According to statistics some 20-25% of young women are sexually assaulted on college campuses, said Lisa Osherow, a Health and Sexuality Educator, kicking off her presentation at the NYC-Parents in Action School Rep Breakfast on April 19.
How can we educate our children to have healthy relationships and not become one of these statistics? The key, Osherow explained, is teaching children about consent and communication. Consent concerns more than just sexual activity and therefore, may appropriately be taught to all children beginning at a young age.
While conceding that consent can be an ambiguous word, Osherow noted the elements that must be present to consent:
- It involves giving permission or agreeing to engage in an activity (sexual or otherwise)
- It is voluntary and unambiguous
- It is revocable at any point
- It is mandatory with every sexual activity and encounter
- It is expressed by people able to give consent. “If you’re intoxicated, asleep or not of legal age,” Osherow said, “you’re not able to give consent.”
“You don’t force people to do any activity,” Osherow said. “People should be able to enter every activity consensually.” Teaching our children about consent takes practice. Just as we teach our children to say please and thank you when they’re young, we need to teach them about healthy relationships. Talking to our children repeatedly from an early age will help to reduce situations in which sexual assault might occur when they are older.
Osherow gave examples of conversation starters found in everyday situations that can be helpful when teaching about consent. She showed a cartoon* of two young men agreeing to watch a movie. After half an hour one said he wasn’t enjoying it and wanted to leave. The other got upset and yelled, ‘No! You said you’d watch the movie so you’re staying until it’s done!’
In another cartoon example, a man with a deck of cards offered to teach a woman how to play poker, and she agreed. After learning the rules, the woman decided she didn’t want to play. The agitated man angrily told the woman that since he had gone to the trouble of teaching her the rules of the game she now owed him and had to play. Osherow said it’s easy to see how this behavior can be a precursor to sexual assault. “I took you to dinner, now don’t you owe me?”
Like many of the discussions we have with our children, sex and consent is not a single conversation, but should be discussed often and in a comfortable place, for example, in the car while driving to soccer practice, at bedtime, or when sitting down for dinner as a family. “The greatest impact on delaying the onset of sexual activity, and reducing drugs and alcohol [use],” Osherow said, “is the number of words spoken at the dinner table!”
Osherow also suggested when the children are young, parents should leave comics or flyers around the house or watch YouTube videos with their children, creating situations that can act as conversation starters. Osherow recommended a starter sure to engage your child: “If an alien comes from outer space and lands in your house and says you’re allowed to get rid of three people in your life, who would it be? It really is a great question to get children talking, especially if there is a bully or someone bothering them.”
She emphasized that it’s never too early to start teaching children about consent. Beginning in elementary school, parents should remind their children to “always ask permission before touching someone.” A good phrase to teach a young child would be, “Is it okay if I…”
- … push you on the swing?
- … tickle you?
- … give you a hug goodbye?
“I treasure those opportunities to teach my children to listen to their bodies,” Osherow said. “So when Grandma asks my son for a hug and he says no, I tell him that’s okay. Grandma may be disappointed, but I want him to know that he’s in control of his own body and how he feels inside.” Osherow said we need to remind our kids that if others don’t like their choices it’s okay; children don’t always have to please others, it’s more important that they do what they feel is comfortable.
For kids in middle school, it’s important for parents to model and remind their children about respect and communication. “Practice asking, answering and listening,” she said. Osherow used her own family as an example of modeling respect. When she cooks dinner, she expects her family to wait for her to sit down before they begin eating.
For students in high school, Osherow stated the importance of partners checking in frequently to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable by:
- Ensuring consent at every step, no matter what, whether it’s holding hands, kissing, touching, etc.
- Understanding that consent is revocable (either person can change their mind at any time and the activity must halt immediately)
- Knowing that permission is needed every time (even if the activity has taken place before)
- Recognizing that a person cannot consent when drunk
- Understanding that consent to sex should never be obtained through pressure and sex is never owed to anyone for anything.
To help your children navigate the difficult landscape of knowing when to say yes as well as no, it’s important to discuss individual family values and personal guidelines. Osherow introduced her children to the values important to her, early on. “No doors get closed on playdates. I don’t believe that kids need privacy on playdates.” If you allow the kids at four or five to close the door, it’s harder at 12 or 15 to say, ‘no closed doors.’”
“Teaching rules is easier when you start younger,” Osherow said, “and definitely helps you navigate these things when the kids are older.” By applying Osherow’s practices, hopefully, in the future, we can make sexual experiences more respectful and college campuses safer.
Lisa Osherow is a Health and Sexuality Educator whose mission is to empower parents and children to make healthier choices. She is passionate about helping to reduce sexual violence and creating a safe culture for everyone. Lisa received her Master of Arts from New York University in Health and Sexuality Education.