The “consent” conversation

I got the "sex" conversation from my mom when I was little. Basic mechanics, how it relates to pregnancy, that sort of thing. Over the years we had other, more spontaneous conversations about other aspects of sexuality. Including the issue of consent. What constituted it, what didn’t.

Now I’m curious to know if parents talk to their boys about consent. Does anyone consider that a required part of a boy’s sexual education? Do parents or school officials consider it their essential duty to teach boys this stuff? I’m not just talking about protecting girls, but about protecting boys from illegal situations they can wander into rather than set out to create. Do parents warn their sons:

  • If you come across an unconscious female, she is not a "freebie". Not even if she put herself into that stupor. Even if your pals assure you she’ll be okay with it.
  • Alcohol and drugs can make consent a confusing issue. Don’t rely on them to excuse your sexual behavior: take the responsibility to have sex only when both partners are sober enough to clearly consent.
  • If you really want to be safe, don’t settle for a lack of "no" – get a definite word of affirmation from your partner before going through with whatever you’re doing with her. If she’s conflicted enough that she can’t say "okay" or "yes", then maybe she’s not really ready for this – and even if it’s not your responsibility to figure that out for her, it would be better for you to just walk away from that situation. From both a legal and humane standpoint.
  • Oral and anal count. Using objects instead of a body part counts. Using another body part than your penis counts. Etc.

Teaching girls what doesn’t constitute consent is hardly helpful if boys aren’t getting the same speech.


  1. Mecha says

    All I can point out is that I never had a sex talk, or sex ed, ever. I think that’s a good idea, though, that consent should be a part of the ‘sex ethics’ side of the script (as opposed to ‘sex mechanics’.) I’m not sure how prevelant it is in sex ed either. I get the vague impression, from a quick search, that it exists, but is not a huge part of the curriculum.

    I imagine that sex ed courses should be a fair basis for ‘the talk’ for anyone, though.


  2. Purtek says

    I didn’t even get anything close to a “consent” conversation with my parents, or in the sex ed I had in school (and “comprehensive” sex ed in theory is much less controversial in Canada than in the U.S.). From teachers I know, consent and abuse in teen relationships is becoming a much more important issue than it was 10 years ago, and that’s being directed at both sexes, though from what I’ve seen, it’s probably too skewed toward young girls. Which has the added problem of placing the responsibility to prevent abuse and sexual assault on the ones far more likely to be the victims of it.

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    This is almost slightly off topic and I’ll probably post it on the film/tv site soon, but:

    I watched a documentary about Mia Zapata recently – a Seattle punk rocker who was raped, mutilated and killed one night on the street. For 10 years, the crime was unsolved – no idea who did it – and Joan Jett did a video in which a girl like Mia was “aware” of her would-be attacker and took precautions and managed to fight him off. Women in Seattle formed a group to teach women self-defense.

    When they finally found the guy, guess what? He was probably 250 pounds, gigantic – as one prosecutor said, “This guy would’ve been a battle for a football player”.

    Why do people tell women how to prevent rape? Only male rapists can prevent male-female rape.

  4. SunlessNick says

    … it’s probably too skewed toward young girls. Which has the added problem of placing the responsibility to prevent abuse and sexual assault on the ones far more likely to be the victims of it. – Purtek

    Added to that, some talking heads get into a tizzy that rape prevention advice for girls doesn’t stress abstinence enough – as if virginity creates a forcefield or something.

    I never got a consent talk either, though I did get a “hurting people is wrong” talk.

  5. says

    Added to that, some talking heads get into a tizzy that rape prevention advice for girls doesn’t stress abstinence enough – as if virginity creates a forcefield or something.

    My head spins like a top when I try to follow arguments like these. As a society, we waste so much energy conflating consensual and non-consensual sexual activity; why can’t they just conflate abstinence with rape-prevention and let it go? 😉

    Because it’s not really about chastity or piousness or any of that. It’s about controlling female behavior.

    I never got a consent talk either, though I did get a “hurting people is wrong” talk.

    And if that’s backed up sufficiently by how a kids guardians conduct themselves, it’s probably more than enough. Despite this society being constructed as nearly a rape free-for-all, there have always been men who back off at the slightest sign of discomfort or conflict from a woman or girl – even if she’s consented – because of how awful they’d feel if she regretted being with him later. If you can raise a boy to think like that in this atmosphere, then it’s got to be pretty doable.

  6. Firebird says

    I didn’t get a consent conversation. I got a lot of guilt and rules instead. I wasn’t allowed to talk to certain boys (what I should do when they came over into my yard and started talking to me wasn’t addressed – I was just punished) or walk around the block because we lived in a “bad neighborhood.” I was frequently told that wearing makeup or pink or red fingernail polish made me look like a “whore” (I was 12). I grew up terrified of rape and knowing only what PG-13 TV and movies can teach you about sex – which, I’ve found, taken as a stand alone source tends to give a perspective skewed toward violence as a standard for all sex.

    Oh, and yes, my family were ultra religious fanatics.

  7. rufusruff says

    *puts hand up as mother of two sons*

    Yes. Yes I did. Also checked and re-checked that message was received and understood. Also reinforced by dad. I firmly believe school sex ed. did likewise, but at an all-boys school, I wonder what was said amongst peers…

    Part of what parenting boys MUST be about IMO. God, what an awful thought that one’s child might be guilty of such an act. Ick.

  8. Jennifer Kesler says

    Very cool. I cannot imagine raising a boy and not teaching him this stuff, just in case he gets confusing messages from other sources.

  9. rufusruff says

    just in case he gets confusing messages from other sources.

    *nods*: and chances are, he will.

    I was mildly shocked, in discussion with a (female) police officer, to find that my assumption that an allegation of rape should prima facie be taken at face value rather than not, was not shared by her. She said that after ten years in her line of work (specialist sexual offences and vulnerable adults work) she no longer thought that. I know one has to proceed on the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ tack (though, as an aside, I have up-close experience of that NOT happening re Police), but it seemed more that she genuinely believed false allegations to be relatively common. Without the same experience to qualify me to comment, I wasn’t sure what to make of that…

  10. Jennifer Kesler says

    There is, unfortunately, a lot of data flying around about this issue, and I’m not sure anyone could be said not to have an agenda or bias. Example: here’s an article from a site that clearly focuses on men’s issues headlined “Research Shows False Accusations of Rape Common”, which cites research suggesting that over 40% of rape accusations are false, then goes on to say:

    A 1997 Columbia Journalism Review analysis of rape statistics noted that the 2% statistic is often falsely attributed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and has no clear and credible study to support it. The FBI’s statistic for “unfounded” rape accusations is 9%, but this definition only includes cases where the accuser recants or the evidence contradicts her story. Instances where the case is dismissed for lack of evidence are not included in the “unfounded” category.

    The bit I bolded, combined with other remarks in the article, suggests to me that the 40% figures come from assuming every case that got dismissed for lack of evidence is a false allegation. Which is ridiculous: there’s rarely good forensic evidence in rape cases. Hell, murder cases get dismissed for lack of evidence, too, but that doesn’t mean the deceased must’ve committed suicide. The 40% number also appears to include cases where the assailant identified was later proven via DNA not to match the samples of DNA found on the victim. I wouldn’t call that a “false allegation”, I’d call it a misidentification. Again, there are people in jail for murders they didn’t commit, as new DNA testing has revealed. Doesn’t mean they were deliberately framed.

  11. rufusruff says

    Although my ‘source’ didn’t try to quote figures, I can see that the same assumptions might have operated for her – that a failed prosecution=no crime, not insufficient evidence despite a crime probably occuring, and furthermore as you say, even no-crime does not mean someone set out to trap them (though in a closeup and personal crime, I can see why that would be more likely to be assumed- no-one else is likely to accuse a rapist apart from the putative victim, unlike in the case of murder where the Police are likely the accusers unless there’s a witness).

    Long and bitter experience of the ‘can’t prove it ergo they didn’t do it’ phenomenon in a much less serious context (constant harrassment of disabled teenager and of our house because of that) – so it’s horribly plausible.

  12. Jennifer Kesler says

    Well, it’s also one of the few crimes where the evidence can never really distinguish it from a legal act engaged in for enjoyment (consensual sex). With a body that didn’t die of natural causes (and is presumed not to be a suicide), you have no question a murder has taken place, so if you can’t prove your case, you blame circumstances or the loopholes in the law or the cleverness of the murderer. As you slowly watch a rape case fall apart, unraveled by things that can’t be proven or forgotten details that later emerge, that human tendency to blame someone when things go wrong is more likely to turn on the accuser whose memory is imperfect (or is it?) and whose conduct can be scrutinized for every flaw.

    I’m not making excuses – just because a tendency is normal doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to overcome it. I just think we need to understand the mechanisms behind some of our behaviors before we can change, and this is where I think some of the victim blaming comes from.

    Aside from the more obvious causes, like the fact we’re coming from a culture where women who sleep around have “low morals” and “poor self esteem”, but men are congratulated for the same behavior.

  13. says

    Good post making a very valid point. Unfortunately, (and I’m saying this based on my high school) the public school system’s sex ed classes are next to useless. In one class we had the football coach who was so embarrassed by the subject matter that he couldn’t even talk to us, let alone lecture or show us videos or anything else, and in the other class we had the English teacher who told stories about having sex with his pregnant wife. Never was consent even broached slightly- and hardly anything about safe sex (or any other kind) was touched.

    As for my parents, I never got any sort of sex talk. Literally, the only time we ever discussed it in any form was when I went on birth control. My mom said “Are you having sex?” and I lied and said “No.” That was it.

    Unfortunately lots of parents are leaving it up to the chools and the schools are leaving it up to the parents so no one really gets informed of anything. :(

  14. Scarlett says

    From my distant memories of the Australian high school system, there’s a set curriculm that legally HAS to be taught about the mechanics of it, the mechanics of pregnancy, how different contraceptions work etc. That’s all I remember. That, and at one point I went to a Catholic school, and I remember finding it very amusing that they still, by law, had to teach about contraception and evolution in science. I think pretty much the only different between my public and private educations was the RE :p

  15. Casey says

    Excuse me for the EPIC THREAD NECROMANCY and slightly OT post that’s to follow, but…

    The whole “lack of no = yes” thing never seems to escape me, even in video games.
    I was playing Smackdown: Here Comes the Pain and there’s an interactive segment where you watch a (randomly generated) male wrestler talk to Trish Stratus. He tries asking her out in the CREEPIEST way possible (“you looked like such a WOMAN in your bra and panties match last night, ZOMG!”) and you can either say “Back away from Trish” or “That sounds like a great idea!” and try to hook them up. If you say the second thing, Trish ignores you and just leaves to have a match. The male wrestler says “That’s not a ‘no’,” and follows her.

    Considering how many awful rape-related storylines they’ve had on WWE television (four is too many), why am I still surprised?

    • The Other Patrick says

      I can give you a current real-world example. A friend and play mate of mine just had a really bad bdsm experience. She is diabetic, so prone to getting scars, and the guy whe played with scratched her all over. She didn’t, at first, notice how bad it was, and later on was so withdrawn that she felt unable to say no, though she says her nonverbal signals must have been pretty clear; he tried to break her, and when she didn’t break (and just asked for less scratching because of scars) he even took a knife to her breasts.

      She never said no, and now she’s totally out of whack and thinks she’s the only one responsible.

  16. keelleft says

    I don’t remember whether i had a consent conversation or not, the nearest i had to that was probably “no means no”. We weren’t taught about enthusiastic consent in sex ed, just that
    I’m dating a guy from a left-wing science research background. I’m fairly sure he’s had the consent conversation, or learnt why on the internets and won’t do anything with me unless i specifically say it’s alright and he wants me to enjoy sexual activity, all the way and up to orgasm, and gets upset when he is not able to please me as much i please him.
    He won’t admit he’s a feminist, says he’s an equalitist, which i’m fine with letting him say right now, only because i haven’t been an “active” feminist long enough to know how to convince him to change his terminology/definition. I’ve started inculating in him some concepts, like why women shouldn’t be hit on everywhere, especially in places not designed for hitting on, like science conferences, in the hope that he’ll tell his friends if they act innapropriately to not do it again, with reasons why not to, or tell them before it happens.

    • says

      Just to point it out: there are legit reasons some people refuse to call themselves feminists, and I’m one of them. The reason is: feminism has an unfortunate history of being led by posh white women who totally forgot the rest of us exist, and were offended when we suggested that feminism should include us.

      Now, if your bf’s only reason to reject the term is fear of what people think or something, that is kind of silly. But I just wanted to make it clear that there are valid reasons for rejecting that label.

      • Casey says

        I was thinking about that a while ago (the whole “refusing to self-identify as feminist” thing/”I’m not a feminist, but” then making an obviously feminist statement deal), and I figure that with MOST people who reject the term “feminist” because of those stupid reasons (ie, fearing you’ll look like a ball-busting lesbian man-hater) as opposed to a legitimate womanist reason you’ve mentioned.
        Just the other day I was on a kinky image board and some female poster said she likes being a femme-dom because “she’s a bit of a feminist” and a male poster replied to her saying she “need not sully [her] preferences with such a ‘dirty’ word”, now I personally think BOTH these people are acting foolish, but hey, he’s probably saying that because of that unreasonable fear.[/tangent]

        • Shaun says

          It occurred to me that while other social justice movements are referred to as anti-racism or anti-classism, the majority of people involved in anti-sexism are referred to as feminists. That would imply to me that the others are AGAINST something while feminists are FOR something. I know it’s always common wisdom to be for something rather than against, something, but primarily I identify as anti-kyriarchy. If feminists are for something, who gets to define that? The majority of people with the feminist label? Are they the people here or the white cis straight middle-class able feminists who’ve dominated for decades?

          I just had a lengthy conversation with this about a friend after s.e. smith’s blog post leaving feminism. I think feminist is a useful label in public, because most people aren’t gender essentialist experts (or students) and wouldn’t understand or care for the distinctions, and I wouldn’t want to have this dialog in a place where it looks like anti-sexism is under attack, but I’ve always kind of grappled with who defines feminism.

          • Casey says

            Yeah, the definition of feminism is kind of a sticky wicket, as is wondering who’s the arbiter of what constitutes feminism…and with people like Sarah Palin self-identifying as feminist, well…urgh.[/brain fart]

          • says

            Well, who defines ANY label? That’s my problem with labels in general. People want to ask you what you believe and get a 1-2 word answer so they can pigeonhole you. I hate that shit: either listen for thirty seconds as I describe my beliefs, or go away and stop bothering me with your tiny attention span.

            BTW, you might find this an interesting read:

            • Shaun says

              I don’t think it’s really possible for any one person to completely grasp kyriarchy as I doubt there’s one human out there who isn’t privileged on at least one axis, or several. It’s not that I don’t think feminism has produced some amazing material–I think most of the social justice movements have borrowed from anti-racism and feminism, IMO the oldest and strongest. I do think that the way lots of people use feminism is outdated, though. Men have institutional power over women, but not all men have power over all women, at least not all the time. And not everyone is a man or a woman.

              I know feminism has addressed and to some extent always addressed these issues, but the majority of feminists are privileged on other axes, and not only convinced that their axis is the only one that matters, but that everyone ELSE privileges every other form of social injustice more than gender inequality.

              This is not the only group that does this–have you TALKED to people in the LGBT community? Instead of straight women the loudest voices are now gay men of the same vein. Aside from the fact Wrong Planet is a shitty site, the commenters on there are often the shittiest wealthy, white, male, cis people privileged in every other way except being autistic. This isn’t any exclusive criticism of feminism, but feminism is one of the largest SJ movements out there.

              I really miss Disfem.

                • Shaun says

                  I’m sort of just expositioning from what I was linked to, it wasn’t intended as some kind of groundbreaking new thing.

              • says

                What Casey said. Are you responding to the article I linked? If so, you missed the point. Kyriarchy sets up a separate entity from society which can take all the blame: society’s lovely, it’s just kyriarchy that’s all bad. Well, no. Call me a radfem, but this society is very messed up and it needs a reboot. What you’re talking about is intersectionality, and it’s kind of exactly why I started WhatPrivilege.

                • Shaun says

                  Yes, I’m responding to the article you linked. I guess I did miss the point cause I wasn’t sure why you linked it. I don’t remember saying society wasn’t bad and I don’t think I’ve encountered the idea of society being separate from kyriarchy (unless you think of kyriarchy as a disease oozing across the infested body of society, anyway).

              • Maria says

                This is not the only group that does this–have you TALKED to people in the LGBT community?

                Shaun, I’m really stuck on this comment. Are you assuming here no one is LGBTQQ or has friends or loved ones who are LGBTQQ? …Because dude, WTF.

                • Attackfish says

                  *Raises queer hand high* Oh hell yes we have privilege problems within the community, but there are a lot of people on sites like this who are in both worlds, and your assumption that people in social justice movements don’t talk to people in other social justice movements, or don’t belong to multiple social justice movements as well as multiple axises of oppression is frankly bizarre, especially given the close ties between many LGBTQQI social justice movements and feminist groups.

                • Shaun says

                  I don’t articulate well apparently. That was more of a metaphorical “have you WORKED in customer service?” kind of question. I wasn’t making any specific comment about anyone, I was using that as an example to illustrate I’m aware it’s not just feminists who do that, it’s everybody.

                  • Casey says

                    “I’m aware it’s not just feminists who do that, it’s everybody.”

                    Something of which we are ALL well-aware…I’mjussayin’…*shuffles back into dark corner*

          • Maria says

            Well, no, other social justice movements are NOT referred to as anti-racism/anti-sexism/anti-sexism. That’s a descriptor for the philosophies associated with the movements, which often have names like… womanism, women’s liberation, civil rights movement, free Palestine, copyleft, suffrage movement, abolition, etc etc etc. Saying you are anti-racist is useful for cross movement solidarity, but says nothing for what you think racism is/looks like, or what you are focusing on as issues.

    • Raeka says

      What I’d tell him is my reasons for identifying as a feminist, rather than an equalist/humanist: I call myself a feminist as a way to highlight that women generally got the very, VERY short end of the privilege stick. Yes, being a feminist means you want equality for BOTH genders, and yes, patriarchy hurts men, too –but I also think part of being a feminist is acknowledging that the current system is damn harsh on women, much, much more so than men.

      That being said, I definitely wouldn’t try to force anyone to adopt the label –and if he’s not comfortable with calling himself a feminist (or womanist, as that’s a term I’ve heard used instead for the reasons Jennifer gave), you might offer him this one: pro-feminist. I read it somewhere in an article, and I rather liked it –I don’t know all the connotations of it, but it seemed to me to be a good way to show support for feminism if you’re not ready or comfortable to take on the full label.

      • Casey says

        “What I’d tell him is my reasons for identifying as a feminist, rather than an equalist/humanist: I call myself a feminist as a way to highlight that women generally got the very, VERY short end of the privilege stick. Yes, being a feminist means you want equality for BOTH genders, and yes, patriarchy hurts men, too –but I also think part of being a feminist is acknowledging that the current system is damn harsh on women, much, much more so than men.”

        Ah, that ALSO reminds me (DERP, THREAD HIJACKING) of why I identify as both a humanist GENERALLY and a feminist/womanist SPECIFICALLY. I’m also pro-body acceptance GENERALLY and pro-fat acceptance SPECIFICALLY.


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