How to Teach Your Sons About Consent*

Me: Good morning, son. Pop quiz. What constitutes consent?

Son: A clear, unambiguous yes.

Me: What does unambiguous mean?

Son: Loud and clear with no fudging.

Me: Good. Do you know why I am asking you this?

Son: Because of that scene in Pirate Radio?

Me: (Blinks a minute, because my mind was on the Stubenville case, not the movie we watched where there was a scene where a young man was encouraged to switch with a guy who the girl HAD consented to in pitch dark. I made it clear that was NOT consent) No, I was asking because some high school students raped a girl who was passed out drunk, got convicted and there was some idiotic sympathy for them because they claimed not to know what rape is.

Son: I get it. Look her in the eye and ask if she wants to.

Me: Good. What if she wants to and you’re not into it? What do you do?

Son: Say no. Get out of the situation if pushed.

Me: Rock. You’ve got it. What if she’s drunk?

Son: She can’t consent.

Me: What if she’s twelve?

Son: Ew! Of course she can’t consent!

Me: What if she’s sixteen (my son is almost eighteen).

Son: (spotting a trick question) Uh, she can consent?

Me: Morally? Most likely. But legally? Depends on the jurisdiction after you turn eighteen. In ours, it’s 16. In your grandparents state, it’s 18. ‘Course you can do an end run around that after you turn eighteen and only date legal adults.

Society: But teaching about consent is HARRRD. You don’t UNDERSTAAANNNDD.

Me: Lying jerks.

*Based on an actual conversation I had with my son this morning. (Gender choices are based on the fact my son does play the game on the easiest setting).

22 thoughts on “How to Teach Your Sons About Consent*

  1. Lars Fischer (@lpfischer)

    Good post – very clear, very right. One thing to add (and from your sons answers, I’m sure this is something you have been doing) is that conversation does not start at 18. It starts with teaching kids in daycare about bodily autonomy, about playing games you like to play but not letting yourself get dragged into games you don’t want, and making sure the other kids in a game really, really want to be in that game. It starts with teaching 10-11-12 year olds about making sure you do not do things online you don’t really want to do, and about to make sure respecting others. And, at 12, about how to say yes and no to romantic and sexual explorations.

    I agree with you, this is not hard. I don’t know why society thinks it so hard, it’s not. All it takes is that you see your kids as living, breathing human being, with the ability to make decisions, good and bad. And that you’re willing to talk to them about things they need to make decisions about – including sex. Surprisingly many parents are scared to talk to their 12-year-olds abut sex, and frankly, I think that’s a big part of the problem. Parents hide from conversations that make them uncomfortable.

      1. Allyson Szabo

        Well… and it’s okay for us to tell the kids we’re uncomfortable. I’m sure they are, too. I think sometimes we try to shield kids from our grief, anger, frustration, and discomfort. I work hard to not hide it from ours… to let them see me express the gamut of my emotions, though without having to bear the brunt of them. Honesty… brutal honesty.

    1. Kit

      Yes, it starts with teach bodily autonomy at a very early age, and continuing the conversation throughout.

    2. Cedric

      “teaching about consent is HARRRD” because 1) parents are uncomfortsable with the whole conversation, 2) they do not understand the topic themselves, and 3) have contradictory responses leading to confusion for all.

  2. Hazelthecrow

    See! it is fairly common sense! most chaps, in my experience, have plenty of clues on this stuff and are decent and respectful human beings. Not to say we shouldnt be doing everything to get conversations going about this all, and calling bullshit on these rather troubling cases of not knowing what consent is being used as a defense…

    Guess what im saying is, horrifying and tragic as attitudes can be in rape case, we have to be fair to the vast majority of intelligent males and not tar em all with the same brush. Your son sounds like pretty much all the marvellous young men Ive grown up with and hang around with now; I guess it troubles me that any of them should be judged by others idiocy in the same way as it wrankles that I should be judged by the actions of any other people I might happen to share a single characteristic with.

    I am reminded of a conversation I had once, that woke me up with a jolt to the way men get unfairly judged just as much as women I was sat next to a nun on a train and started up conversation to pass the time, as you do. I was about 19, strongly feminist, a bit of a nerd but had plenty of human friends of the male variety. Still am, still do.

    She was a lovely women, had travelled alot and had spent her whole life working in womens refuges and rape projects all over the world, helping people who had been through the most horrendous abuse. Crucially, what with the nunning and all, not really tending to any contact with nice, ordinary, well adjusted men. She was incredulous when I talked about my life and my solo travels and my friends – absolutely couldn’t beleive that none of them had ever raped me, not even a little bit. Like, we would be at school together, work in the shop, go out to gigs, hang out, talk about stuff both silly and serious, go on holiday as a group, get stupidly drunk from time to time, and no-one was ever overcome by uncontrollable brutish violent urges or anything. Not like I was short of advances, but no ta meaning no ta was pretty much a given. Still is.

    I was incredulous that she’d think that they would. Friends dont rape friends or let friends rape other friends, right? it was unthinkable to young me. The occaisional creepy non-friends who didnt respect boundaries were to be steered clear of, simple. Sure, so I know now that sadly ain’t always that simple, but I hesitate to call myself lucky – it isn’t luck, its good people being good people, looking out for each other and using their brains. That was the first time I realised that Misandry was a thing that existed, and I found it just as troubling as the misogyny I was well aware of already.

    This gorgeous, compassionate, intelligent lady had ended up with view of the whole male gender that was skewed by the horror stories, to the point where she genuinely felt all men were dangerous brutes, whose sole drive was to fuck everything that moved – and any friend behaviour was a ruse to get us poor innocent victims to lower our guard. I’m glad she’s so wrong, but still sad that she never got to see the full picture, the better and larger part of human nature,

    We all need to be having these conversations about consent, and respect, and having them loudly. Sensible men and boys need to be in the conversation in equal part, from the start. So its not always polarised male and female; rather the majority of thinking, empathetic humans versus the dickheads and the criminally stupid.

    Phew, long rant! Love the blog btw, you are a fountain of common sense.


  3. Hazelthecrow

    Yep, yes, aye, I’m a woman. One who is forever assessing her risk tolerances. I didn’t cold call the nun btw, she started talking to me! I think she was curious about my pentangle, and why I was travelling alone – maybe she was hoping to save a lost soul. Anyway. It made me sad to think that for understandable reasons given her experience, I’d have missed out on a thought provoking and genial few hours of moral debate had I not had boobs… and some valuable insights I might have needed to hear had I been 19 and male. Guess your post just touched a nerve. Your convo with your son echoed many many that I’ve had with young men over the last few year or so, with the overwhelming consensus being that we’re on the same page on this whole not raping people thing. Maybe my sample isn’t representative? certainly under-represented, thats more what troubles me.

    The Stubenville case makes me sick; and painfully illustrates why we need to be talking about this stuff. WITH blokes aswell as AT them – the better to be part of the solution. Peer to peer, friends not letting friends rape friends – well thats the best, and does go on.

    Guess in my cack handed way I was agreeing with what Allyson said. there are plenty of members of the human race out there worth hanging out with, and who can challenge your assumptions all kinds of ways, and its good to challenge and be challenged. I’m not coming at this from the corner of ‘Oh dear, men are so oppressed'; more, like Lars and Allyson both, that there obviously are a bunch of right ways to engage with this stuff and most young people are perfectly capable of understanding the issues and deserve more credit than they generally get. Having the conversation is so very, very important. Its a pet peeve of mine that it isnt dealt with more matter of factly in schools etc (or at least wasn’t in mine, Northern England, about 15 years ago – the most relationship advice we got was ‘mind out or you’ll all die of AIDS’. I don’t see that its changed that much, at least in most mainstream schools)

    I don’t half rant on. Apologies for that. Boo rapists, double booooo for willfully callous excuses, yay people getting outraged and not letting those excuses stand, yay talking. Your son’s clearly got his head screwed on :-)

  4. flamedryad

    I’m sorry there is one thing that hits me about this Are the boys really using the “i didn’t know what rape was” defense? They need jail time just for being stupid.

    1. Goddess of Java Post author

      I do not know if they were using that as a defense, only that one of the convicted did say at some point that he did not know that sex with someone who was passed out drunk was rape.

  5. Auros

    So, I totally agree that the conversation has to start here. And I think in vanilla-world it does tend to stay _relatively_ easy.

    But I think there does need to be some room, eventually, for somewhat more complicated conversations around consent, for reasons that are explored here:

    Sometimes people have an ongoing relationship, and have done things together in the past, and even have a longstanding understanding with each other that one of them kinda likes it when the other, say, comes up behind and starts doing something — e.g. reaching under their clothes while they’re standing at the counter, or something — but this one time, they’re just not in the mood. There needs to be room to say, “Honey, not right now,” while keeping the tone loving, not accusatory.

    There was also a case that made the rounds of the blogs, a while back, where a woman was saying that her bf of quite some time had “come on” to her in the middle of the night, and she’d been into it, and then in the morning it turned out that he basically had experienced an incident of “sexsomnia” — he hadn’t really been awake to “consent” at all, and he felt kinda violated. And you know what? He _had_ been violated. Not on purpose, and ideally there should be room for them to talk about how she can verify that he’s really all there, but yeah, what happened was bad.

    The primacy of consent is important to drum in early. But at some point, there needs to be room to start talking about how even if you say yes to something, you can decide you just aren’t that into it (i.e. it’s OK to _withdraw_ consent, without assigning blame, in a spirit of constructively pursuing what makes both of you happy); and about how you also need to learn how, if you’re on the other side of that kind of thing, to interpret this as _constructive_ criticism, and treat your partner with grace and sympathy, even if they’re squicked and sound a little blame-y.

    1. Goddess of Java Post author

      Sure. But the egregious violations are often taken care of with some damn simple conversations and I don’t want that derailed. Fucking and humiliating someone passed out drunk has no damn gray area at all.

      Do I think that learning how to express, maintain and respect boundaries will have a part in more subtle interactions? Oh, yeah. I’m all for the right tool for the right job, but I truly fail to see any gray area in a rule for oneself of, “Always get clear and unambiguous consent.”

      1. Auros

        “egregious violations are often taken care of with some damn simple conversations”

        Yup. Not sure if you saw the total crash-and-burn effort by The Good Men Project to discuss gray areas, where both their “examples” were not cases that anyone who understands even the basics about consent could get wrong. (The obvious response to one of their two articles was “sleeping people can’t consent, even if it seems pretty obvious they would’ve consented enthusiastically if they were awake,” and for the other it was, “drunk/high people can’t consent, and if you use getting yourself drunk/high as an excuse for taking advantage of people, or potentially even going so out of your head that you forcefully overpower them, then you should never, ever, EVER get drunk or high, because it makes you into a rapist.” They’ve published a lot of good stuff; I have no idea how their editor let that stuff get posted.)

  6. holdenweb

    Nice to see that responsible parenting hasn’t yet entirely died out.

    Clue to those still looking for the secret: try pretending your kids are SMALL PEOPLE.

  7. holdenweb

    @lpfischer: by the way, I’d have thought the context and tone of the reported dialog made it pretty obvious this conversation started a long time ago, but I assume you are highlighting it for those who need explicit pointers. Some do, and that doesn’t make them bad people. As long as they follow the pointers when they are there.

  8. Kai

    I like the point about teaching children about consent in games etc – I think a lot of it really does start early on, with things that aren’t about sex.

    To me, parents often seem unaware that they and their child are interacting in an unbalanced power dynamic, and can’t quite see (or don’t know how to navigate) just how much harm that can do. As a parent of a two-year-old, I’m finding it fascinating, challenging and intimidating, trying to negotiate concepts of consent with my son. I’m trying really hard to teach him that on the one hand, some things (like whether he can run into the road) really do have to be my decision, while being aware of and sympathetic to how frustrating his experience of my having that type of control can be. I’m trying to teach him that other people will sometimes just have boundaries that he has to accept, like how it’s ok to climb on some people’s shoulders but others will be upset by that so it’s best not to – and also that it’s ok to have his own preferences, like he doesn’t have to kiss his relatives in greeting even if that’s what his cousins do.

    When I was a kid my parents brought me up to believe that they were always more right than me, and this left me very easy to take psychological advantage of as an adult, and did affect my sex life and my interactions around my own ability to give consent. It’s not even always partners being bad people, or being stupid – I’ve had partners be surprised and upset because they only just found out I have a dodgy ability to give consent, and the reason they only found out at that point was because I had only just figured it out. For most of my life I’d not even been aware of the issues I had with sex, or that my attitudes were unhealthy and unhelpful to me, and I think part of that was because they really didn’t stem from anyone ever telling me ‘you have to have sex when someone else wants to’, but from being told ‘you have to do what other people want’.


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