For Every Parent: ‘I Taught My Son How Not To Be A Rapist’

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It’s a normal Sunday afternoon. After brunch, my 14-year-old son and I curl up on the couch to read while my husband works on a project in the garage. But no matter how hard I try to concentrate on the pages of novel in my lap, my mind keeps returning to the subject matter of my own book, which I finished the final revisions on just a few days before—a tale of a boy and girl who grew up together, best friends, until one fateful night in their twenties when both of their lives are forever changed.

“Do you know what consent is?” I say to my son, closing the book I’m holding. My voice wavers when I ask the question, because despite the open discourse about sex I’ve maintained with my children over the years (“no erection without protection” is a phrase both daughter and son learned, then passed on in giggly whispers to their friends in middle school), and while I have talked with my daughter about ways to protect herself from being raped, I’ve never spoken directly to my son about how not to be a rapist.

The news is full of stories about “good” young men who commit rape, and the best way to help prevent my son from becoming one of them is to talk with him explicitly about the issue, and hopefully provide him with the kind of tools that will help him to make the right decision in a pinnacle moment. And so, I repeat the question, swallowing to restrain the tears tickling the back of my throat. “Honey,” I say. “Do you know what consent is?”

He looks at me with his heavily lashed, soulful brown eyes—the same eyes I remember falling in love with the moment he was born. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s getting permission from someone to do something.”

I meet his gaze, and hold it, and my breath. “Like permission to have sex with them.”

He rolls his eyes, knowing full-well I’m about to try to teach him a lesson. “Yeah,” he says, again. “Like that.”

“You know you need to make sure that a girl really wants to be doing the things you two might end up doing together,” I say, bumbling my words, unsure of the proper language to use. “You need to ask her. You never assume she wants to do something sexual with you, especially if either or both of you are drunk. She doesn’t have to say no to feel no. Silence is not consent. You get that, right?”

“God, Mom,” he says. He is offended, and maybe a little hurt. “You think I’m going to rape someone?”

“I don’t think you would mean to rape someone,” I say, carefully, “but I want you to really understand how to ask for a girl’s consent so you don’t ever end up in a questionable position. That’s all.”

He eyes me, warily, and I speak with him about rape culture in general, how the media uses women’s sexuality to marginalize them, to teach men to view women’s bodies as commodities, and then uses it against women when they report they’ve been raped. He tells me how there is a girl at school, in his eighth grade class, who everyone calls a whore because she has sex with some of the boys. We talk about victim-blaming, and how girls can often confuse having sex with being loved, and that this doesn’t make this particular girl a whore—it makes her someone in need of education and emotional support. We talk about how important it is if one of his friends is saying something inappropriate about a girl, that he should be courageous and tell his friend to shut the hell up. And if he sees a girl in trouble, in a situation where she is or might be hurt, that he should protect this girl as he might protect me or his sister. We talk about the six-month sentence ruling on the case of a Stanford student, how he should strive to be like the Swedes, who rescued the victim, and not the swimmer, who dragged her behind a dumpster and raped her.

“So what do I say to a girl?” he asks me, then. “When I want to…you know.”

“You need to be absolutely sure she wants to have sex,” I say. “If she’s too drunk, or you are, to speak clearly, you don’t even try it. You go home alone and sleep it off. If she’s sober, you need to ask her if she’s sure she wants to do it. Whatever ‘it’ is. Touching, oral sex, intercourse.” He cringes a bit, here, as he does whenever I speak in graphic terms about sex, but I don’t let that stop me. “You need to say the words, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ and she needs to give you a verbal yes. It’s a good idea to ask her more than once. If she hesitates in any way, physically, like if she is stiff or not responding to your kissing her, or if she says something like ‘wait’ or ‘I don’t know,’ you stop. Right then. It’s over. You don’t push it. You tell her it’s fine. That you want her to be comfortable with whatever happens between you. And that you’re fine if nothing happens at all.”

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