How to Talk to Kids About Sex and Consent

shutterstock_239227144In the wake of the St. Paul’s School verdict, I want to talk about rape and responsibility.

Rape is not new. Our reaction to it, though, has been evolving. In the last few years, we’ve seen a meaningful shift in the way sexual assault is discussed. That hasn’t happened on its own; the changes are the hard-won victories of a movement largely led by sexual assault survivors. Especially over the last few years, the topic of sexual assault on college campuses has helped catalyze a broader conversation about rape, consent and healthy relationships.

But even as we see progress at many levels—like California’s new affirmative consent law—every year also brings new, ridiculous lows, like politicians talking about “legitimate rape” or attempting to pass laws narrowing sexual assault to “forcible rape.”

So even as we make real progress, it’s clear that we have a long way to go.

For parents and teachers, it often can be difficult to approach this subject. But sexual assault and the rape culture that feeds it thrive in the dark of ignorance. Sexual assault survivors are often too ashamed to come forward because of our upside-down culture where the accused is innocent until proven guilty while the survivor is guilty until proven innocent. According to the Justice Department, sexual assault goes unreported 68 percent of the time, in part because of the social pressure and scrutiny put on survivors.

Changing that culture will require a different approach. We can’t be afraid to discuss sexual assault and to help our children—and our students—build values systems around healthy behavior, respect and affirmative consent.

Some will say, “Talking to kids about sex—and especially about sexual crimes—is inappropriate.” Sadly, nearly half of all survivors of sexual assault are under the age of 18. We can’t wait until our kids are headed off to college to talk to them. They need the tools to create healthy relationships now. They need to understand respect and consent so they won’t commit assaults. And they need the support and courage to prevent potential assaults, and to come forward if a crime has been committed against them or someone they know.

The news provides one powerful tool we can use to have age-appropriate conversations with our kids. Any time a story about sexual assault makes headlines, it offers an opening. Either we can ignore it because it’s uncomfortable, and send kids the message that sex and sexual crime is shameful and not to be discussed, or we can use it as an opportunity to help build their values systems.

Let’s take the verdict of Owen Labrie from St. Paul’s School as an opportunity to reflect on our own school, campus and work cultures. Let’s use this news story as a way to bring students, families, teachers and experts together to co-create a culture of respect and affirmative consent.

What do I mean by respect? Respect for each other: How do we teach it and model it in our schools and on our campuses? Respect for knowledge: Do we offer health classes that include comprehensive sex education? Do we offer resources to families to continue the conversation at home?

Affirmative consent—or “yes means yes”—laws have been slowly but surely passing across the country. How do we create a culture together where the expectation is to ask for and receive an enthusiastic and informed “yes,” rather than to listen for—and try to pressure someone past—“no”?

The best way to disarm the rape culture is to start early. Teach consent and healthy relationship behavior explicitly. Teach kids to respect one another’s autonomy and the right to say “no.”

As this trial highlighted, explicitly consenting to any sexual activity is something that must be a responsibility shared by both parties, not a burden for women to carry by themselves. It offers an opportunity to discuss—in an age-appropriate way—the difference between enthusiastic participation and coercion.

The critics often say that any sex education other than “abstinence only” will simply encourage young people to have sex. But the research shows exactly the opposite.

Studies by the University of Washington using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that the more knowledge students have about sex, the more likely they are to wait until they’re older to become sexually active, and the more likely they are to engage in safe sexual behavior. Conversely, states with abstinence-only education have the highest teen pregnancy rates and above-average rates of sexually transmitted infections.

It only stands to reason that teaching kids to respect one another’s bodies, to seek clear and enthusiastic consent, and how to deal with sexual assault if it does happen, will have similarly positive effects.

Young people, armed with knowledge, making healthy choices for themselves—isn’t that what we all want?

Thanks to the leadership of Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), we have a chance to expand sex ed curricula through the Teach Safe Relationships Act. But even the best sex ed only gets us so far—it’s up to every parent to have these conversations with our own children, too.

So let’s take the news of this tragic situation and turn it into an opportunity to make our schools, campuses and communities healthier places for everyone, especially our young women and men. I’m having the conversation with my kids. Will you?

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Mary Cathryn Ricker is executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers.