By Lisa Osherow
Recently, college campuses have devoted a great deal of thought and debate to the crucial issue of “consent,” with specific emphasis on preventing sexual assaults. But, what exactly is consent, and when and how should we teach it?
This question isn’t as simple as it sounds. A common definition for consent may be given in a few key phrases, but for some parents, just the idea of talking to their children about sexuality can be awkward. And not every family may be comfortable bringing it up as early as experts believe would be most helpful. But if parents truly understood Consent, and how easily it can be applied, we might be able to raise a generation of people that have healthy relationships from birth throughout their lives.
Is freshman year of college the right time to start? Earlier? And what skills do we want to impart? The fact is, there are no accepted national definitions for “Consent,” “Rape” or “Sexual Assault,” and the meanings ascribed vary from state to state, so it’s easy to understand why there is confusion. Fundamentally, the essence of “consent” always boils down to respect and communication — values that, like our family values, should be taught from birth through young adulthood and are most effective when modeled by parents. Early education is vital to creating a consent culture – a place and time in which society agrees that people are the best judge over their bodies, wants and desires; a culture where mutual consent is an accepted part of daily lives and all decisions.
CONSENT is most accurately defined as a knowing, voluntary and mutual decision among all participants to engage in (sexual) activity.
These basic elements must all be present to consent:
- It is clear and unambiguous
- It is voluntary
- It is revocable at any point
- It needs to be discussed with each activity
Consent is not the absence of “No.” It is, rather, clearly communicated assent.
Consent isn’t just about sexual activity and, therefore, may appropriately be taught to all children. It’s about teaching young people to ask “Is it okay if I . . .?” before ever touching another person. For example, “Is it okay if I give you a hug to say good bye?” Or, “Would you like to be tickled?” Or “Are you in the mood to cuddle?” Shouldn’t all decisions be consensual? As parents, we can do our part to make sure these exchanges take place as easily and automatically as “please” and “thank you.” Starting at an early age, parents should have conversations about the importance of asking for permission before touching someone else.
As children grow up, it’s essential for them to practice consent and get in the habit of asking, listening and responding appropriately. These discussions may seem clear when taken out of the sexual context; for example, if you see a dog or a young child at the playground, it seems obvious to ask if you can touch them, and then follow up with where or how they liked to be touched. So, if we show this respect for pets and strangers, shouldn’t we show this level of respect for our sexual partners? If these discussions become part of children’s daily lives and we help them learn to create mutually respectful interactions, then when our young people are ready to engage in sexual activities they will have the skills and confidence necessary to hold more challenging conversations, and have the kind of healthy sexual relationships we want for them.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” provides a great, easily accessible metaphor for consent. Even if you ask first, then take the time to boil the water, choose the tea, and serve it on your best china, your friend may choose to take only a sip, drink it all or decide they are not in the mood. You may be happier with one choice over another, but you would never force your friend to drink the tea. With sexual activity, as with tea drinking, the message is clear: respect the person’s response even if it isn’t the response you had hoped for.
When talking to your teenager about consent, it’s helpful to use concrete examples. For example, if people consent to kissing, it does not mean they are consenting to touching. If you or your partner is intoxicated or sleeping, that means one of you is not able to consent to sexual activity. Or, just because somebody consents to vaginal intercourse, it does not automatically imply consent to anal intercourse.
At each new phase, a partner must ask and ensure that both people are enjoying themselves; and, it’s important to check in frequently. Furthermore, prior consent does not indicate future consent, so just because a couple had sex last week, does not mean both parties are in the mood to have sex today. And, finally, even if both partners have consented to an activity, either person can change their mind at any point and ask to stop. For example, maybe they both thought they would enjoy oral sex, but once they’ve started, somebody is not comfortable with it after all and would prefer that the activity stop immediately – in which case it must stop.
By teaching consent early in childhood and continuing through adolescence and adulthood, we can help to make sexual experiences mutually respectful, and college campuses safer.
BIO: 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 and respectful culture for everyone. Lisa received her Masters from New York University in Health and Sexuality Education and is currently running workshops and private consulting for parents, children and families.