Changing 'no means no!” to “yes means YES!'
Consent, in its simplest form, means to give permission. You can give permission, receive permission and take permission away. Children learn the difference between yes and no at an early age. When it comes to sex, saying “yes” or “no” can be confusing.
Because social norms for teens are changing, blurred lines seem to exist. It’s important to understand what consent means. “At CARES Northwest, we often speak with students about consent and help them to think about the societal messages they receive about sex,” said Sally Blackwood, violence prevention educator. “The messages they get from social media, websites and television/movies influence how they talk with each other about these issues, what they think about their needs, wants and desires, and what they are entitled to.”
In a recent New York Times article, “Sex and Consent on Campus,” college students shared their struggles to communicate about consent. From young women: “He was my friend, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.” “I felt like I owed him something.” “I lay there trapped by politeness.” They felt like they owed their partner sex. The women heard their partners say, “Why are you being such a tease?” “You’re laughing and smiling and you clearly want to hook up.”
Young men struggled as well. “I lied so she would think I was more experienced.” “Don’t be a wuss, girls want you to be assertive.” Youth often gain knowledge from pornography, which shows men being rough, coercing partners into sexual activity, and not seeking and obtaining consent. These messages teach that consent doesn’t matter and sex is expected, even if taken by force. So how do we talk to our kids about consent and sexual assault?
• Consent is an enthusiastic “yes” to any type of sexual activity. It is specific and freely given. And saying “no” is a viable option.
• There are no negative emotional consequences for saying “no.” No one says “yes” because they worry how the other will feel or act, they worry about their reputation, job, or status changing, or they worry if their partner will break up with them.
• Consent cannot occur when one person uses force, manipulation, threats, coercion, or physical/verbal violence.
Sex and Relationships:
• What is sexual coercion? How can young people know when it’s happening? Ask questions like, “How do you handle sexual requests that make you uncomfortable?” “What makes those sexual requests disrespectful?” “Is the request one-sided or for the benefit of both people?”
• How do friend groups discuss pornography? Does watching pornography change views of sex, relationships, and women?
• What makes a good relationship? How can you tell when it becomes unhealthy? What does respect, good communication, trust, and compromise look like? What is the difference between “jealousy and extreme jealousy”?
Counteract Harmful Messages:
• Have conversations about what it means to be a “Real Man.”
• Talk about gender messages in TV shows, songs, and social media. What makes it hard for others to stand up against them? How are beauty, popularity, and strength defined? What are you “supposed to” focus on?
• How do programs and social platforms show sex and healthy relationships? Do online communities or programming support force, coercion or violence?
“At the center of all sexual violence is a lack of consent and power imbalance,” said Blackwood. “Through societal messaging on television, movies, social media, and the internet, power is misunderstood and often exploited.”
Education and open discussion with our kids and teens are key. Preventing sexual violence isn’t just about understanding the concept of consent. It’s also about teaching our young people how to actively resist harmful and incorrect societal messages and how to be positive role models for healthy relationships.
Online and video resources:
Healthy Teen Network
Love is Respect
48 Things that Men Hear in a Lifetime (that are bad for everyone)
48 Reasons Messages Women Hear in a Lifetime (that men just don’t)
The Mask You Live In
For media inquiries, contact Ashley Stanford Cone.
Thank you to CARES Northwest for contributing to this article.