I recently realized that it was time to have “the big talk” with my 8-year-old daughter about sex. So far, we had followed the advice of most parenting and sex experts to answer questions to the point of satisfying curiosity, which had mostly centered around where babies come from. She knew about sperm and eggs, and I had even busted out the “Look Who’s Talking” credits on YouTube as a visual aide. But she’d never expressed interest beyond that, and gaps in her knowledge remained. Knowing the closer we get to the end of elementary school, the more likely she was to get this information poorly or miscommunicated from peers, it was time.
The lead in was perhaps unconventional. She was asking about abortion in the context of the recent presidential election. And I realized we had now discussed sexual assault and abortion, but not sex. I asked her if she knew what sex was and she said “yes.” I asked if she could tell me about it and she said, “It’s when two people like each other so much they just can’t help it.” So I explained the logistics of intercourse in age-appropriate detail. I told her that heterosexual intercourse could result in pregnancy but there are other kinds of sex as well.
But the rest our sex talk perhaps isn’t a part of everyone’s dialogue.
I found myself immediately repeating the words I’ve said about her body in other scenarios, that the most important thing is that “everyone wants to and everyone can change their minds.”
We’ve talked about consent and boundaries plenty of times before. But this was the first time we talked about it in the context of sex.
I’ve said this about playing, about giving and receiving hugs, constantly reaffirming her (and others’) right to make all the decisions about their own bodies. I even role modeled this throughout her childhood with boundaries about my own body, letting her know when I don’t feel like being touched and appreciating her space, as not even motherly love necessitates touch on demand.
The idea of affirmative consent is making its rounds now on college campuses and, thankfully, is becoming part of the larger cultural conversation about sex in the United States. “Affirmative consent is defined as a clear, unambiguous and voluntary agreement to engage in specific sexual activity,” according to the Affirmative Consent Project. It’s an attempt to remove the narrative that anything short of screaming and fighting for one’s life is consent. More simply put—consent is a big, obvious yes from all parties involved in the act.
In a way, I’ve been teaching my daughter this principle her whole life. So when we applied it to sex, the idea seemed to click.
Teaching our children about consent by necessity involves teaching them that sex can (and should) feel good.
I also made a point to tell her that people choose to have sex or not have sex for all kinds of reasons. But the big reason people have sex is because they think it feels good. It seems like such a simple idea, but it’s one we fail to uphold in so many ways—with dangerous implications.
In the sex education of our cultural narrative, girls’ bodies are conquests that boys “see what they can get” from. I learned that I was supposed to preserve my sexual purity but that boys would try hard to “take it” anyway, and that any sexual act I participated in would potentially create a bad reputation for me and positive one for a boy. All of these mental gymnastics and none of it about my own boundaries or desires.
At no point does this even begin to nod to the idea that women experience pleasure themselves, or that a sex act might be enjoyable for all parties. We explain consent as just a lack of “no” or fighting rather than a resounding “yes”—which is not only possible and necessary, but what actually makes for a good time.
Consent isn’t a lack of “no,” it’s a clear “yes.” Neglecting to teach this to young people has dangerous consequences, even into adulthood.
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