Why we must re-address “no means no” and talk about consent with our kids

The issue with consent is far more insidious than sexual assault - just ask Aziz Asari.
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Consent isn’t supposed to be a tricky concept. There’s a yes or a no, people either listen to you or they don’t. Consent is the (very clear) line in the sand.

Yet it’s debated among friends and is the subject of many a think piece. Consent is blurred even further in a court of law – “Did she explicitly say no and how drunk is too drunk to consent?”

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Aziz Ansari sparks a discussion on the murky waters of consent

The actor and comedian proudly wore a Time’s Up pin at the Golden Globes and has made his mark with his liberal, feminist brand – most likely because he is actually in fact both a feminist and liberal.

But then a woman, under the pseudonym Grace, revealed a sexual encounter with Aziz that left her feeling violated, a story that hit close to home for women everywhere.

She hadn’t expressly said no, but she’d felt pressured and had indicated as such with reluctant body language and reportedly said: “I don’t want to feel forced because then I’ll hate you, and I’d rather not hate you”.

He reacted well at first, but then allegedly thrust a penis in her face, asking her to perform oral sex. And she did.

Traditionally, we’ve taught our kids “no means no”, sex is something natural between two consenting adults, but in reality, unless a woman is grabbed off the street by an unhinged nutcase, the concept of consent becomes a bizarrely grey area.

When a woman sends a naked photo of herself to one man and he circulates it to his friends, the ensuing debate is always about how entitled she is to be angry – I mean, she consented initially, right?

When explicit photos of a woman wearing nothing but a Richmond Tigers’ gold medal were leaked by a player, Tadgh Kennelly, a former Sydney Swans player, people said the offending player should be “counselled” because there’s clearly been some kind of “misunderstanding”.

The player obviously ‘misunderstood’ when the woman said to delete the photo; he ‘misunderstood’ she didn’t want it sent around to his mates or posted on social media; ‘misunderstood’ the ramifications it would have on her public image and that she would be lambasted as a money-grabbing slut on social media – how he interpreted all of those things is yet to be clarified.

Consent to sexual acts gets murkier still. When a woman goes home with a man but doesn’t know how to expressly say “no” so has deflected, made excuses and tried to leave without making anyone angry. If she succumbs to sex from a sense of duty, feeling too uncomfortable to get out of it, or pressured into it by him, where on the line of consent does she sit?

How to speak to your kids about consent

Is telling your kids simply “no means no” a disservice? Should you instead be discussing the nuances of the issue, that wearing down someone’s resolve isn’t cute or expected: it’s wrong.

Teaching them you aren’t meant be convinced to have sex and embedding the seed you really shouldn’t want to have sex with someone who needs to be persuaded and cajoled seems like a more effective approach to modern parenting.

When your children are young, there are ways to explain the concept of consent without actually talking about sex. Dina Cooper, author of Smart Parenting, tells Now To Love you can teach kids not to dilute the power of their “no” with laughter.

“In more complex situations, where one child may be saying ‘no’ but laughing while they say it, I often see my other child continue because he sees the laughter as mitigating the ‘no’,” she explains.

“This is where I ask them to be clear with each other – to use a tone (not laughter) that indicates they are serious about the ‘no’ and an agreed upon hand gesture (crossing arms) to reduce misinterpretation.”

Collett Smart, psychologist and author, gives her top tips on teaching young kids about consent.

  • Talk with your child about feeling ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’ and being ‘the boss of their own bodies’. Talk about times when your child might feel ‘unsafe’, e.g. being pushed into a pool or too high on a swing; or ‘safe’, e.g. snuggled up on the couch reading a book with you. Then discuss what are referred to by experts as ‘Early Warning Signs’ when they feel unsafe, i.e. physiological responses – heart racing, feeling sick in the tummy, sweaty palms, (ask what else they might feel).

  • Understanding the feelings in the body and mind are important to empathising and understanding the concept of consent in many areas of life.

  • Teach ‘no’ or ‘stop’ and talk about scenarios when another child might use these and how your child might respond if they do.

  • Say specifically – “When someone says ‘no’, respect that ‘no’. And don’t ask again.” (Give some age appropriate scenarios here.)

  • Ask your child, “When do you think a person might say yes, when they actually want to say no?” Why might they do this? (This helps your child to think about how people feel pressured etc)

  • Ask, “Do you know what ‘no’ looks like in someone’s body, face or tone of voice (without the word no being spoken)?”

When it comes to teaching consent, we certainly have a tough road ahead. While ‘rape is bad’ is pretty clearly expressed across media, the same can’t be said for wearing a girl down.

A disturbing amount of porn also focuses on convincing a reluctant girl to give in and have sex and so do a lot of rom-coms. In Say Anything, Diane breaks up with Lloyd and he stands at her window with a boombox while she tries to sleep, stubbornly blasting the song playing when they first had sex. That’s right, she dumped a guy and he showed up at her house, blaring music, refusing to leave until she gave him another chance.

It plays into the stereotype that it’s a girl’s prerogative to say no, to play hard to get, while a man should be assertive and keep trying until she says it’s okay.

Talking to teens about that concept might feel awkward, but Arna van Goch, media expert for parents, thinks keeping it casual is the key to stop them rejecting it as meaningless mum advice.

Arna gives her top tips to explain consent to teens.

  • Be extremely blunt.

  • Make is a casual, normal conversation. Rather than sitting down for a serious talk, chatting about consent often it’s more likely to be imprinted on your teen rather than forced.

  • If you see non-consensual behaviour on TV when you’re with them, call it out: “But that wouldn’t really work out that way because she didn’t want it.”

The line of consent is so blurry that we have to keep having these conversations until it’s not.

It’s time we taught our kids more than the legality of consent and started confronting the murky socialisation that contributes to rape culture head on.

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