Each generation of parents likes to think they’re getting smarter about raising children, so that those kids can be smarter, too. Technological growth and new information play a major key in this, hence all the quinoa and the advent of gadgets like this “Pixar-like robotic home assistant.” Some of these developments might inspire a wave of eye rolls from the jaded as well as a chorus of “well, back in my day”s, but frankly, these advancements are important, because back in many millennials’ days, something pretty essential was missing in most kids’ lives: Our parents and public school systems never briefed us on the deep-seated nuances and importance of sexual consent.
Recently, Fusion asked a group of men how they learned about consent, and some responses were downright sickening. One man shared: “Being nice and an attentive partner were points or chips that a guy collected until he had enough to cash in for sex. Rape was seen as a violent act that a woman actively fought against. If a girl wasn’t screaming and pushing you off her, she was not being raped.” (It’s no wonder former Vice President Joe Biden felt compelled to define “rape” to a group of college-aged men.)
I grew up understanding rape and sexual assault as something that happens only if you’re wandering a dark alley alone at night in a short skirt; something done only by a stranger and exclusively centered around forced penetration. I don’t fault my parents or public school education for skipping over this; besides the fact it’s uncomfortable (admittedly a weak-ass excuse to not discuss something important), in the ’90s we lacked appropriate and approachable terminology like “consent.” Because of these oversights, it’s taken many of us years to understand that certain experiences—drinking too much and coming to as an acquaintance is having sex with you, having a partner forcibly urge sex to happen till it does, being encouraged to imbibe in more alcohol or drugs than you want, so that you perform sexual acts with someone you would not while sober, etc.—as sexual assault or rape.
Although it’s great national conversations about consent are ramping up at college campuses, it’s important this generation teaches the next the power of bodily autonomy at an even younger age, and how that extends further than “empowering” your daughter with high self-confidence. Lots of emotionally and physically strong women and people still fall victim to sexual assault and rape. Telling your young daughter she is powerful and enrolling her in karate classes is great, but that doesn’t clarify how to understand and communicate when physical or sexual touch is okay with you or not.
There’s plenty of resources in books and online available for parents who want to keep their children safe (obviously) now and through adulthood, but surely I’m not the only one whose biggest takeaway from books like What’s Happening to My Body? Book for Girls was feelings of discomfort and confusion. And turning to the internet for answers about consent could easily lead kids to decidedly unhelpful places. Nothing can take the place of an actual conversation with an informed adult—like a parent.
To get a better idea of how parents are talking to their kids about consent, we spoke with eight moms and dads of young children to hear about their approach. Here’s what they had to say.
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