Thousands of parents have just sent their kids off to college in America, releasing them to an exciting new social and educational environment where new students experience a heightened risk of being sexually assaulted, where dozens of schools are being investigated for mishandling campus rape cases, and where one Ivy League victim has become so frustrated by the process that she's pledged to haul a mattress around campus until her administration takes her claims of assault seriously. Maybe parents should bring that up? I asked Heather Corinna—founder and director of the sex education and advice website Scarleteen—to weigh in on when parents should start teaching their kids about consent, how technology has changed the sex talk, and whether we should be sending different messages to college-aged boys and girls.
Slate: I imagine that the idea of “the talk,” where parents sit their kids down and tell them how sex works, is pretty obsolete at this point. So when should parents start having conversations with their kids about consent and sexual assault?
Heather Corinna: I suggest parents talk to their kids about consent—and permission to touch and be touched—in infancy or toddlerhood, and certainly not as late as their teens. Even before your child can talk, you can model consent. Have you watched parents change diapers? Some of them will just grab their kid, throw them on the table and start doing all sorts of things to their body without any gesture of consent-seeking. Even with an infant without language yet, you can express what you want to do: “I’m going to touch you right now, in order to get you a fresh diaper so you can feel better, okay?” Starting early, in ways that you can, normalizes consent—rather than non-consent—right from the start. You’re not going to talk to a two-year-old about sexual assault explicitly, but you can both demonstrate and express that people need permission to touch each other's bodies. By the time you do get to the point where it's more stage-appropriate to talk about sexual assault explicitly, they are already going to know about consent and that it really matters.
Slate: Let’s say you kind of missed the boat on that one. Are there any specific issues a parent can raise with their kids as they enter their freshman year at college?
Corinna: Ideally, your parenting has always included providing active help and guidance for children to advocate for themselves, including in situations they’ll face once they’re out of the house. But there are some conversations you can have to help prepare them for entering the specific environment of college, for instance, where sexual assault is something we know is a huge problem. You can say: “You’re probably going to have to advocate for yourself, for your friends, or together as students in regards to some of this stuff. How prepared do you feel for that?” If things have gone really well, your children will have already seen you model this, so they’re going to have some sense that it’s valid and right for them or others to take these types of stands. Once a young person becomes a legal adult, they should ideally be in a position where parental help is optional, not forced or needed the way it often was a decade earlier. But the parent of an emerging adult can say (and hopefully does!), “If you want support or help from me, know you can ask for it. If you don’t want it and want to go on your own, that’s great, too, and know I'm around to support you as needed.”
Slate: Where does gender fit into this? Should parents vary their conversations at all when addressing girls and boys?
Corinna: I don’t claim to have a unilaterally correct answer with this, but I think we really need to find more and more ways to talk about this that are not about gender, and in ways that don't reinforce heteronormativity or the idea of gender as a binary. I think we can, and should, talk about the ways that gender inequities, roles, and norms play a part in our culture, and in assault, because we know that they do. That’s real. But one of the biggest pieces that’s often missing in messaging about consent is the idea that consent matters for everybody. For a really long time, these conversations assumed everyone was heterosexual and on the binary. From there, the conversation with women was, “Men need to ask you,” and the conversation with men, “You need to ask women.” Even if a guy understands that, he’s likely only going to get it intellectually—these are the rules, I have to follow them, and I don’t want to be a jerk or a rapist. But if the guy isn’t really feeling and hearing that people need to be asking him, too—that seeking consent is something people need to be doing with him, as well, and that it's just as important—then emotionally, he’s not likely to really get it. Because without that "consent is for everybody" bit at its core, consent isn't really about him.
Every day at Scarleteen, we have young, straight women writing in to us, making it apparent that they’re not asking for consent in their relationships. When they say, “Well, my boyfriend doesn’t really ask,” I ask, “Do you ask him?” The answer is almost always “no.” There’s no model in that relationship for anyone, including the boyfriend, to be asking. If men's bodies are something everyone can touch without permission—regardless of how a boy or man feels about it—that’s a double standard. And in our culture, men who say no to sex, or insist consent matters with them, too often face partners or others framing that as him being a jerk, or not finding his partners sexy, or being gay, or not being a "real man"—a host of garbage.
I think people are much better served when the message is this: “People need to ask for each other's permission with sex.” Everyone needs to be seeking consent, and everyone needs to be giving it—or not giving it when they don't want to.
Slate: How about alcohol? Is that something we should talk about in relation to consent?
Corinna: I think so. A few years ago, I was asked by a group of students to come speak at a college about consent-while-drinking, because they had another expert come in to say that any drinking meant there could be no consent, and the students were like, “Here’s the problem: We’re all going to be drinking and being sexual.” It’s tough and it’s fraught and it’s complicated, but it’s happening, and as adults, we know full well that it happens—probably even in our own homes, with some regularity, after a glass of wine or a beer at dinner.
First, I think we need to talk frankly with students about the legal implications and policies they're facing. Everyone needs to know that when people are intoxicated, or otherwise less capable of sound judgment, sexual behavior will be, at best, super dicey. You’re walking into something that could potentially be criminal, even if that’s not your intent.
From there, I like to get specific about how alcohol functions as a substance: what happens to us and our bodies, on the whole, at different blood alcohol levels. There’s a really big difference between a person after one drink, and a person after a night of binge drinking. I don't think it's sound to talk about intoxication in a way that suggests that someone who has had one beer is in the same boat as someone blacked out. I like to make clear that people metabolize alcohol differently, too: One or two drinks for one person can have a radically different impact on them than on another.
My special little alcohol-and-sex tip I like to give people is this: When you meet somebody—but they, you, or both of you are drunk or drinking—and it seems like there’s a spark, and one or both of you wants something sexual to happen, it’s a good play to help them home (whatever your gender), settle them into their space the way you would an injured stranger, and leave a note with your phone number saying, “Hey, I brought you home because you were really wasted, but I really like you and would like to hang out again. Call me?’”
Slate: Does technology change the conversation at all?
Corinna: I think the real difference between one-on-one face-to-face interactions and online ones hinges on the distinction between public and private. A reminder that the Internet might feel private, but it’s not, is helpful. It can also be good to talk to your children about how they deal with consent and decision-making when they find themselves in a group of people, whether that’s online or at a party. How do they advocate for themselves and others in a crowd? Are they comfortable with one other person seeing something, or several people, or someone they’ve never even thought about seeing it? But I figure the same general standards usually apply. We can still ask people about what they want, whether that means sharing an image or touching their body, or forwarding a paragraph they wrote about what they did last week. Again, getting people's permission with things they're a part of is a golden rule. But I feel like, ten years from now, the generation coming up now—rather than someone my age—will have better, more nuanced answers to that question. I think they do now! Their lived experience coming of age with this will result in the kind of understanding we just can't have if it wasn't a normal part of our adolescence.
This interview has been condensed and edited.