While sexual assault has many complex causes, one clear factor is young people’s comprehension of — or confusion about — what constitutes appropriate, consensual sex. Boys and young men in particular need a clearer understanding of assault and consent. As one young man told us during research for a report about healthy relationships and sexual harassment, “We just thought assault was some messed up guy pulling a woman into a dark alley and raping her. That was all we knew we couldn’t do.”
This attitude is all too common. Our research, published last year by the Making Caring Common project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, suggests that many young men and young women have distorted views about consent and sex. For example, 32 percent of males and 17 percent of females in our national survey of 18 to 25-year-olds either agreed or were neutral about the view that, if “a woman does not physically fight back, it’s not sexual assault.”
Young people are unlikely to change this attitude and develop a clearer understanding of assault unless parents and caregivers actively and constructively engage children in honest, candid discussions about sex and consent. But our research also suggests that most adults are not having these conversations. About two-thirds of young adults in our survey had never had conversations with parents, for example, about the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you” (67 percent), the “importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no” (62 percent), or the importance of not having sex with “someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex” (66 percent).
As parents and caregivers, we must do better to prevent children from harming or being harmed, and to help them become caring, humane people. We have tremendous power to shape our children’s understanding of assault and consent, and to be part of the solution to this destructive epidemic.
Here are five guideposts to help parents begin these essential conversations.
1. Clearly define assault and provide concrete examples.
Why? Assault is sexual touching or other sexual activity without consent. Many young people don’t understand the range of behaviors that actually constitute assault. Parents need to explain what these violations mean and provide specific, concrete examples.
Try this. Talk to your teen or young adult about assault in clear, age-appropriate terms. You might start by asking your child to define assault and correcting any misunderstanding. Provide a variety of scenarios and examples of assault, such as sex with someone who is incapacitated or sex with someone who seems uncomfortable and has not clearly signaled initial or ongoing consent. Check in with your teen or young adult periodically to see if they’ve remembered and absorbed the information.
2. Talk about — and keep talking about — consent.
Why? Consent should be verbal and affirmative (focused on someone actively saying yes, rather than the absence of them saying no). Encouraging younger children to develop a habit of asking for and vocalizing consent when it comes to touching or hugging can make it seem more natural for them in physically and sexually intimate situations as they get older.
Try this. When your child is young, make it clear that they have control over their body and that you will respect their physical boundaries, and that they should expect others to do the same. They also must respect other people’s physical boundaries. If your child feels uncomfortable hugging a relative or family friend let them know that they can give a respectful handshake or fist bump instead. When it comes to wrestling, tickling or other physical play with friends and siblings, give younger kids language to help them vocalize when they want to be touched and when they want to stop (“yes/no,” “green light/red light,” and “start/stop” all work). Continue the conversation about physical contact and consent as your child gets older. For older teens and young adults, for example, this video can be a useful and nonthreatening way to continue the conversation (note: the video includes some mature language).
3. Give boys permission to talk about strong emotions.
Why? Going beyond platitudes about respect also means helping teens examine and manage the powerful feelings that can sometimes drive people to violate others. A range of complex emotions — shame, anger, lust, powerlessness, fear — often work in combination to trigger these behaviors. Encouraging boys and young men to identify and more effectively deal with these emotions in themselves and in others can help reduce harmful behaviors.
Try this. Parents and educators might discuss with teens hypothetical scenarios or specific cases from the media involving sexual harassment and assault, to help them identify the feelings that might have contributed to the violation, as well as how these feelings might have been managed. Were there any emotional or behavioral red flags? How might the emotion(s) have been handled better?
4. Encourage young people to be allies and upstanders.
Why? As ethical parents, we should expect our teens and young adults to not only protect themselves from assault and avoid assaulting others, but to intervene when others are at risk. Young people are commonly in the best position to prevent or stop sexual assault among their peers. Learning to be an “upstander” is also a vital part of becoming an ethical, courageous person. Yet upstanding can be risky — perpetrators can turn on upstanders. That’s why it’s important to brainstorm strategies with young people to protect both them and the victim.
Try this. Talk to your teen or young adult about the importance of being an ally to peers who might be in danger. Ask what they would do versus what they should do. For example, ask what they would and should do if they’re at a party and a young man is being sexually aggressive with a woman who is very drunk. Talk to them about what might stop them from intervening in these situations, brainstorm strategies and/or do a role play to help them think about words or actions they could use. They might, for example, gather friends to confront the potential perpetrator as a group, or insist that the potential victim be given a ride home by someone who is trusted and sober.
5. Share the stories of survivors.
Why? Few things more powerfully show the real human consequences of sexual assault than the stories of those who have survived it. Sharing these stories can help your teen empathize with survivors and deepen their understanding of the importance of affirmative consent.
Try this. For older teens, it may be appropriate and effective to share the story of someone your child knows who is a survivor of assault (with that person’s permission) or to discuss a story in the news (Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, the letter written by the woman assaulted by Brock Turner, this TIME video about rape on campus, and this video of actor Terry Crews all powerfully communicate a survivor’s perspective). These stories undoubtedly will be difficult for parents and teens, but it’s important to try, or to find other respected adults your teens can talk to. Check in with them after they have had a chance to process the story. How did it make them feel? Did they learn anything? Will they do anything differently after learning about this story?
Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer and co-director of the human development and psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the faculty Director of Making Caring Common. Alison Cashin is the director of Making Caring Common. For additional resources to help guide conversations with young people about misogyny, sexual harassment and assault, refer to the appendix of the 2017 report, The Talk.