Firstly, if you know or suspect your daughter may have experienced any kind of sexual assault you need to start by letting her know you believe her, that she’s done nothing wrong, that it’s not her fault, and that you want to talk to her about helping and supporting her. You (or she) can contact 1800MYLINE (1800 695 463) for support or, if you suspect a crime may have been committed contact police on 000.
Talking with kids about sex and consent isn’t always easy. While both boys and girls need to understand the importance of consent and respectful relationships, there are different messages and ways of talking to boys and girls (and because of that this article is about talking to girls). Most young people are keen to find out all about sex – but generally not from their parents! However, the fact remains that discussing sex and consent needs to happen sooner rather than later, and be part of an ongoing discussion as they mature.
You might assume school will cover these topics, but many schools focus primarily on the biology of sex and sexual health (e.g. using a condom to avoid STIs), and not as much on the social aspects of sex, such as dealing with pressure from others and understanding what respectful communication about consent looks like in practice.
Sometimes, we try to frighten our daughters into protecting themselves from unwanted sexual contact by describing horror stories of rapists lurking in dark alleys. The ways we talk to our daughters can make them feel like they need to protect themselves from sexual assault by dressing a particular way, avoiding walking places alone or not getting drunk at parties. While these things are all worth talking about, the statistics show that most people are at a much greater risk of being sexually assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger [#1].
Unfortunately, murder and sexual assault occur in broad daylight, in victims’ homes, on the street during the day and at night, and regardless of where people live, what nationality they are, what they look like or how they dress. Obviously, it’s important for everyone to look after their own safety, but it is never a girl’s fault if they are sexually assaulted – it is the fault of the perpetrator, and the perpetrator alone.
Part of your discussions with your daughter should highlight sexual pressures, such as ‘having the hard word put on her’, or friends pressuring her to have sex because ‘everybody else is doing it’. Make sure your daughter knows that if she’s having sex because she feels pressure (from someone she likes, from her friends or just because ‘it’s what you do’) then she’s not actually consenting to that sex [#2].
Although many non-consensual sexual acts happen because of pressure from a partner, sometimes girls feel pushed into having sex by their peers or what society tells them they should be doing. Your daughter might be seeing someone who has no intention of pressuring her into sex, but because of the world she has grown up in, she feels she should live up to ideas such as women being sexy, sexually passive or being available for men’s sexual pleasure [#2]. Read our Gender versus sex: Expectations, myths and models article for examples of gender stereotypes that often influence young people’s decisions about sex, and Talking to kids about gender stereotypes for more information.
When talking to your daughter:
- Remind kids that their body is theirs’. No one can touch our body unless we’re 100% ok with it. Giving consent means being totally ready and enthusiastic about what’s going on. If someone’s ‘agreeing’ to something because they think they should, everybody else is doing it, ‘that’s what girls do’, or because they don’t want to be a ‘tease’, then they’re not 100% into it and should think twice before going any further.
- Talk about the ground rules for 100% consent early in a relationship. Talking about consent needs to happen before sex is happening. Ok, so it might not be easy bringing it up when first holding hands, but by just starting the consent conversation when kissing or touching, you can get an idea of someone’s understanding and level of respect before things ‘go to the next level’.
- Memorise some good phrases to talk about consent. Ideally, people have the consent conversation early by saying something like:
“Hey, can we just check every now and again to make sure we’re both ok with what’s happening.”
“This isn’t going to be fun for me if I’m feeling pressured.”
Of course, things don’t always happen that neatly in real life, so it’s good to remember that all that has to be said when things aren’t comfortable are things like:
“I’m not into this.”
- Have a crystal clear understanding of what 100% consent and free agreement means. The law says that you must be able to give clear consent without feeling pressured. This means you cannot…
Be too young (visit lawstuff.org.au for info on what the law is in your state or territory)
Be out of it (drunk, on drugs, asleep or unconscious)
Be forced into having sex (threats, pressure, etc.)
Young people should read our articles on consent and free agreement for more on this.
- Anyone can change their mind any time and it’s ok. He needs to be ok with that, she needs to be ok with that, everybody needs to be completely ok with that – no matter how disappointed anyone might feel at the time!
- Be aware of pressure and guilt trips, such as “I just want to show you how much I care about you” and “I thought you said I was hot/you loved me?” No one should ever feel they need to have sex to prove themselves to anyone, or feel like they owe someone sex in return for something, such as an expensive night out or a gift. Emotional blackmail and lame guilt trips are not part of a good or respectful relationship.
The conversation you have with your daughter about consent should aim to help her understand what consent and free agreement mean and look like in practice, giving her more confidence to communicate her point of view when it matters, and enjoy respectful sexual relationships without being hurt [#2].
#1: Tarczon, C. & Quadara, A. (2012). The nature and extent of sexual assault and abuse in Australia. Australian Centre for the Study Of Sexual Assault. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies.
#2: Powell, A. (2010). Sex, power and consent: Youth culture and the unwritten rules. NY: Cambridge University Press .