knowledgeable in their field, influential, often-quoted, and respected in many areas of their lives, but they just bumble along in their interactions with the female sex.
Eight women have accused Charlie Rose of unwanted sexual advances, groping, lewd phone calls, and more. He responded to these allegations with an apology, followed by “I always felt that I was pursuing shared feelings, even though I now realize I was mistaken.”
Louis C.K. admits to revealing himself to women that he held power over, saying, “But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them to look at your **** isn’t a question.”
And I can only read this, shocked-but-not-shocked, that these men live in a world where they ever believed this was ok. A world where women seeking employment or to meet someone they admire or respect wants these types of sexual advances. A world where women are objects and meant to be conquered. A world where this type of behavior seems normal to these men.
This is 2017, but it’s like we’re still in a scene from 1984’s Sixteen Candles where the handsome, charming, popular Jake tells the dorky Ted to take his drunk girlfriend home and “have fun with her.” She did go to a party. She did drink alcohol. She was a snob. What did she expect? He didn’t know any better. In fact, he even deserved her after his attempts to romance (read: harass and manipulate) Samantha repeatedly fail. At least that’s what John Hughes told us.
Teaching Consent on Campus
Colleges and universities know a clear understanding of consent is essential to erasing any supposed confusion around appropriate, consensual sexual behavior. They realize that men and women understand consent differently. They recognize that society is not adequately teaching consent. A quote from a New York Times article on the topic is illuminating:
More surprising, perhaps, is that the way men and women understand consent is in almost direct opposition to each other: One study found that 61 percent of men say they rely on nonverbal cues — body language — to indicate if a woman is consenting to a sexual act, while only 10 percent of women say they actually give consent via body language (most say they wait to be asked).
This confusion is why many colleges require students to attend mandatory training on consent. These classes directly challenge cultural assumptions and myths around sex. The consent they talk about does not look like the magic that happens in the movies. It challenges some basic cultural ideas about romance and sex. It requires men and women to be direct, respectful, deliberate, and to exhibit self-control in ways that may initially feel awkward or unfamiliar.
Let’s Talk About Consent
Consent is sexy. Consent is powerful and empowering. Consent is exciting. Consent is required.
Consent is Sexy explains, “Consent should be mutually agreed upon: with a clear understanding of what is being asked for and consented to. If you want to move to the next level of sexual intimacy – ask first.”
Foreplay does not need to be coy or mysterious. Women and men can be direct about their wants, needs, and desires without labels.
It’s okay for consent to interrupt “the mood.” Constant consent might feel awkward at first. Explicit consent will become the new normal if we practice it.
There should be no blurred lines or confusion about whether or not she/he/they is interested or “wanted it.” Consent cannot happen under the influence, by someone underage, or under coercion or intimidation. Consent should not be assumed. Consent should be verbalized.
A Cultural Shift in Teaching Consent
When I say, “teaching consent,” I mean in verbal and non-verbal ways. Consent does not wait for a single talk about the birds and the bees. Last year, I wrote about how Talking to Your Kids About Sex is an Ongoing Conversation. This blog post is filled with age-appropriate resources and tips for beginning-and continuing-the conversation.
I am determined that college won’t be a crash course in consent for my kids. To this end, I purposefully consider consent in my interactions with my kids. And I don’t always get it right and it is not always natural. But having control and respect for your own body and those of others is the foundation of understanding consent. If kids control appropriate boundaries around their own bodies and are held accountable for respecting other people’s boundaries in clearly defined ways, this will positively influence the way they view consent in romantic and sexual relationships.
Tickling, Hugging, Kissing
Just yesterday, my 6 year-old son told me I crossed the boundaries of consent (not in those direct terms). He enjoys being tickled and often initiates tickling games. I was tickling him repeatedly and he said, “Stop.” I heard it as a silly stop (“Stop” means “go”) and kept at it, telling him he liked it because he was laughing. Then he more firmly told me to stop and I did. Afterward, he asked me why I did not stop immediately and we had a good conversation about it, where I apologized.
This is such a small example, but the torture tickle game, with its blurred lines of loving/laughing/hating/hurting is a natural part of childhood for me. In handing over the reins of consent to my son in this game, we sacrifice some of the culturally-conditioned fun of the game. Sometimes he may even say “stop” when he means “go” and feel disappointed that I misread his cues. But he knows that his body is his own and that we can enjoy an uproarious tickle game with clear, mutual consent.
In teaching consent to this same son years ago, I denied myself kisses for a long period of time. When I tell people about this kiss-freeze, I sometimes receive skeptical looks. I’m the mom and I’ve earned those kisses, right? But it is his body and he expressly told us he did not like or want kisses. When I asked if I could kiss him, he said, “No.” We hug. We hold hands. He sits in my lap or next to me while we read. But no kisses.
A few months ago, he told me that kisses were okay now. He still doesn’t often give or initiate them. He still wipes my kisses off afterwards. But he offers his cheek for kisses and even smiles a little sometimes. And, honestly, the consensual kisses were worth the wait.
Sure, we naturally reach out to each other for hugs and even kisses in our family. We wrestle and play tag together. We are not walking around the house uncertain of ourselves. We step in when kids hurt one another and set necessary physical boundaries. In many ways, I would hope we are more certain of ourselves, our desire for affection, and the mutual affection of our loved ones. Consent is lovely.
A Lesson About Teaching Consent from The Girl Scouts
“The notion of consent may seem very grown-up and like something that doesn’t pertain to children,” Girl Scouts’ developmental psychologist Andrea Bastiani Archibald said in the post. “But the lessons girls learn when they’re young about setting physical boundaries and expecting them to be respected last a lifetime, and can influence how she feels about herself and her body as she gets older.”
This advice goes against many of our natural cultural assumptions. Hugging and kissing adults is a sign of respect. They’re relatives. Adults deserve hugs. Kids have too much control. We’re raising entitled kids. But these are the foundations that teach our children – girls and boys – about consent and bodily autonomy. Grandpa and Aunt Marge may need to adjust and we may feel temporarily uncomfortable, but real, important change is never easy.