Let's talk about consent

By Heather Rutherford
01 April 2021

It has been a difficult month but we are starting to see the beginning of a vital cultural shift in our attitudes towards woman’s safety, sexual harassment and rape culture – and as parents we have an essential part to play. The spotlight on women’s safety following the murder of Sarah Everard has caused an outpouring of stories and testimonies of harassment, abuse, assault and misogyny posted anonymously by young people on Everyone’s Invited. Started on Instagram last year by Soma Sara, the movement is committed to tackling rape culture through conversation, education and support. Incredibly and disturbingly, there are now more than 6,000 testimonials by pupils from schools and universities. The movement is having a huge impact and it feels that we are at a critical cultural turning point. 

Not only are schools responding but parents are also having important conversations with their children, both boys and girls. As the mum of a son and two daughters, I know there is much to talk about. The 2021 UN Women UK YouGov Survey shows that 97 per cent of full-time students reported being the survivor of some form of sexual harassment. The collection of testimonials I read makes disturbing and deeply upsetting reading. The fact that sexual harassment and abuse is seen as a ‘normal’ part of growing up and that so many have suffered in silence mean that it is imperative that we all work together to change this mindset and the culture. 

This should not be about shaming boys. Instead we need to all play our part in making change happen. Everyone’s Invited eloquently urges its community to ‘practise empathy... To reconcile is to understand both sides, to listen, and try our best to understand people’s experiences, thoughts and actions.’ Reconciliation does not mean ‘forgive and forget but to forgive and move forward’. We need to move forward together. 

We can do our part through talking, listening, modelling and empowering our children with the knowledge, self-confidence, compassion and empathy to make good decisions. Role modelling and straight talk are especially important for our boys. As Stephen Biddulph, the renowned Australian expert on manhood and raising boys, reminds us, as well as a warm, connected relationship with their mums, it’s vital for our boys to have deep, honest and open relationships with their dads, as well as other male mentors in their lives. The way that we’ll navigate through this difficult time and raise good men while keeping women supported and safe is to work together and take responsibility for having honest, straight conversations. Communication and straight talk, being clear on our family values and modelling are just some of the many things that will be required to shift and change the culture. 

Communication is key 

  • Nothing is off the table. All our homes need to be places where no topic is off-limits. We should initiate, however uncomfortable it may feel for us, age-appropriate conversations with our children about sex, consent, rape culture, inappropriate sexual behaviour, assault, porn, drugs and alcohol – and that’s just a sample. We need to talk often and adjust the focus as they grow. ‘Never assume’ is our family mantra and that goes for the age at which, sadly, our kids may be exposed to porn, a whole raft of online content, sex and sexual assault and harassment. Our children need us to be open and matter of fact, and we need to do our homework. 
  • We need to listen more than we speak. ‘Listening to understand’ is a good place to start. We should be there to listen, believe and reassure. In addition, if we can create a home where our children feel comfortable asking anything, and where they can respectfully disagree with us and their siblings, they’ll be more likely to speak out and stand up for themselves and others and heed their moral compass when they are out of our sight. Being heard respectfully and understood helps our kids build a clear identity – which is just one factor in reducing the need for external validation, helping them to stand up to peer pressure and behave responsibly. 
  • Keep the conversation going. My mum had the ‘sex chat’ with me once. It didn’t work then and it certainly doesn’t work now. This is not a one-time, check-it-off-the-list or outsourced conversation. These important conversations about relationships, social media, what feels appropriate – and especially what is not appropriate – should be relaxed, frequent and honest. Trust your instincts. You know your child and you’ll find the appropriate time and place, such as in the car, out walking or or when they’re lying on their bed to ask if you can talk. We know that kids feel more connected to us – which in turn builds their self-esteem and their sense of self-worth – when they feel we are comfortable having deep and sometimes difficult and awkward conversations. 
  • Be clear. We need to be very explicit and very straight about consent. Remind them of the law and that consent is asking for permission. It’s respectful, considerate and required. Consent is an enthusiastic ‘yes’ rather than the absence of a ‘no’. Asking for consent all along the way shows respect for the other person’s feelings and desires, as well as their boundaries. I would point out that if it feels difficult, you should ask why you are getting intimate with that person in the first place. Anything other than consent is wrong. This can be awkward and take time, but if we want to raise a generation of boys and girls with a clear understanding of the meaning of consent, then it’s very necessary. 
  • Lay out the what-ifs. Teens will tell us that they understand what consent means but the developing impulsive, thrill-seeking teen brain can find it very hard to retain control in the heat of the moment. Helping them think and talk through the ‘what-ifs’ will help: 
‘What would you do if you were at a party and everyone was drunk and there was a girl you really liked, and she was a bit out of it and your friends were egging you on?’

‘What would you do if a boy/girl you really, really liked asked you to send him/her intimate photos?’ 

‘What would you do if all your mates were saying inappropriate things about a girl. Would you join in?’ 

‘What would you do if someone started putting their hand up your shirt and you hadn’t been asked or said yes?’ 

Talking through scenarios helps kids process and get things clear in their heads. We may not have had these conversations with our parents but we absolutely need to have them with our kids. 

  • Get clear on your family values. How do we teach our children good values? They are continually assessing and absorbing our values, and the closer our relationship and the more connected our children feel, the more likely they are to take on those values. But we need to go further and consciously teach our values to our kids by talking about them and making them part of our family life. What values matter to you? Respect, integrity, kindness, warmth, self-control, compassion, humility, courage, empathy? These support a strong moral code and good decision-making. We need to be crystal clear on what we believe, which includes making a stand for what is right and speaking out when our values are not upheld – every day. Let’s not leave it to chance but find ways to notice, talk about and live these values in our families and in everything we do.
  • Keep working on self-esteem and self-confidence. Kids with a healthy sense of self and a strong identity are less likely to seek unhealthy stimuli and behave inappropriately, which includes boys exerting their power or control through non-consensual sex or submitting to peer pressure. A self-confident child is more likely to speak up and speak out. Self-esteem plummets during the teen years and that means they need our help even more to find their true selves, find their own purpose, embrace their individuality and express themselves while we uphold respectful boundaries. 
  • Teach Emotional Intelligence. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is a greater predictor of success in life than IQ. EQ is an ability to recognise, understand and manage emotions, as well as tune in to emotions of others. EQ allows self-regulation, self-control, nurtures self- esteem and builds good relationships. The language of emotions is vital for our boys. We came from a generation where most men weren’t taught to talk about feelings. Naming emotions (‘I feel worried, anxious, frustrated, lonely, sad or angry’), understanding and sending the message that ALL emotions are OK, needs to be just what we do – that’s mums and dads, teachers and coaches. We want to ask our sons what they feel, not just what they think. We want to listen, validate and empathise with their emotional experiences – all of them, and especially the ones which are more difficult. It’s when the feelings are denied, repressed or not recognised that they can become expressed in less healthy ways. As emotional awareness is a key part of self-control, and if we want our boys to talk rather than use their strength and power in inappropriate ways, let’s focus on emotional intelligence. 
  • Model the man you would like your son to become. Stephen Biddulph, who has written much about rape culture, points out that ‘role modelling is how masculinity is formed’. Research tells us that at least 70 per cent of our behavioural learning is done through modelling. Our boys need good men in their lives they can admire, emulate and respect; men who will teach boys what it looks like to respect and be compassionate towards women; men who show that isn’t only OK but essential to open up and show emotion. Our boys need to see men who show their vulnerability and who teach them empathy. The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is vital to countering rape culture. All of us, but especially the men in our boys’ lives, need to call out misogynistic comments and behaviour. Men need to be seen to say to their boys, ‘This isn’t OK’ – and that what is OK is standing up and protecting girls from sexual harassment, assault and rape. We need to be direct and start from a young age. Surrounding our boys with these influences – sport coaches, uncles, godfathers, teachers – is key. 
Changing a culture requires all of us to play our part. Doing nothing, avoiding the tough conversations, not being clear and teaching our values, not talking about emotions or surrounding our sons with role models: all of these mean that things will stay the same. We need to create a safe place in our families where our daughters feel safe to speak up and our sons feel they can be part of the solution. Let’s all do what we can to raise good sons and keep our daughters safe. 

For further information, advice, or support with any of your parenting questions and queries, please get in touch with Heather via The Parenting Partnership.

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