When #MeToo gained traction, detailing story after story of nonconsensual sexually related interactions, almost no female I know was surprised. "Yes," whispered our collective voice. "I know."
In an era when 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused before age 18, we can't entirely prevent our children from experiencing an unwanted sexual encounter or finding themselves on the wrong side of an accusation. Yet by taking these six steps, we can up the odds that our children understand exactly what constitutes consent.
- KNOW THE LAW.
"Consent means you have to ask someone if you can touch them sexually or have sex with them, and they have to respond with a yes," said Lynn Jackson, MA, LLP, who's in private practice at Harmony Counseling Place and has 25 years' experience working with sexual offenders and victims. "They can't be under the influence of drugs or alcohol and they can't be sleeping or passed out."
It's important to note the legal age of consent in of Michigan is 16. If one party is younger than 16, it's never legal.
It's also illegal for students to have sex with a teacher, regardless of age, because of the power differential.
- GET OVER YOURSELF.
Despite the awkwardness, use proper terminology like "penis" and "vagina."
"If parents can make day-to-day things more comfortable when discussing sexuality, the sex talk or questions aren't such a big deal," said Valencia Agnew, Ph.D., LLPhD, DBTC, a therapist with Adolescent & Family Behavioral Health Services.
"Start normalizing the body early."
- BUILD RAPPORT FROM A YOUNG AGE.
Teach your children they should respect others' personal space—and that theirs should be respected. "That means no hugging, high-fiving, no anything, without permission," explained Jackson.
Allowing children to say no helps them find their voice and set physical boundaries. As they get older, we can be more specific. "I would encourage parents to have candid conversations with their adolescents," said Dr. Agnew.
- IT'S NOT ONE AND DONE.
It's important for children to understand consent is verbal and can be recanted at any time. Even after initial consent, either partner has the absolute prerogative to change their mind during the sexual encounter.
To prevent misunderstanding, couples should ask each other questions such as, "Is this OK?" "Are you still comfortable doing this?" It's also wise to discuss what to do if someone wants to stop.
"It can be awkward and uncomfortable to have these conversations. But you can't guess, even if it's not sex. Sexual activity that isn't intercourse could be considered sexual assault if someone later says it was unwanted," said Jackson. "If kids can't have those conversations, then they probably shouldn't be having sex."
- THE ABSENCE OF "NO" DOESN'T MEAN "YES."
"So many times, I've talked to women who've said, 'I really liked the guy, so I didn't say anything, but I didn't want to have sex,'" Jackson said. "Or sometimes people get nervous and they freeze and then they don't say anything. Just because someone doesn't say no, that doesn't mean yes."
Casual relationships and one-night stands tend to be particularly fraught with difficulties. "Kids will say, 'But he or she didn't push my hand away.' They just don't realize how dangerous it is. It's so serious."
- TEACH THEM TO RESPECT THE POWER OF "NO."
Understanding "No means no" begins by teaching children you mean it when you say no, Agnew said. "Sure, it can be disappointing to hear no, but it's not the end of the world. However, touching someone without their permission can ruin your life and theirs."
"We need to have those conversations about what consent is and we have to protect our kids," Jackson said.
"Years ago, sexual assault happened but it wasn't talked about. Now people are talking about it and the consequences are costly for everybody."
In the end, healthy consent is about setting boundaries, being comfortable enough with your sexuality to have open, frank, ongoing conversations about sex, respecting your partner, and treating them with dignity.
When we make it that far, #MeToo will finally be a thing of the past.
A FEW THINGS THAT AREN'T CONSENT
Flirting. | Wearing a sexy outfit. | Sexual innuendos. | Any answer other than a clear "YES." | Your partner seems like they're "into it." | Silence.
HELP FROM THE WEB
Kirsetin Morello is a Michigan-based author, speaker, writer, travel-lover, wife and grateful mom of three boys. Read more about her at www.KirsetinMorello.com.
This article originally appeared in the December/January 2019 issue of West Michigan Woman.