How Parents Can Talk With Their Teens About Sex and Consent

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Excerpted from Sex, Teens & Everything in Between: The New and Necessary Conversations Today's Teenagers Need to Have about Consent, Sexual Harassment, Healthy Relationships, Love, and More by Shafia Zaloom.

By Shafia Zaloom 

Exploring sexuality with others can be scary, confusing, and thrilling, and digital devices make every interaction more consequential. Consent must be given in person, during sexual activity, and whenever a new form of sexual activity is initiated. Many young people communicate and establish relationships through technology. This may provide a false sense of knowing someone, intimacy, or readiness to engage in a sexual relationship. With all of the abbreviations young people use (hu = hookup, wbu = what about you, dtr = define the relationship, etc.), they are in many ways abbreviating relationships. It is important to consider that the only way to truly know if you are comfortable and ready to be sexually active with someone is to actually spend time with them.

As adults, we can talk to teenagers about knowing whether they can trust someone and are ready to be more intimate. This means considering whether they are comfortable discussing issues such as consent, how far they want to go, what they are ready to do, etc. If their partner pressures, manipulates, or guilt-­trips them into activities they don’t feel ready for, they should consider whether this is a relationship they want to continue.

Sex educator, speaker, author, and my personal rock star, Emily Nagoski, has a beautiful garden metaphor I use with my students to deepen their understanding of consent within the context of their sexuality. It goes like this: When you’re born, you’re given a little plot of rich, fertile soil, slightly different from everyone else’s (a.k.a. your brain and your body). Your family and culture (the immediate and broader communities you’re a part of) plant seeds and tend the garden. They also teach you how to tend it. Those seeds are the language, attitudes, knowledge, and habits about love and safety, bodies, and sex.

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Each garden is unique and has different needs depending on the vegetation those seeds yield. Some gardens may require extra sunlight and water, some may need extra fertilizer or shade, some may be drought-­tolerant or need extra vigilance when it comes to weeding out toxic and invasive species. Over time, as you become an adolescent, you start to take on the responsibility of tending your own garden. While discovering what’s in your garden, what it needs, and how to take care of it, you get to choose what gets pulled out and what gets to stay.

Consent is having the agency to decide who gets to enter your garden and what will happen while you’re there together. It’s the option to choose whether someone comes in and how they behave while they are there—­do they play and frolic, or stomp and trample? Consent determines how long they get to stay, and whether they get to plant something or take anything with them when they leave. You should ask before entering someone else’s garden. Honor it because it’s theirs. And anyone you let into your garden should help it thrive.

Parent–­Teen Conversation Starters

My students give me the best advice for how to approach conversations with teenagers. Be concise and focused. Allow your teen to guide the conversation. Talk less and listen more. It’s OK to say “I don’t know.” Stay open to different perspectives. Avoid letting the conversation become a family debate. Worry less about what your teen is doing and more about how they feel about it. Have many smaller conversations over time in different contexts. My students also emphasize the importance of selecting questions from the list below that will resonate with your own teenager. Every teen is unique and up to different things and dealing with different issues, so be selective with the questions you choose.

In your own words, what is consent? What are some examples of consent that come up in everyday life?

What’s the value of consent? How does it relate to healthy relationships?

What are some examples of asking for consent?

What does it feel like when someone doesn’t respect your right to choose for yourself? How do/can you respond?

How can you connect your understanding of everyday consent to sexual consent?

Why are some people trying to change the notion of consent from “no means no” to “yes means yes”? What is the difference, and do you agree or disagree?

What are some examples of consensual questions for the following: asking someone out; deciding how you’re going to spend time together; or being sexually intimate with someone?

What are the circumstances in which consent cannot be given?

What are some important characteristics of a sexual relationship beyond consent?

Resources: Everyday Feminism magazine has a helpful online comic strip titled What If We Treated All Consent Like Society Treats Sexual Consent?

Straight Answers to Teen Questions

Why is “yes means yes” better than “no means no”?

“Yes means yes” comes from the media’s coverage of recent affirmative consent laws (“affirmative” is the legal language used that requires someone to ask for agreement to initiate a level of intimacy). Until affirmative consent laws were created, the phrase “no means no” reflected widely held thinking around consent and sexual assault. It meant that if someone said no to a sexual act, the person initiating the activity should respect that boundary and stop what they are doing. This is still important. If someone doesn’t want to engage in a sexual act, they can say no and the other person should stop or it might be considered sexual assault.

“Yes means yes” is an improvement on “no means no,” because “no means no” assumes yes until that person expresses their discomfort by literally saying the word no. Ideally, all people would feel comfortable and confident enough during a sexual encounter to say no. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, especially with young people. Asking for affirmative consent, if the question truly allows for either answer, expresses respect and care for a partner’s sexual experience. It is also more positive because it affirms desire and hopefully leads to better sexual communication. It is the kind of communication that ideally should happen during sex and in healthy relationships. Beyond yes is enthusiastic consent, which means not only does the other person agree to what you’re doing together, but also they genuinely desire it and they’re excited about it.

What would be considered “another level of intimacy”?

An example of another level of intimacy might be going from making out with someone to taking their clothes off, or when two people are feeling each other up and one reaches into the other’s pants. Another example is when someone goes from intimate touching to moving down the other person’s body to give oral sex. Different people experience different levels of intimacy in different sexual situations. Some people may feel that kissing is more intimate than genital touching. Others may think that genital-­to-­genital intercourse is more intimate than oral intercourse. It depends on the person, so ask and pay attention to how your partner responds.

Do I have to ask for consent even if I’m really close to the person?

Yes, you must ask for consent even if you’re really close to your sexual partner. A preexisting relationship does not equal consent. There are many benefits to knowing your partner. In a healthy relationship, trust and care are built over time. This allows for both partners to communicate without fear of being judged. Sometimes, consent is wordless between people who know each other really well. Communication happens with body language, facial expression, and pleasurable sounds. Still, paying attention to context is important for everyone. The context or circumstances that surround the sexual activity can change within moments and may influence how someone feels sexually, and it is important to understand that context may influence consent. And if the consent is wordless, the partners involved must be attentive to each other and make sure that whatever is happening between them is something they both want.

When do I have the right to say no? When is it socially acceptable?

You have the right to say no at any time in a relationship or within a sexual experience. The answer to the second question will likely vary depending on who you talk to. We live in a sex-­negative culture (one that focuses on objectification, sexualization, sex stigma, and body-­shaming) that doesn’t always promote healthy perspectives on sexuality, especially for young people. It may seem and feel like you have to say yes because that is what you see in the media or what you hear from your friends. A sex-­positive and sexually healthy society would make it socially acceptable to say no to sexual activity whenever you feel you want or need to. Remember that you are under no obligation to engage in behavior you don’t feel ready for, no matter the circumstances.

There are different ways to say no that you may want to consider. Within any type of relationship, be clear with your no. If you are in a healthy relationship, engage in a conversation with care and respect, so you can talk through what you’re both thinking and feeling. What your partner wants matters. Being a considerate and generous lover is mature and responsible. Encouraging people to talk openly about consent, and the ability to say yes and no, benefits everyone. Everyone deserves that kind of respect from a partner, and it makes for a healthier relationship.

If you are saying no in a hookup situation, be clear and assertive. If you and your partner are engaged in a respectful sexual encounter and care about each other’s experience, it should be OK to engage in open and honest dialogue. You could say, “I’m not comfortable with that but would be comfortable with [activity].” If your partner only seems to care about getting off physically and doesn’t consider your experience, then be clear and direct with your no and end the hookup. Bottom line: you have the right to say no.

Can someone give consent if they are drunk?

No. The legal language of affirmative consent legislation for being drunk or intoxicated is “incapacitated.” A person cannot give consent if they are incapacitated, which means they aren’t able to think clearly because they are under the influence of a substance or drug (alcohol is considered a drug). The point at which someone becomes incapacitated is different depending on many variables, including genetics, size, tolerance, how much of a substance they consumed, what kind of substance they consumed, when and how they took the substance, if they had recently eaten, or if the substance had an additional substance in it. If someone reports a nonconsensual experience and the people involved were incapacitated, the police or authorities on a school’s campus (if it took place at school) will investigate to determine whether the people involved were incapacitated and if this impacted the situation.

If I send a nude or “dick pic,” does that count as consent?

No. You cannot give consent to sexual activity over a phone or other digital device, especially if you are under the age of eighteen. Nudes do not equal consent. In fact, unless someone asks for a nude photo, it can be considered sexual harassment. And if you’re under eighteen, taking sexually explicit photos of yourself and “sexting”—­sending nude photos—­is considered trafficking in child pornography and is against federal law. Some states have teen sexting laws to deal with this common issue because the consequences for teens who violate federal law can be severe. Remember, too, that what is on your device and what you send to others is essentially public. Just because the photos disappear from your phone doesn’t mean that someone didn’t screenshot and forward or save them. If you send a nude photo, you should expect that it will probably become public at some point and may be circulated. Would you want your family, employer, college admissions officer, or future romantic interest to see it? Probably not.

What if I’m comfortable doing something sexual with a guy but not a girl?

Your body belongs to you; you get to choose how to touch and be touched. The guidelines are the same for managing what’s going on while you explore sexuality with someone, regardless of gender. No matter the person and how they identify, it’s important to communicate your desires and limitations and to listen and ask for theirs. Mutual respect doesn’t depend on how someone identifies. Communicate with a potential sexual partner in the moment. If they are safe and OK to be with you sexually, it’s OK to do what you want and don’t want. Period.

Isn’t it OK to push just a little to try to persuade someone to go further? I’m not going to force someone, of course, but what if they just need a little convincing?

Nope. Not OK to push even just a little. The need for any sort of persuasion makes the situation nonconsensual. Coercion, or saying things like “C’mon, it’ll feel good,” “Just relax, don’t worry about it,” “If you like me you’ll do this,” or “Everyone does this, what’s wrong with you?” is not consent. Adding social power or leverage to the dynamic is also not consent. Saying things like “C’mon, don’t you want to be first pick of the team next year? You know I’m the captain,” “If you don’t do this, I’ll have to post those pictures you sent me,” or “You don’t want everyone to know you’re gay, do you?” is not consent. It is coercive and exploitive. It is manipulative, unhealthy, bullyish, and disrespectful to pressure someone into second-­guessing themselves and compromising their emotional and physical safety; if taken too far it can even constitute assault.

Can consensual sex be regrettable?

Yes. If consent is asked for and given, without the influence of substances, the impairment of a mental or physical disability, coercion or age disparity (one partner is over eighteen, the other is under eighteen), then the sex is legal. Just because the sex is legal, however, doesn’t mean it’s right. If it isn’t consented to for the right reasons—­for instance, someone wasn’t ready, the sex wasn’t physically or emotionally safe, or someone else’s well-­being is impacted (like a friend is betrayed)—­someone may regret having participated in it. Legal sex is not necessarily ethical or “good” sex. Ethical sex is legal and takes into account the well-­being of the participants and others who may be impacted by their actions. Good sex is legal, ethical, and feels pleasurable and satisfying for both partners. To avoid regrettable albeit consensual sex, make sure you choose to engage in sexual activity for your right reasons.

Shafia Zaloom is author of Sex, Teens & Everything in Between. She is a health educator and consultant whose work centers on human development, community building, ethics, and social justice. Her approach involves creating opportunities for students and teachers to discuss the complexities of teen culture and decision-making with straight-forward, open and honest dialogue. Shafia has worked with thousands of children and their families in her role as teacher, coach, administrator, board member, and outdoor educator. Shafia is currently the health teacher at the Urban School in San Francisco, and develops curricula and trainings for schools across the country.  

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