Antonia Chiesa, MD, would like to dispel the myth of the single sex talk. "It's not just one conversation. It's a series of conversations."
Part of that series, says Dr. Chiesa, a child abuse pediatrician with more than 15 years' experience specializing in teen sexual assault, should be consent: who can give it, when they can give it, and how to know when you have it. And the conversation starts earlier than parents might think.
Here, she shares a rough guide to the conversations that teach kids — over time — how to be safe, respectful and empathetic about sex.
Teaching children about consent: start with body boundaries
Parents can teach even very young kids to name their body parts, and which parts we don't touch without permission or let others touch without permission. Not forcing kids to hug or kiss older relatives also gives them practice with setting good body boundaries.
Defining consent with pre-teens and teens: discuss your values
Around puberty, kids are looking for information about sex — and they'll find a lot of it that's misguided or just plain wrong.
Parents are the best source to set the record straight — and to be frank and direct about their values. Teens can't know what parents believe about sex and why they believe it unless parents tell them. "Kids crave these conversations," says Dr. Chiesa. "And they really do take them to heart."
What does consent look like?
Consent is more than one question, and it applies to more than just sex. So what is it, and how do you talk about it with kids? Dr. Chiesa breaks it down:
Can consent be implied? Can it be nonverbal?
The short answer is no. "Consent is getting a person's verbal and explicit permission about any kind of sexual contact, including touching or kissing," says Dr. Chiesa.
Can consent be revoked?
Yes. Consent is an ongoing — more like a conversation than a contract — and the discussion should last the length of the interaction. "Does this feel good to you? Do you want to try this? You want to be pretty specific," says Dr. Chiesa. "It's not a comfortable conversation to have, but the more explicit, the better."
What isn't consent?
"People under the influence aren't in a position to consent," says Dr. Chiesa. That means a person who's under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot, under any circumstances, consent to sexual activity — even if they say "yes," even if both parties are intoxicated.
These conversations are a must even for parents who would much rather their teen not have sexual contact at all. Even if they're not initiating contact, they may be on the receiving end.
Dealing with pressure to consent
Almost every teen will encounter sexual pressure at some point. "I encourage parents to talk about sex assault," says Dr. Chiesa. "It doesn't always mean forcible rape. It can be tricking someone, getting them drunk or talking them into something they wouldn't otherwise do, and it doesn't matter if one or both parties are intoxicated. Drugs and alcohol are probably going to be offered at some point. It's a good idea to talk about, when it happens, what's the plan for staying safe?"
Teens and sexting
Another pressure point for teens: sexting. A teen might consider sending a nude picture — but would they give permission for that pic to be shared with dozens or even hundreds of others? That can happen once it's out there. ("Don’t do it!" says Dr. Chiesa.)
To teach consent, teach empathy
The crux of any conversation about consent is empathy: How does it feel to be treated with respect? Or without it? "Empathy is the foundation of healthy relationships," says Dr. Chiesa. "That's going to influence their relationships across the board, not just with sexual intimacy, for the rest of their lives."
Ready to broach the topic of consent with your kids? Here are our general guidelines for talking with children about consent, by age group.