Guest Blog: By Gina Lepore, MEd
What Is Affirmative Consent?
Affirmative consent means that both people in a sexual encounter clearly and freely agree to participate. To agree “clearly and freely,” both people must be awake, aware and able to make decisions. Both need to keep checking in an ongoing way to be sure consent continues. Either of them can withdraw consent at any time.
A shorthand for this is “Yes Means Yes.” While it’s useful for people to know how to say NO, the focus should be on obtaining a clear YES.
What’s This Got To Do With Young People?
Many young people have heard about affirmative consent in classes, social media and from one another. When put into practice, it makes misunderstandings about sex less likely. It can prevent sexual assault. This is a good thing.
But young people are also still learning conventional gender norms. This includes the idea that young men are expected to be sexual initiators (or asserters), or that having sex is a sign of their masculinity. It also includes the idea that young women are sexual “gatekeepers” and are supposed to say No to sex.
When these conventional norms are put into practice, boys may push for sex even if it’s not what they really want. Girls may be shamed for having or acting on sexual feelings. Boys may be told that if girls say No, it’s because they’re supposed to, not because they really mean it.
These conventional norms are harmful. They may encourage young people to act in ways they think are expected of them, rather than what they authentically want (or don’t want) to do.
Conversely, young people who understand and practice affirmative consent are more likely to pay attention to what they and their partner want and feel. They are less likely to harm or be harmed in sexual relationships.
How Do I Talk About This With My Kids?
You can talk about the idea of consent with kids of all ages. Encourage them to use consent in real-life situations involving friends, relatives or others. Talk about movies, stories, TV, school and real-life experiences.
With young children
- Discuss whether a character in a story wanted to be tickled, hugged or kissed by a relative. How can they tell?
- Ask them if they have ever been in a situation where they did not want some sort of touch from another person. Help them recognize that they do not need to accept unwanted hugs or kisses. Offer suggestions for how to check for and communicate limits with relatives or friends.
With school-aged children
- Talk about incidents on the playground: “So Daniel didn’t like it when Sheila took the basketball without asking.”
- Ask them how they communicate their boundaries with their peers at school. How do they check for their peers’ wishes or limits?
- Allow them to negotiate boundaries with you in the home. Give them opportunities to make choices. Children at this age (at any age, really!) want to have some personal agency. They like to choose their clothing, have free time, choose which chores they do, and choose which organized activities to sign up for. Choices such as these affirm their sense of personal agency.
With teens and tweens
- Ask them about the romantic movies and TV shows they’re starting to watch. How is consent addressed? Did both characters want to hold hands? Kiss? How can your child tell?
- As teens see more sophisticated stories, these conversations can become more complex and specifically address sex. Did both partners want to have sex? How did they communicate that? How did they check for a Yes with their partner?
- Talk about the ways their friends and peers check for and respect consent, both in romantic situations and in day-to-day interactions.
- Engage them in conversations about their own current or future sexual boundaries and desires. Affirm that they get to make their own choices about what they like and do not like. Emphasize that they have control over their bodies.
- Remind them that their partners also have the same rights. Respect for both their own and their partners’ boundaries and desires is a foundation of healthy relationships. You might also want to ask them to explain how they imagine communicating their wishes and limits to a partner.
Like other topics in sexuality, talking about affirmative consent becomes easier with practice. When you communicate openly and honestly with your children about sexuality and consent, you model good communication for them. You allow them some real-time practice with someone they trust: you, their parent. You may also learn some interesting things when you start these conversations. I’ve certainly learned a lot from my own sons (now 14 and 18). These have been some of the best discussions we’ve had.
Gina Lepore, MEd, is a human sexuality educator and a Research Associate at ETR.