Sexual Consent: Teaching Our Teens About The Gray Areas

October 11, 2016

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Posted in: Families, Hot Topics, Teenagers, Young Adults

In light of allegations of sexual misconduct that have arisen as part of the 2016 presidential election, we thought it more important than ever to share the blog below on how parents can help teens respectfully navigate the gray areas of sexual and romantic relationships.

In the realm of sexual relations, consent is a bit of a mess.

It’s not a mess because it’s not important. It’s super important.

It’s not a mess because we don’t try to teach how to obtain consent. We try to teach that all the time.

It’s a mess because…well, because consent to have sex can be messy. It’s just that simple.

We’re not talking about the extremes, thank goodness. If two people who are mature enough to have sex discuss having sex and then have sex after both agree that they’re ready to, then there’s no problem. (At least there’s no problem at the time of the act. There could be later, and we’ll get to that in a bit.)

And, if two people are considering having sex, and then one decides not to and says so, then they should NOT have sex. If the one who wants to have sex forces the sex, then it’s not consensual. In fact, it’s ethically wrong and highly illegal. Like boxing, if both aren’t in agreement, then one of the two is committing a crime.

Unfortunately, most discussions of this obviously difficult issue stop at the extremes.  “Yes” to sex from both parties, and you have consent. “No” to sex by one or both parties, and you do not have consent. There’s no argument there, and these discussions are therefore short-lived and largely straightforward. If that were all you were teaching, the job would be pretty easy.

Except that every teen or young adult with whom I’ve discussed this issue is incredibly frustrated with the way that these discussions go. Teens know, just as we know, that sex is rarely straightforward. The extremes are clear, but it’s the muddled gray areas where we get all tangled up. Given our propensity as adults to crave simplification, we tend, in pedagogic settings, to stop the discussions short. And yet, if the discussion were to continue, we’d be in the weeds pretty fast.

We’d like, however, to invite our readers to wander into the weeds. That’s where the teens need us to be.

Consider this scene. Two older teens are alone in a dorm room at college. They’ve had a good night together, and they’re considering becoming even more intimate than they already are.

Teen #1: “C’mon, please? I really like you. We’ve got protection. It’ll be great.”

Teen #2: “No, let’s just keep things where they are. I don’t know.”

Teen #1: “What don’t you know? Don’t you like me?”

Teen #2: “Of course. But do you think we should? I mean, we sort of just met.”

Let’s stop there. That’s a moderately believable dialogue. It might be a bit clunky, but you get the picture. Now, do a thought experiment. Make Teen #1 a girl in a heterosexual relationship. Now make Teen #2 a girl in a heterosexual relationship.

Does changing the gender make you think about things differently? What if both teens are girls? What if both teens are boys?

And does this count as coercion or coquettish flirting? Does the gender of the person matter? Does the past history of the person matter? Does how one or both feel the next day matter? Should Teen #1 have stopped at the first sign of doubt from Teen #2? Was Teen #1 putting on too much pressure? Should they have continued to talk about what was cool and not cool in the moment?

We could go on, but the ambiguity is clear: when you get away from the extremes, consent to sexual activity is muddled and subject to a kind of after-the-fact reasoning. There are certainly reported cases of allegations where people have changed their minds the next day about whether they had intended to have sex, and then the investigation and adjudication at the schools where the events took place are treated with the same gravitas and implication of malfeasance as if they were as straightforward as cases of obvious rape. And, the situation becomes even more complicated and confusing in the context of alcohol or other substances, when memory the day or week after is blurry at best—or, when under the influence in the moment leads to impulsive decision-making.

As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I’ve seen patients become frustrated and even frightened by the ways that flirting might seem like coercion—or that one’s outfit might be misinterpreted as seductive when it was purely meant to be fashionable. How about how the shorthand of texts and social media use may inadvertently blur the intentions of the sender, or the emotional understanding (or misunderstanding) of the receiver? Without question, culture plays a role here, too. The exercise above where we switched the genders of the teens conveys our societal tendency to make assumptions based on our expectations of gender stereotypes.

This kind of ambiguity is actually pretty dangerous. In other words, just because we can’t define with confidence the realms of consent outside of extremes, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have frank, honest, and forthcoming discussions with young people about the clearly confusing rules with which we approach sexuality. To do otherwise is to leave teens vulnerable to making sense of these nuances without our guidance.

And believe me, they need our guidance. If you are an adult reading this post, think back to when you were a teen. There’s a hundred-thousand-year-old evolutionary drive, not to mention expectations of friends and peers, clouding your thinking and dictating your behavior when things get hot. If we don’t help teens slow down, think through, and even rehearse these moments,  there are bound to be even more misunderstandings and mishaps than there are already. We owe it to our kids to help them appreciate how complicated all of this is.

We also need to be cognizant of the fact that no teen is comfortable talking with a parent or other adult about this topic. The last thing a teen wants is a lecture, and though that’s not necessarily our intention, most are primed to receive one—and that expectation can lead to wariness, if not sheer avoidance. Part of our cultural switch has to also help teens appreciate that we as the adults in their lives have had similar experiences; it’s why we want to explore the nuances of these situations and consider alternative explanations for behavior—and how that behavior can be interpreted by others. This is quite a trick, and many of us who have tried have had our share of difficulty, awkwardness, and rejection.

You might argue that, given all of this confusion, the obvious and least dangerous choice is abstinence. But, we know from virtually every study on adolescent sexual behavior that many will not choose abstinence. If we therefore suggest abstinence as the only solution, we ignore a huge swatch of teens in our discussion.

In general, any all-or-nothing solution is fraught with danger. Abstinence is as problematic as promiscuity with protection—a common theme in many teen coming-of-age films.

So, what do we advise?

Ask.

Teach your kids to ask their partners if they want to have sex. Even if they’re absolutely, 100% sure, always ask. And, if someone changes his or her mind, even in the middle of things, it’s always OK to say that he or she needs to stop. Teach your kids to make it clear to their partners that anytime they want to stop, the partner needs to respect their decision. Encourage them also to communicate with their partners about what they’re thinking in terms of sexual activity. There’s sex, and then there’s sex—and it may not always be clear what a partner is wanting to do in the moment.

For goodness sakes, tell them it’s OK to flirt. Flirting is part of being human, and it’s also a lot of fun. But, flirt with the understanding that “no” still means “no.”And, if you’re feeling unsure of how far you’re comfortable going, it may be best to just plan on saying “no.” Nowadays, it’s a good idea to establish that up front. Some might argue that this kind of pronouncement goes without saying, but things that go without saying are usually exactly what need to be explicitly stated. One won’t ruin the mood by making this clear. And if this kind of understanding DOES ruin the mood, then the relationship, at least on a sexual level, is one to stay away from. There can be no ambiguity here.

We don’t usually plug television shows as primers for what we do for a living, but this clip from John Oliver is about as good as it gets in terms of describing the in’s and out’s (no pun intended) of sexual discussions. Take a look, and let us know what you think.

And remember: if sex were straightforward and clear, it would be boring and perfunctory. We need to help our kids negotiate the gray areas of human sexuality. That is, after all, where most of the action takes place.

Steven Schlozman

Steven Schlozman, M.D.

Steven Schlozman, M.D. is associate director of The MGH Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, and a staff child and adolescent psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. He is als...

To learn more about Steven, or to contact him directly, please see Our Team.

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