Talking with your teenage son about sexual consent

Getting beyond facts and rules

Talking with your preteen or teenage son about sex can be awkward. Talking with him about sexual consent may feel even more so. The default parent go-to is often to provide the rules:  

  • No always means no (although in current thinking, the idea is that yes means yes, which focuses on getting positive consent).

  • The absence of no does not mean yes.

  • Consent to one form of sexual contact does not mean consent to further contact.

  • Even when the answer has been an enthusiastic yes, either partner can decide to stop at any time.

  • Consent is not possible–or legal–when he or his partner are under the influence of alcohol or drugs. 

Facts and rules set clear expectations and boundaries. However, discussing consent with a potential partner in the heat of the moment may not feel straightforward. In addition, although the general stereotype of teen boys is that they are always ready for sex, your son likely has boundaries of his own, though he may not be aware of them. 

a series of conversations

Like consent itself, which consists of a series of check-ins as partners become more intimate, the best way to prepare your son for a lifetime of consensual sex is to start these conversations early and have them often. If you start this before puberty kicks in, that’s ideal, but it’s never too late to bring it up. You can also supplement these conversations with books (see resources below).

first steps: How will he know when he’s ready?

The best place to start is by talking with him about how he will “know” he is ready for physical contact with a potential partner (this section owes a lot to a Speaking of Psychology interview with Andrew Smiler, PhD, author of Dating and Sex:  A Guide for 21st Century Teen Boys) You don’t need to start with the big stuff. You can start small with conversations about when he would know he was ready for holding hands or kissing. Over time you can move on to conversations about other sexual contact.

The benefit to starting with your teen’s wants and needs is that it will get him thinking through his own readiness and signs that he wants to take things to another level with a romantic partner. In my experience as a counselor, I have found that teen boys often have sexual boundaries that get glossed over by assumptions that they are always ready to have sex and to go as far as they can with a partner. By opening these assumptions up for exploration, you can help your son not only think about his needs for consent, but also think about how he would ask a potential partner about her or his needs and boundaries.

These conversations are practice

These conversations, particularly at the beginning, will likely be awkward, as awkward as his initial conversations about consent will be with future potential partners. By working through that awkwardness with him, you show your son that those conversations are vital and that moments of awkwardness can be tolerated.

Resources

These are some books that might be helpful to you or your son, both about sex and about consent. They sometimes contain graphic information about the mechanics of bodies, sex, and particular sex acts. Please take a look at reviews for these books to make sure they fit with your family’s beliefs and approaches before passing on to your son.

Dating and Sex:  A Guide for 21st Century Teen Boys by psychologist Andrew Smiler, PhD.

Sex: An Uncensored Introduction by Nikol Hasler

What Does Consent Really Mean? a graphic novel by Pete Wallis, Joseph Wilkins, and Thalia Wallis