By Lori Gaon
If you’re shying away from having “the talk” with your teen, perhaps you should reconsider. Today, social media is pervasive, and kids as young as seven may be exposed to pornography. With this sobering warning in mind, NYC-Parents in Action’s Fall Seminar on October 26th addressed the timely topic of Teens, Sex and Consent. The five-member panel, moderated by Lucy Martin Gianino, answered questions, offered insight and gave guidance to parents navigating this complex and emotionally charged subject.
Justine Fonte, M.Ed, MPH and Director of Health & Wellness at The Dalton School, began the evening by explaining that as parents, the framework within which we were taught about consent has since changed. “The ‘No means no,’ that we grew up with is no longer effective,” she said. While we were taught to say “NO!” loud and clear, to not dress or dance a certain way and to not get drunk, today’s teens live in a world of nuance and mixed messages that have had significant impact on the issue of consent. The clear message from the panel was that young people need to understand that only enthusiastic consent means yes. Teens need to hear the word “Yes” from each other when engaging in sexual interaction, Fonte explained, and only a clear “yes means yes’’ can eliminate blurred lines and mixed messages. With the old “no means no,” it’s “easy to see how things get confusing, especially if there’s alcohol involved with the yes; or if one partner is silent; or says only ‘Um. . . okay.’” Kids need to understand that in most cases “all of those are ‘no.’”
Ilann Mazel, an attorney nationally recognized for championing children and people with disabilities and filing discrimination suits on their behalf, often deals with cases involving sexual assault. “Media messaging can be the root of the problem when dealing with teenage sexual consent cases,” he said. While cases don’t often involve violence at this age, many young people who have been accused of sexual misconduct don’t understand what they’ve done wrong. “Issues of consent are complicated and can be confusing at any age, but are especially so for a teenager,” he warned, agreeing with Fonte’s insistence on teens giving and receiving a firm “yes!” when consenting to sex.
When does this all begin? In answer to the moderator’s question, “When do these things start to happen for a teen?” Fonte answered that by age 10 or 11 kids start to explore their sexuality. Their natural attraction to others, due to hormones and their biology, is given far greater reach with access to a smart phone, which boosts the likelihood they will be exposed to sex by way of pornography at a very young age. Asked if the majority of our children are exposed to pornography, Emi Nakazato, a sexual-assault awareness and prevention educator, said that unfortunately, for many young people, in the absence of any other conversation about sex, porn may be their first avenue of sex education. “Pornography is powerful and the conflation of sex and violence can seem normalized, given the ease of access,” she said. “Many young men today watch so much porn that they often get desensitized.”
Rachel Henes continued the conversation. “Kids start absorbing messages about gender and sex from the day they are born,” she said. Henes, the director of Hallways, Freedom Institute’s evidence-based prevention and social-emotional wellness program serving the Independent School community in New York City, noted that all their lives, kids receive messages about sex and while sexual behaviors may not manifest until middle or high school, by the time they do, a kid’s perspective on sex is often one of sexual conquest or dominance. “These messages are in the world around us, in the air we breathe,” she said.
“We as parents need to be really clear about our expectations for our kids. Kids are confused because we’re confused,” said Henes. “Take homework for instance. We are clear in what we expect, but as adults we’re often not clear about consent and being respectful of the other person. . . making sure the other person is actively into the sexual activity. We need to look at sex as interacting with another human and care how they are doing.”
Empathy, Nakazato said, plays a key role in the sexual consent conversation. “Empathy can be taught,” she noted and is important because “when used it makes it difficult to dehumanize another person.” The lack of empathy, added Henes, “is rooted in the ideas about sexual conquest and dominance that our culture sends – so we need to address those with our kids in order to promote empathy, and that is something that parents can do.”
Nakazato delivered some humor to the somber audience, sharing a food analogy she has used as a way to initiate a sex positive conversation with her own teens. “Not every time you have sex is it going to be a five-star experience. Sometime it may just be like a snack, because you’re hungry. Food experiences can have a huge range, anywhere from a memorable Jean George experience to a simple granola bar. In extreme cases food can . . .make you sick or kill you from food poisoning. It could take a long time to experience a Jean George meal.” The same can be said of sex. You may have to eat “a lot of granola bars before you ever get to experience Jean George,” she said, her point being that sex can be experienced on a wide continuum, from exquisite to horrifying. Hence, the importance of teaching kids to communicate, listening to each other and making certain that they heard their sexual partner say “yes.”
Henes agreed that it’s never too early to offer positive messaging about consent. Speaking of her own “teachable moments” with her soon-to-be three-year-old son, she described using interactions with their cat as a tool to teach consent. “He has to notice what the cat wants,” she said. If her child wants to give the cat a hug and the cat reacts by pulling away, Henes has taught her son to respect that the cat doesn’t want a hug right now. If the cat stays put, her son can hug the cat.
Norms and social stereotypes that contribute to unhealthy ideas about masculinity affect both boys and girls. “The messaging is very limiting to boys,” said Fonte. “They often feel like they’re expected to have sex by a certain age, and when terms like, ‘you throw like a girl’ or ‘don’t be such a pussy’ are tossed around,” it makes them feel like they are supposed to be part of that culture. “Stereotypes don’t stop there,” said Henes. Teen boys tend to repeat back phrases they think describe what being a boy means (“Be aggressive;” “Never cry;” “Be awesome at sports;” “Have sex;” “Never show emotion”) or suffer being teased or mocked.
“The more that boys are tied into these ideas of traditional masculinity, the higher the likelihood they may perpetrate some of these [negative] behaviors or be silent about others who do,” added Henes. But rather than focusing on these messages, we often focus on girls’ behaviors by sending messages like “don’t drink, don’t wear certain clothing, don’t act certain ways.” These messages don’t promote consent – they promote victim blaming. We need to notice this, and instead, spend our time challenging unhealthy ideas that connect sex and dominance/conquest, and linking sex with kindness, compassion, and respect.
Parents of girls, Henes continued, need to have ongoing conversations with their daughters, to mitigate pressures that girls often feel. She suggested parents start by asking, “What do you think this ad is saying?” and provide supportive commentary, like “‘I think this sends a message that a girl’s worth is in her body and how she looks and I want to make sure that you know that I don’t feel that way. You’re so much more than that.’ Conversations like this chip away at the onslaught of media messaging.”
So as parenting experts have said time and time again, talking to our children early is a vital part of the job. Keeping lines of communication open is fundamental, especially when it comes to sex and consent. It’s never too early to initiate the talk.