The sex talk needs to happen at every age

Perhaps one of the most damaging misconceptions about the “sex talk” is that it should happen all at once. You sit your child down when you think they’re ready. You lay out the birds and the bees — and then you move on with your life.

But the reality is, by the time you hit them with the talk, children of all ages have already gotten a bunch of messages about sex, relationships, and consent from somewhere else. From cartoons to fairy tales, nursery rhymes to pop songs, grandma to the kid next door… by the time your child can comprehend these stories, they’ve already internalized some concepts.

So as a parent, it’s your job to translate, explain, debunk, and convey these messages.

And one of the most vital lessons — for boys, girls, and nonbinary children — is sexual consent. What it is? How can you give it and how do you ask for it? Most importantly, why it is so important for healthy relationships?

To know exactly what to teach kids, and to find out at what age each lesson is appropriate, we sat down with Brenna Merrill, prevention coordinator at Relationships Violence Services in Missoula, Montana, and Kelly McGuire, coordinator of Make Your Move! Missoula, a sexual violence prevention project that focuses on consent education and bystander intervention.

Together, they gave us an overview of what a timeline of consent lessons can look like for most families. They also shared some of their favorite sexual consent resources for parents.

1. Teach the correct vocabulary early

Consent education should start as soon as kids can understand the foundational concepts behind it. The very best place to start? Giving your child the correct, scientific vocabulary to describe their body parts, including words like:

There are two major reasons to stay away from code words and slang. First and foremost, correct labels break down stigma and create a person who is sex positive and not embarrassed to talk about their bodies with their parents — not to mention a future teen who isn’t afraid to openly and clearly communicate with their romantic partner.

“When we use coded language with little kids, it sounds like something we keep secret and don’t talk about, and that’s not the message we want to send,” says McGuire.

Ditching the slang makes young children much better equipped to report sexual abuse.

“If you have a preschooler who says, ‘My hoo-ha hurts,’ an adult like a teacher or relative might not know what she’s saying,” says Merrill. “But if she’s using the correct language, people in the outside world can understand.”

Avoid misinterpretation

  1. When your child is taught colloquial words or “family words” for their anatomy, caretakers, teachers, doctors, and authorities may potentially misinterpret what your child is saying. This could delay discovery on health issues or sexual abuse, or cause dangerous miscommunications to take place.
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2. Teach bodily autonomy and independence

The concurrent step at this age is to teach your children bodily autonomy: the concept that an individual has control over what happens to their body, including who gets to touch it.

“Respecting your kid’s wishes of when you want to touch them can’t be started too early,” McGuire stresses.

Respect your kids’ wishes when it comes to hugging, kissing, cuddling, and tickling. The only exceptions are in matters of safety; for example, if a child needs to be restrained from hurting themselves or others.

The big example here is that they aren’t “forced” to hug and kiss anyone, even grandma. Children should get to choose their level of contact based on their level of comfort.

A common early consent lesson

  1. Don’t tickle your child when they have asked you to stop, unless it’s within the clear parameters of a game. They should clearly understand and expect that when someone says “no” to bodily contact, that request should be immediately respected.
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In addition to letting your child know that they get to choose when someone touches them, you should also begin teaching them that consent goes both ways. An easy place to start? Teach them to ask their friends if they like to be hugged before going in for an embrace.

3. Talk about consent with friends and family

A vital part of teaching bodily autonomy at this age is also educating your friends and family about boundaries, too. This way Grandma doesn’t get offended when she doesn’t get a kiss. She should know that it’s not a requirement that her grandchildren hug and kiss her or sit on her lap and you can teach her that she can offer alternatives.

“When you teach your kid bodily autonomy, you’re not only teaching them to say no, you’re teaching them lots of consent-related skills. Like saying, ‘Can I high five you instead?’ when a hug isn’t wanted,” explains McGuire.

“You’re mirroring what it looks like to be refused. If your child refuses a hug, you can say, ‘I know you still love me even if you don’t want to hug me.’ That statement shows that physical touch isn’t bad or wrong in this relationship, just that in this moment, you don’t want physical touch.”

4. Teach the importance of reporting

The final education puzzle piece to consent for young kids is to teach them that if someone violates their bodily autonomy, or touches them in a private area, it isn’t their fault. But it’s vital they tell an adult.

As your child gets older, you can explain that certain people may have different levels of access to their body. For example, it’s fine if mom hugs you, but not a complete stranger. It’s fine to full-body roughhouse with a friend as long as you both agree to it.

Again, this isn’t a lesson that should be given once, but one that should come with reminders and discussions over time. Many kids know that having a stranger touch them sexually should be reported immediately to an adult they trust. Fewer teens, though, understand the importance of reporting breaches of consent with peers.

1. Build stronger, healthier boundaries

As your children enters middle school or junior high, your lessons about consent and autonomy can increase in complexity.

This is a good time to discuss concepts like coercion, when someone persuades you to consent to something against your original will. You can also discuss how to set healthy boundaries with people, and what they should do if those boundaries are violated.

Remember: Setting healthy boundaries includes both physical and emotional boundaries.

2. Introduce concepts of sexism and misogyny

At this age range, it’s imperative to talk to your children in depth about sexism and gender bias. Why? Sexism and misogyny have a lot to do with consent and can lead to harmful myths and misconceptions about consent and relationships, such as:

  • Men should always want sex and are expected to push the boundaries of how far they can go with partners.
  • The woman is a “gatekeeper” responsible for pacing or stopping sexual acts.
  • Women should obey men.
  • It isn’t “manly” or romantic to ask before kissing a woman or making a move sexually.

“There are gender roles that can cause sexual scripts that can be harmful to sexual intimacy,” explains McGuire. “Like a gatekeeping model, when a male asks a female for sex, and the female is responsible for saying no. That’s based on a harmful stereotype that men are always horny and ready for sex.”

Stamp out harmful narratives for the next generation

  1. Understanding sexism and misogyny can be extremely empowering for girls and nonbinary kids. They can often be blamed for their totally acceptable behavior due to our sexist culture — even in places of higher authority like schools and courtrooms. Making sure the next generation stops perpetuating this cycle of harmful narratives is vital for everyone’s protection.
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3. Teach critical thinking skills

This is also a time to help your children to become independent critical thinkers by using examples on screen. “They’re going to get harmful messages even when you aren’t around, and they must have the skills to think critically about them,” says Merrill.

If you see sexism in the world around you, such as in music, television, movies, or real-life situations, point it out and ask them what they think. Help them reach their own conclusions.

Do movies portray consent?

  1. In most movie scenes, verbal consent is absent, which is a problem within itself. If you’re watching a movie with a kissing scene with your pre-teen, you might ask, “How do you think he knew that she wanted him to kiss her?”
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Be sure to also point out when you do see consensual behavior (there’s a great, romantic, verbally consensual kiss at the end of “Frozen” for example).

“Really, the focus shouldn’t be on teaching your child what they should do, but helping them understand why you have the values you have, how you came to a decision in your own life, and how they could come to decisions on their own,” says Merrill.

Avoid too much lecturing and instead try to veer toward two-way conversations.

“Ask your kids questions, and respect their opinions,” McGuire says. “They won’t talk to their parents if you aren’t curious about their opinions. Stepping into a role of listening and asking questions can open a lot about conversations.”

4. Know how to respond when your kids ask about sex

This is also the age when children might start asking you questions about sex and sexuality that you may not be prepared to answer — but they’re mature enough to understand.

“Don’t be afraid to say, ‘Whoa, that took me by surprise, but let’s talk about it tomorrow after dinner,’” Merrill says. “Also, be sure to leave the door open for more discussion.”

Finally, be sure to end the conversation with a supportive statement, like, “I appreciate that you came and talked to me about this.”

Not sure where to get started?

  1. The Power of Prevention Group has outlined 100 Conversations about sex, consent, and relationships appropriate for kids age 13 and over, as well as resources about how to talk to teens.
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High schoolers and young adults are ready to learn concrete lessons about sexual consent and healthy sexual relationships in full detail. These may be some of the toughest lessons to teach for parents, but they’re the most vital pieces to help your kids understand consent and build healthy relationships.

1. Continue with more complex issues surrounding sexual consent

One mistake parents make when discussing consent is that they have limited talks with their children — and male children get starkly different talks than female children.

For example, males tend to get only enough information about consent to prevent illegal actions related to rape and assault, while women may only get enough information to prevent their own rape and assault.

This form of “disaster prevention” sex education may indeed prevent some legal issues, but it doesn’t help break down our foundational cultural issues about consent or lend toward building enjoyable, equitable relationships.

When talking to your teen, be sure to discuss the following questions in detail:

  • Can a person who’s incapacitated by drugs or alcohol consent to sex?
  • Do you have to consent to sex after the first time you have intercourse?
  • Do power differentials affect your ability to consent?
  • What does safe sex have to do with consent?
  • Be certain to cover the differences of verbal and nonverbal consent.
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“Teens should know what verbal consent sounds like, as well as how you can ask,” McGuire says. “They should also know what nonverbal consent looks like. They should understand if that their partner is very quiet, or lying still, that that isn’t the enthusiastic consent they’re looking for, and it’s time to communicate before they keep going.”

Male consent and power differentials

One overlooked topic that also gets lost in limited talks and “disaster prevention” is male consent. Teenage boys and men can also feel pressured or coerced into situations, despite saying no. They should understand that even if they’re visibly or physically aroused, it’s not consent. Everyone should be taught no means no. It’s also important for all teenagers to understand how they can’t truly offer consent in relationships with power differentials, such as being approached by an older mentor, teacher, or friend. Teaching teens what an equitable sexual relationship will look like can help guide a conversation about power dynamics.

Most children don’t speak to their parents about sex — you can change that statistic. One survey of 18- to 25-year-olds found that the majority had never spoken with their parents about:

  • “being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex” (61 percent)
  • assuring your “own comfort before engaging in sex” (49 percent)
  • the “importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you” (56 percent)
  • the “importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no” (62 percent)
  • the “importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex” (57 percent)

The above study also found that a majority of kids who did have these conversations with their parents said that were influential.

That means that simply starting the conversation with your teens can help them embrace consent and think more about their relationships, even if you fear that you don’t know how to perfectly approach these subjects.

The takeaway here?

While teens might be learning about issues like birth control, rape, and sexually transmitted infections, they’re lacking knowledge that they both need and crave regarding consent and healthy relationships. This additional knowledge is key to preventing sexual assault and sexual violence.

2. Converse about pornography

Due to the increasing popularity of mobile devices and the growing access to the internet, you can’t ignore that your teen is very likely exploring pornography in some form.

Without a proper education from parents about what pornography is, how it functions, and its issues, kids can take away misguided messages about sex, relationships, and intimacy. At worse, these beliefs can become harmful to others.

“There’s a lot of research coming out about how young kids are getting exposed to porn, out of curiosity, and they aren’t getting information about their sexual health elsewhere,” says McGuire. “It’s just not a very realistic portrayal of sex. A lot of porn doesn’t portray women well, and there are a lot of mixed messages about consent.”

Your conversations about pornography depend on the age and maturity of your teen. Younger teens may simply be curious about sex and the human body, in which case you can share appropriate resources that answer their questions.

“For instance, teen girls may compare themselves to the women in porn and feel inferior while boys may fear that they won’t be able to sexually perform like the men in porn,” says Dr. Janet Brito, a licensed psychologist and sex therapist with the Center for Sexual and Reproductive Health.

“Teens could potentially get the wrong idea about size, how long sex should last, believe it simply just happens minus the communication, or develop preconceived notions of how it’s supposed to be.”

Dr. Brito says that not all pornography is created equal. Better options include:

  • fair-trade porn
  • pornography that acknowledges the well-being and rights of the performers and retains body autonomy
  • porn that portrays a variety of body types, and narratives
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Ethical, feminist pornography does exist. But while watching the right pornography recreationally can be perfectly healthy, much of the pornography easily accessible to kids can be violent, and has been shown to increase sexual violence in the teens that watch it.

“On the other hand,” Brito adds, “teens who become curious about porn may be expressing a developmentally appropriate tendency to sexually explore, as their bodies are changing and they’re starting to form deeper bonds. Other positive implications are that they may learn about their own sexual pleasure as well as develop resiliency.”

Conversations with older teens can include topics regarding the ethics of porn, why most porn isn’t realistic, the connection between most pornography and misogyny, and perhaps resources that connect them to ethical sources of pornography.

3. Talk about what a healthy sexual relationship looks like

In the previously mentioned study, 70 percent of 18- to 25-year-olds wished that they’d received more information from their parents about the emotional and romantic aspects of relationships, including how to:

  • have a more mature relationship (38 percent)
  • deal with breakups (36 percent)
  • avoid getting hurt in a relationship (34 percent)
  • begin a relationship (27 percent)

All of these issues are tied in many ways to understanding consent.

Again, start discussions with your children while consuming media or after you see a good or poor example of a healthy relationship. Ask them how they feel and what they think, and get them to think critically about what it means to be a caring romantic partner and what it means to be cared for.

“This isn’t just about avoiding assault,” says McGuire. “It’s about creating healthy people who have the tools and skills to have healthy and happy romantic relationships.”

Teaching our kids about consent might seem awkward or foreign, not only because it involves the subject of sex, but also because the majority of today’s adults didn’t get consent education as kids. However, one of the most rewarding aspects of parenting is our ability to break harmful cycles, create new standards, and improve life for our kids and the next generation.

Making certain that our children fully understand concepts like bodily autonomy and verbal consent can go a long way toward ensuring that their budding romantic relationships are safer, healthier, and happier.

Even if you have older children and missed out on earlier lessons, it’s never too late to start teaching your kids about the importance of sexual consent.

Sarah Aswell is a freelance writer who lives in Missoula, Montana, with her husband and two daughters. Her writing has appeared in publications that include The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, and Reductress. You can reach out to her on Twitter.