In response to the overwhelming media coverage of rape, it’s time to talk about consent

Lately it seems as though every other news article, radio show, tweet, or blog post is about rape or sexual assault. Steubenville, Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Halifax, Saratoga– it is clearly an international problem (and those are just five examples), and this important issue has gotten an overwhelming amount of media coverage recently. I have done a lot of work in violence prevention, and it can be challenging to hear story after story about serious violations and despicable acts of sexual assault. The increased media attention can push this issue to the forefront of policymakers agendas and inspire effective educational campaigns, but it can also be confusing and draining for young people to absorb. (I mean, it’s tough for even the most experienced professionals.) A parent recently asked me…

There’s so much going on about rape in the news these days, what can I say to my teens?

This is a very important question, that many may be overlooking. As much as we may want to shield our young people from the horrors of life, they will undoubtedly be exposed to something about rape these days. We need to see this overwhelming attention to rape as teachable moment to discuss ways to prevent sexual assault and encourage young people to gain and seek consent as a strategy to prevent sexual assault and rape. It’s a way to tell people what they should be doing, instead what they should be avoiding.Java Printing

Adults need to engage in critical dialogue with the young people in their lives about what it means to seek and give consent. Parents, teachers, family members, faith leaders, etc can all take a moment to reflect on all of these cases in intentional conversations. Ask what they have heard/seen about the various cases being covered, and what their peers are saying about how teens have reacted. Here are a few suggestions for key messages to focus on and conversation starters:

  • Consent is when one person gives permission to engage in a particular activity. How do you think consent can help in a relationship?
  • Always gain consent for any physical interaction. How do you know if consent has been given?
  • Give consent in clear ways. What’s an example of giving consent?
  • Respect the boundaries that other people establish. What is a boundary, and how can a boundary help someone feel safe?
  • Accept no for an answer. What can you do if someone says no? What might happen if someone does not respect another person’s no?
  • If you are unsure whether or not consent has been given, stop and ask. How might you ask someone if they have consented?
  • Sometimes a person is unable to give consent, like when they are unconscious, intoxicated, or under a certain age. How would you know if a person is unable to give consent?
  • If someone engages in sexual activity with someone who has not consented, that is considered sexual assault, or rape. Sex without consent is not OK! How can you help create a social community that is respectful and honors everyone’s right to consent?
  • Someone who has experienced sexual assault needs support and understanding. What could you do if you know someone who has been hurt?
  • Social media outlets such as Facebook and Twitter should be used carefully and conscientiously. How might Facebook or Twitter be a negative influence on teens’ attitudes about rape? How could they be used to bully another person after they have been sexually assaulted? How might social media be used in a good way?
  • Be a role model for others. How can you help your peers understand consent?

A few other posts and responses to the recent flurry of media about rape have stood out to me as great resources for helping young people understand this issue:

Laurie Halse Anderson: Another Hard Thing About Being a Parent

Huffington Post: A Letter to My Sons About Stopping Rape

The Good Men Project: The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21.

King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, 100 Conversations: Conversations about Consent

And there is a whole bunch more out there too. The point is, do something, say something, and make it stick. Be consistent in your messaging, and the youth around you will learn consent from you.

Kia’s Babylandia Superbowl Commercial: How NOT to respond to the question, “where do babies come from”

Space Babies: while they may be babies, they don’t come from space. Unless you are Superman.

Who doesn’t LOVE pandas, puppies, and babies dressed up as astronauts? Well, as cute as the Kia Babylandia commercial aired during the superbowl may appear, the message that we should tell our kids that babies come from OUTER SPACE is wrong! It’s so wrong that I had to write a post about it, and I couldn’t wait until Friday (although this kind of belongs in my Friday Freak Out series!).

This commercial has been one of the favorites, lauded as cute and relate-able, and the dad is described as creative and imaginative. However, I think he’s scared and misguided. The twitterverse has focused mostly on the cute pandas, the fancy effects, and the funny ending, but has largely ignored the problems with this commercial. This commercial incorrectly tells parents that…

  1. when their kids ask, “where do babies come from”, they should make up a fairytale planet such as Babylandia instead of being honest and informing them of the facts.
  2. they should avoid the topic of sexuality because it’s something that doesn’t deserve the truth.
  3. when their child is sharing what they know, it’s ok to cut them off mid-sentence.
  4. when they don’t feel prepared to answer a question, they should make something up instead.

What messages SHOULD we be emphasizing?

  • Babies don’t come from outer space.
  • It’s ok for kids to ask their parents about where babies come from. Actually, they SHOULD ask their parents!
  • The car is actually a great place to ask/answer questions about sexuality.
  • Take advantage of teachable moments, especially when the moment is because a child asks a specific question.
  • Listen to what children are saying, so they feel respected and comfortable asking more questions.
  • Sexuality is a natural part of human existence, and sexual expression isn’t supernatural or alien.
  • Parents don’t have to be scared to answer questions- if you’re not sure how to respond, tell them you’ll answer their question later (and then DO IT!).

I know that Kia has to sell cars, and that their fancy voice-commands demonstrate that this fancy car has an ‘answer for everything’, but this commercial just reinforces the idea that kids don’t deserve the facts about life, and parents don’t know how to teach them anyways. Parents should be a child’s primary sexuality educator, and this commercial does nothing to help parents feel empowered to take on that role. In fact, it does the exact opposite.

Need help talking to young kids about sexuality? I highly recommend the book but how’d I get in there in the first place? by Deborah Roffman (2002), which talks about answering children’s questions according to their developmental stage.  It’s an easy and approachable read, focusing on kids 6 years old and under.

Sick of Movies! Non-monogamy shouldn’t be a relationship solution

The last several days of 2012 I was sick as a dog!  Therefore, I nestled up on the couch with a sick person’s best friend, Netflix.  A few weeks ago I had watched the movie Conception, which tells 9 different stories of how 9 different couples conceive, and thought it was a great way to show some diversity of experience related to becoming parents.  Therefore, Netflix of course made some recommendations to me based on that movie- so with lots of sick-tv-time, I jumped down that rabbit hole!

In browsing this personalized section of movies, I ended up watching three movies about long term relationships that have lost their sexual spark.  Therefore, the main characters dabble in non-monogamy in order to FIX their relationship (SERIOUS SPOILER ALERT!):

Swinging with the Finkels PosterSwinging with the Finkles (2011) The Finkles, a married couple of 10 years and therefore they don’t have sex like they used to (and the one scene in which they do have sex it is portrayed to be ridiculous), decide to partner swap, and go through an interview process via an online swinging website.  They meet a couple they both like, invite them over for a night of fun, swap their respective partners.  The next day, and ensuing weeks, are awkward and uncomfortable.  He moves out for a bit, and they reunite on New Years Eve.  All is well because guess what, she’s pregnant.

The Freebie PosterThe Freebie (2010) Annie and Darren are an affectionate married couple that do crossword puzzle races instead of having sex.  Darren admits he looks at other women and Annie wholeheartedly agrees that it’s only human.  They decide they need each need a one-night-stand.  The chosen night selected, they go their separate ways, and guess what, the next day it’s all ice and snow between them!  They had agreed they wouldn’t talk about what happened, and their relationship quickly goes downhill.  In the end they neither trust or believe each other at all.

Fling PosterFling (2008) This movie starts out with Mason and Samantha already in an open relationship, and throughout the movie they each develop a relationship with someone else.  They had opened up their relationship because Mason, a self-loving novelist, ooops! hooked up with someone at the same time that Sam almost did (but didn’t).  All of a sudden, they end up in an open relationship, which Sam repeatedly says works brilliantly.  Sam’s budding relationship with her traditional-relationship ex-BF becomes more and more serious while Mason is seeking the same from the younger sister of his best friend.  All hell breaks loose when the best friend finds out about Mason and his sis, and turns out that Sam is, you guessed it, pregnant!  Mason tries to pull it together with a too-late proposal, and Sam ends up with the ‘traditional’ relationship.

So, what are we, the viewers, supposed to ascertain from any one of these movies?

  • Long term relationships are doomed to be sexually unsatisfying.
  • Talking about sex in a long term relationship is too hard, even with this awesome person that has all these other great qualities.
  • Communicating about sexual decisions happens in one short conversation (or not at all).
  • Non-monogamy will fix problems with sex in a long term relationship.
  • Problems with sex in long term relationships aren’t related to underlying/overarching problems in the relationship itself. (Although some connections are drawn in each of the movies, they are not apparent.)
  • In the end, non-monogamy doesn’t work, and will damage, if not ruin your relationship.
  • Traditional, monogamous relationships are better.
  • Oh, and everyone is skinny and sexy and has perfect hair in bed. (but that’s not what this post is really about)

Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely entertained by each of these films, and I didn’t turn any of them off (although, I started watching Last Night (2010), and only got through the first 30 minutes).  But being entertained doesn’t mean that I agree with or like their depiction of relationships, and the ‘solutions’ offered. If a problem arises in a relationship, whether it is related to sexual activity or not, the people involved should communicate openly and honestly about it.  Opening up a relationship won’t fix the relationship problem- communication will.  If a couple is going to become monogomish, open, poly, or any interpretation thereof, it should be considered carefully, and when there are strong, established boundaries and expectations.  Not on a whim, on the fly, or accidentally, as is portrayed in all three of the movies described above.

But the entertainment industry isn’t going anywhere and these are not the only relationship movies that depict poor solutions.  Therefore, we must be diligent in teaching people how to think critically about the messages that are explicitly and implicitly shared in movies such as these.  So, as sexuality educators, we need to help participants digest media.  Here are some recommendations:

When watching a movie…

  1. Examine the relationship(s) between/among the protaganists…how healthy is it?
  2. Look for the explicit and implicit messages about sex…what is their take-home?
  3. Determine what’s missing from the plot/dialogue…what did the movie communicate by omission?
  4. Evaluate the relationships with supporting characters…what values are demonstrated?
  5. Decide for yourself whether you agree with the movie’s messages about sexuality, and if that’s enough for you to give it a thumbs down!