By the time we teach our sons about rape, it’s 15 years too late

Not to be underestimated.
Not to be underestimated.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Amy Hatvany sat on the sofa next to her 14-year-old son, on a spring day in Seattle last year, and did something so wrenchingly difficult that many parents never contemplate it. The writer started a conversation which acknowledged that her boy—brought up in a loving home where talking about sex wasn’t taboo—had the potential to become a rapist. Because everyone has. And because, she says, we’re not talking to our children early enough, or clearly enough, about consent.

Consent—ensuring the willingness to be part of a sexual act—underpins healthy sexual relationships. But it’s taken a slew of high-profile rape cases at American universities to make it a buzzword in sex education. Sex education in America has long been subject to fraught debate: Only 24 states and the District of Columbia require it in schools, and what is taught tends to be mechanical, moralistic, and disconnected from family. There’s no handbook, or guidance of any kind, for parents on what to talk about when.

Universities have recently scrambled to develop a raft of new programs about consent, in large part because they fear rape culture has become endemic to campus life. But embedded in the creation of those courses is a dire problem: Kids become conscious of their bodies and how they relate to others long before adulthood hits. We spend years sheltering them from the building blocks of sexual relations, only to bombard them with rote sex tips when it’s already too late.

A 2017 Harvard survey of 3,000 young people found that parents, often preoccupied with “hook-up culture” and the act of sex, are failing to talk to them about forming healthy relationships. More than half of 18-25-year-olds surveyed had never had a conversation about “being sure” a partner wants to have sex.

A smattering of determined educators are now banking on progressive church programs which, along with some public and charter schools, have been willing to raise questions of consent with kids. But for most of the US, the cloistered world of sex education remains woefully behind.

All our sons

The rape case of Stanford University student Brock Turner showed just how little people agree about the importance of consent, even when the evidence of rape is clear. Turner, who went on trial in 2016 for raping an unconscious woman after a campus party, was caught in the act by passersby who restrained and reported him. But the focus on Turner’s character (as a swimmer and “model student”) and his lenient sentence left the impression that, despite the victim’s visceral and moving testimony, the crime was in some sense excusable.

It was a case that should have been easy to prosecute, but most rape incidents aren’t even reported, and only a tiny fraction go to trial. Statistics on campus assault show that 23% of women and more than 5% of men suffer sexual assault or rape during their time as a US undergraduate. (Several large surveys have found similar numbers, and variations are partly explained by the difficulty of accurately collecting data.)

Turner was in the news when Hatvany, a novelist with a background in sociology, decided to talk to her son. Her forthcoming book at the time, about non-consensual sex between two long-standing friends, prompted her to go public about her own experience with sexual assault at age 15. But her readiness to speak publicly didn’t make it any easier to talk to her son. “It was so strange to me that I couldn’t even find the language, when I started out trying to talk to him,” Hatvany says.

She found materials on how to counsel girls to avoid rape, but nothing about how to talk to her son. There are “no conversations about what boys are being taught, about what consent is and how to ask for it,” she says. Consent, after all, is more complex than telling a teenager to use condoms. These are “muddy waters,” she says. It’s about reading body language and interpreting the nuance of words—like “wait” instead of just “no.” And it all gets more confusing when alcohol is involved.

The way we learn now

Many American kids aren’t even getting the basics. Sex education in schools is patchy, with huge variations depending on the state, the leadership, and local communities, says Zoë Peterson, director of the sexual assault research and education program at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. A majority of schools in Texas, for example, take an “abstinence-only” approach, eschewing information in favor of “no sex before marriage.” Nationally, 76% of public and private high schools in 2014 taught abstinence as the most effective method to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), according to the Guttmacher Institute, a non-governmental organization that advocates for increased family planning. That leaves families saddled with the choice of what else to do, and not many are motivated like Hatvany.

“Ideally we would have good, lifelong sex education,” Peterson says, starting with teaching things like appropriate names for body parts to young children and developing alongside the growing-up process. The aim would be “making people more comfortable talking about sex,” figuring out “what might be pleasurable sex versus not-pleasurable,” and “how you might sort that out in your own mind.” If teaching started early and continued through high school, she says, by the time kids went to college they’d have all the skills needed to talk “very clearly and directly” about consent.

Even when sex ed is part of a child’s education, it often focuses on the practicalities of intercourse—egg fertilization, avoiding STIs—and ignores honing the emotional intelligence to interpret intimate situations.

Peterson and her team, which are launching their own consent program this year, hunted far and wide for a model to follow. They ended up in an unlikely place: on the doorstep of a handful of churches and spiritual groups that are pioneering sexual consent programs for kids.

Our Whole Lives, or OWL, was developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and the United Church of Christ, both national churches with congregations spread throughout the country. The program, started in 1999, is available to all congregations willing to teach it. It has trained over 10,000  program leaders to run courses in churches, schools, community groups, colleges, and even correctional facilities. It has also sold tens of thousands of guides to schools and parents.

Wising up

In weekly sessions, Our Whole Lives instructors go over the building blocks not just of sex, but of mutually-agreed-upon, pleasurable sex. There are programs geared towards sexuality and relationships for all ages, from kindergarten to older adults.

During kindergarten through second grade, when kids are between five and eight years old, consent starts with the premise that it’s ok for children not to “give uncle Fred a kiss” if they don’t want to, thereby signaling to them early that their bodies are their own.  The act of giving and receiving consent is even built into the child’s sense of participation in the class, says Adrienne Summerlot, director of education for the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Bloomington, Indiana. Children are asked if they’d like to help during exercises, for instance, rather than being told to.

They discuss what “loving touch” feels like, including an explanation of what masturbation is, and that it should be done in a private place. They read stories, including one about a six-year-old girl whose older cousin tries to see her naked, and to touch her, while babysitting. This is followed by a discussion that encourages children to say no, and tell a trusted adult about such experiences.

These discussions between ages five and eight are important, Summerlot says, but by age 12, they’re “critical.” On average, girls start going through puberty at 11 and boys at 12, but hormonal, physical, and emotional changes can begin as early as eight. Once kids get into the high school years, she says, busy social calendars, embarrassment, and the urge to challenge authority make them more difficult to reach. Meanwhile, pre-highschoolers are beginning to experiment with sex. If ideas about consent haven’t been raised by then, they’re navigating without a map.

The most extensive OWL program Summerlot teaches is for 12-to-14-year-olds. They come to the 23-week course of Sunday morning classes “dragging their heels,” embarrassed by the focus on sexuality, she says. They leave transformed, having wrangled topics even adults would find hard to discuss at length with their peers. They start out looking at “sexuality as overlapping circles, as Venn diagrams,” Summerlot says. They discuss how “sexuality is fluid,” the language of sexuality, anatomy, and body image, and concerns about puberty.

And they discuss experience. In one activity, students are given an onion to chop and asked to analyze the typical response: crying.

“[It’s used] to explain the difference between a physiological response and an intellectual or emotional response,” explains Melanie Davis, who runs the OWL program nationally for the UUA and oversees the curricula. ”People have in the past used the argument that ‘Oh, well, he had an erection so he couldn’t have been raped,’ or ‘She had an orgasm so she couldn’t have been raped,’” she says. But crying over onion fumes doesn’t mean a person is sad. “It’s just that your body has a physiological response to some kind of stimulation. And that same thing can happen when there’s physical contact. It doesn’t mean that just because someone has an erection they want to have sex,” Davis explains.

OWL students learn to put condoms not onto bananas, but onto dildos, and handle other “real world” objects like IUDs and contraceptive pills. They also confront the perils of social media. In an activity called “voting with your feet,” kids move onto signs placed on the floor labeled “Ok”, “Not Ok”, and “Unsure”, based on a described situation. For example, a 12-year-old lies about their age in order to join a social network. An eighth-grader participates in an online poll, posted by someone else, which rates the best and worst bodies in the class.

Kids also mine pop lyrics, women’s magazines, films, and TV shows for signs of consent or non-consent. In one song they discuss, Gratitude, Ani Difranco starts by thanking a person who has let her stay the night, but later asks: “What does my body have to do with my gratitude?”

The eyes of the law

Part of the challenge in teaching consent is the changing nature of the law.

Rape law in the US, as in most countries, is incomplete. State laws vary. For most of US history, rape has been recognized as a crime in some form, but federal laws grew out of a long tradition in which women and slaves were seen as the property of men. A lengthy process of modernizing rape law began in the US in the 1970s, spearheaded by the women’s movement, and progressively expanded the definition of rape to include all penetrative assaults, no matter the context. Until 1993, rape within marriage wasn’t illegal everywhere in the US, because couples were seen as having pledged sexual availability to one another. Male rape wasn’t recognized until 1994.

The FBI statistics department recognizes rape as occurring when a person is sexually penetrated without their consent.  It only changed its definition to remove force as a criteria of rape in 2013. If the victim says “no” and the perpetrator continues, it’s rape. By that logic, people have long been taught clearly to indicate their lack of consent—a situation often summed up as “no means no.”

The concept is problematic, however, and bleeds into what gets taught in schools and at home. It places the onus on the victim to communicate rather than the perpetrator to ensure consent, and it doesn’t cover cases where the victim was incapacitated, for example because of alcohol or drugs. Young people might know how to refuse consent, but not how to ask for it, nor how to recognize when they do and don’t have it.

Some states have shifted gears. In 2014, partly in response to rising concerns about campus assault, California passed a landmark “affirmative consent” law. Consent must be ongoing throughout a sexual activity, and neither previous sexual contact nor dating between the participants can be used as an indicator of consent. Also, in order to receive state funding, universities must adopt a policy towards cases of student assault both on and off campus whereby those initiating sexual contact have to secure a verbal “yes” from the other person before proceeding. New York, Connecticut, and Indiana have all introduced affirmative consent laws in different forms.

But affirmative consent has problems, too. Young people bristle at the idea that verbal consent is part of normal adult (paywall) behavior. And they have a point, says Zoë Peterson, who set up the Missouri-St Louis course, and is also a psychologist specializing in the “wantedness” of sexual contact. Most consent in sexual relationships is not given verbally, or explicitly, according to her own research, and a meta-analysis of other studies. People instead use and read cues like body language and reciprocation. Silence often is used to signal assent—even if that’s not what legislators want to hear. The push to create a black-and-white definition—you either have verbal consent or you don’t—is understandable, but it doesn’t take into account what life is often like, she says.

In this sense, consent teachings are often over-simplified. The “tea” video—a clever, funny, shareable animation that likens desire for sex to desire for a cup of tea—is a teaching tool used on numerous college campuses, in consent programs including OWL, and watched by millions online:

“Everyone at first thought that [the video] was so great,” Davis says. “But then people started looking at it with a more critical eye, and finding that there are really some problems with that analogy.” The video fails to acknowledge, for instance, that agreement to sex can be coerced, or come from fear, or lack of confidence. We have to look deeper at a person’s capacity “to say yes and mean it. That’s where it gets challenging,” she says.

Teachers risk turning students off if they fail to recognize real experience. At the same time, young people need to know that they can’t proceed sexually without being certain it’s wanted. This all argues for earlier, more open conversations about sexuality before kids get to college. 

Amy Hatvany says the initial, hard conversation with her son opened the door to less awkward conversations. She says her son now comments on charged movie scenes or TV shows, not hesitating to say things like “Wow, that guy just raped her, huh?” And he raises sexually-charged scenarios both he and his friends get into, without fear of a lecture. He lets her in on “decidedly less than black-and-white situations,” and is willing to be guided on “how to make good choices,” she says.

Of course, no amount of conversation will ever make consent simple. It’s unavoidably thorny, awkward, and complicated. The hope is that starting the dialogue early will at least make it easier. Conversations in college would become the culmination of a long process, rather than a beginner’s crash course.