In The Age Of #MeToo, How Do We Talk To Young Men About Sex And Consent?

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Years ago, a friend of mine bravely launched into what he thought was the ultimate “cool dad” sex talk with his then-middle-school-aged son. He covered all the bases, all the sex acts, all the body parts, the merits of all the forms of contraception, in as candid detail as he could muster. When he was done his lecture, he asked his son if he had any questions. The boy meekly said: “I kinda just wanted to know how to tell if a girl likes me. And if I could kiss her if she does.”

The sex talk is daunting enough for most parents. Conveying the technical details can feel excruciating, but, like my well-intentioned friend, in our attempts to give children information, we sometimes overlook the intangible psychological and social aspects of sex and romance.

Kids are coming of age in a climate in which graphic images can be instantly accessed on a smartphone, but in which the emotions, ethics and power dynamics of sex and relationships are not often a part of their sexual education – save for what they pick up from porn, which is not the most reliable teacher.

And if you’re a parent of a boy in this #MeToo moment of reckoning, talking to him about sex and consent has taken on a new urgency. When powerful, prominent adult men are groping their co-workers’ breasts and exposing their penises to interns, how can we expect teenagers to act any differently? These men, after all, demeaned women with impunity, while others looked away or abetted them. Recall that it was just more than a year ago that a man who was publicly accused of abuse by a dozen women and who bragged about “grabbing them by the pussy” was elected as U.S. president.

Now that we can no longer deny the prevalence of these behaviours and attitudes, how do we prevent young men from engaging in it? Because they areengaging in it. By now, stories of sexual harassment and abuse in high schools and on university and college campuses are depressingly common.

There are the high-profile cases – such as the tragic assault and bullying of Rehtaeh Parsons, which ultimately led to her suicide – alongside day-to-day aggressions and humiliations. In 2008, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health surveyed 1,800 students in 23 Ontario high schools and found sexual harassment was rampant. Nearly half of the Grade 9 girls said they were the subject of sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks; among Grade 11 girls, 27 per cent said they felt pressured into doing something sexual when they didn’t want to, with 15 per cent reporting they had performed oral sex just so they could avoid intercourse. This abuse continues into college and university, where sexual misconduct is pervasive – ranging from rape and voyeurism, to stalking and “stealthing” (surreptitiously removing a condom during sex without consent). According to the U.S. National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women (and 1 in 16 men) report being sexually assaulted during college.

For parents of boys, these are sobering statistics.

None of us want to imagine our sons capable of harming women, but we can’t ignore that possibility, either. For young men, meanwhile, the surging public consciousness about exploitation and gendered power dynamics has provoked a mixture of confusion, resentment, defensiveness and shame. It’s not surprising this situation is fraught. Boys are conditioned by a culture that condones violence against women – from the routine deployment of “bitch” and “slut” on social media to judges who tell rape victims they should keep their knees together – and are now being urged to resist this status quo. The trouble is, most young men have been given very few tools to do so. It’s not enough to tell them to do better; we have to teach them how.

 So how do we talk to boys and young men about sexual violence? We can start by admitting that university and college is much too late to start, and that the typical frosh week one-off workshop on consent isn’t nearly enough. A 2014 review evaluating the efficacy of various sexual-violence prevention strategies found that the best programs shared key qualities. They were comprehensive, meaning they began in elementary or high school, ran over multiple sessions and were socioculturally relevant to participants. Perhaps most importantly, the curricula took into account the broader social norms of the boys they were teaching, understanding that their attitudes about sex and gender don’t exist in a vacuum, but are shaped by biases expressed among their families and friends, and within school, sports, media and pop culture.
What this might look like in practice are conversations with boys and young men that are deeper and more nuanced than “no means no.” Consent isn’t a single moment of yes or no, it’s an always shifting negotiation that requires the capacity to recognize other people’s boundaries, have empathy for their perspective and experience, and to understand your own needs and level of comfort. To teach this, we need to encourage boys early on to express their feelings and listen attentively to others. We should teach them to think critically about images of girls and women in media and pop culture, and to be aware of the power imbalance between men and women that is created by broader social attitudes and structures. And crucially, we must give boys and young men space to air their anxieties and questions about sex, without fear of being judged or ridiculed.

Right now, parents aren’t having these sorts of discussions with their children. Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education released a report this month, based on interviews with 3,000 18– to 25-year-olds, looking at how adults can help young people deal with misogyny and sexual harassment. The majority of the young people in the study said they wished their parents had talked to them more about the emotional aspects of romantic relationships. Most also said they had never spoken to their parents about the meaning and practice of consent, or about how to be a “caring and respectful partner.” And although 87 per cent of young women surveyed reported having experienced some form of sexualized harassment, 76 per cent of respondents said they had never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.

Putting the onus on parents is not foolproof, however. Our own grasp on these concepts can be hazy, too, making it all the more important for kids to get their information from multiple sources. However, the lessons young people receive in school about sex and relationships often aren’t much better. Beyond the birds-and-bees basics, a lot of sex-ed curricula is based on what sexual-health experts call the “disaster model” – an approach to sex that emphasizes everything that can go wrong, such as unwanted pregnancy and rape. Much like showing driver’s education students gruesome movies about car crashes, this method aims to frighten. The takeaway is this: Sex is scary, and likely bad, so do what you can to protect yourself. (And this is only what’s taught about straight sexuality. The needs and concerns of LGBTQ2 kids are barely addressed or even acknowledged in most mainstream sex ed.)

No wonder young people are reporting that their sexual experiences are miserable. In a 2016 University of New Brunswick study of more than 400 young people aged 16 to 21, 79 per cent of young men said they experienced low desire, low satisfaction and erectile dysfunction; while 84 per cent of young women reported experiencing pain and an inability to reach orgasm.

As a result of the failings of sexual education, young people are turning elsewhere for information. By the time boys are in college and university, they’ve been exposed to a lot of dumb and misleading ideas about sex they’ve picked up from two of their most common sources of information: porn and other teenage boys. Not only that – they’ve also absorbed a slate of gender stereotypes and sexist attitudes from the broader culture that underlie many sexual offenses: beliefs that guys are entitled to sex, or that girls who get drunk should have known better. Taken together, these common tropes imply that the pervasiveness of sexual assault is natural. Why do we expect so little of boys as to assume – and, to a degree, accept – that they will be a threat to girls?

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