Talking with young people about sex and consent isn’t always easy.
Firstly, if you know or suspect someone you care for may have experienced any kind of sexual assault you need to understand how to best support that person. You (or they) can contact 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) for support or if you suspect a crime may have been committed contact police on 000.
Talking with young people about what consent and free agreement look and sound like in the real world will empower them to navigate the conversations and relationships they enter into as they grow.
Most young people are keen to find out all about sex – but generally not from their parents or carers! 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, carers and parents can try to frighten young people into protecting themselves from unwanted sexual contact by describing horror stories of rapists lurking in dark alleys. The ways we talk to girls and women particularly 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. These are important points, but its also important to remember that statistics show that most people are at a much greater risk of being sexually assaulted by someone they know than by a stranger (Tarczon & Quadara 2012).
Unfortunately, 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 anyone’s fault if they are sexually assaulted – it is the fault of the perpetrator, and the perpetrator alone.
Part of your discussions with young people should highlight sexual pressures, such as ‘having the hard word put on them’, or friends pressuring them to have sex because ‘everybody else is doing it’. Make sure young people know that they shouldn’t be having sex because they feel pressure (from someone they like, from their friends or just because ‘it’s what you do’).
Although many non-consensual sexual acts happen because of pressure from a partner, sometimes young people feel pushed into having sex by their peers or what society tells them they should be doing. Young women in particular might be seeing someone who has no intention of pressuring them into sex, but because of the world they have grown up in, they feel they should live up to ideas such as women being sexy, sexually passive or being available for men’s sexual pleasure (Powell 2010).
When talking to young people:
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 (with some of the ideas below), 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:
- ‘Not now.’
- ‘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 yla.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.)
Anyone can change their mind any time and that's ok.
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.
Saying things like ‘I just want to show you how much I care about you’ and ‘I thought you said I was hot/you loved me?’ are examples of pressuring someone into sex.
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 young people about consent should aim to help them understand what consent and free agreement mean and look like in practice, giving them more confidence to communicate their point of view when it matters, and enjoy respectful sexual relationships without being hurt (Powell 2010).
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.
Powell, A. (2010). Sex, power and consent: Youth culture and the unwritten rules. NY: Cambridge University Press.