Talking to your sons about sex and sexual consent can be a tough topic to tackle. Here’s how to navigate the conversation.

By Brianne Stephen

At 14 years old, Donna was date raped. As a result, she felt it extremely important to start the conversation about sex and sexual consent with her oldest son when he was just 13—a discussion that lasted well into his teen years.

“Even with my situation, telling my son that my first time wasn’t the way I wanted it to be… I had to tell him because you have to be emotionally ready, too,” she says.

Unfortunately, what Donna experienced is a reality for many young women. According to the Canadian Sexual Assault website, sexassault.ca, about 60 per cent of sexual abuse/assault victims are under the age of 17 and statistics have shown that one in five women will become victims of on-campus sexual assault.

The Canadian Federation of Students states that most incidents happen within the first eight weeks of post secondary school. This includes student orientation week, a high-risk environment for sexual assault because of the increase of celebrations, alcohol consumption and new students who become targeted. In three-quarters of these assaults, the woman knows her attacker.

The severity of these statistics is all the more reason for parents to talk to their sons about consent—especially as many parents will be sending their sons away to start college and university this fall. Understandably, it can be a difficult conversation to have, but here’s how you can navigate it.

LOCKER ROOM TALK
In Donna’s opinion, respect means cheering women on and giving them support, rather than putting them down, as language is one of the most powerful contributors to violence against women. Sexist, misogynistic or violent comments directed at women are a problem in our society and one of the places they appear in is locker rooms—also referred to as “Locker Room Talk.”

Locker rooms are seen as safe spaces for high school and college-aged boys to be themselves and joke with each other, but many of these jokes are violent and degrading towards women.

White Ribbon is the largest movement of men and boys fighting violence against women. Trevor Mayoh, a gender-based violence prevention project manager at White Ribbon, outlined two major issues with locker room talk:

“One, just because there is a physical wall does not mean that those attitudes and behaviours stop at that locker room door… [and] the other really problematic issue is you are essentially programming other guys in that environment to subscribe to [those attitudes and behaviours] as a way to feel accepted and that they belong in those male environments.”

Mayoh explains, “it’s important to recognize that social capital for young people is the No. 1 currency they have.” The pressure to feel accepted by friends overwhelms their sense of right and wrong and can put them into unsafe situations. Some boys feel that if they do not subscribe to this way of thinking, they will be the targets of degrading comments similar in nature to those about women.

HOW TO INVOLVE YOUR SON IN THE SOLUTION
From parent to parent, Donna says to “be open and honest with your child as much as you can.” When speaking to her son, Donna focused on the emotional elements of sex, telling her son to not only be safe by using a condom and getting tested, but to also make sure that both he and his partner were emotionally ready to have sex. Being mature and responsible was a key point that Donna made with her son.

Gary Direnfeld, an internationally known social worker, says, “it’s important to understand there is no such thing as good timing for these conversations.”

Even though it is difficult to bring up this conversation, parents must make the time for it, and he advises parents to be nonjudgmental.

“Resist preaching to your teens,” he says. “Let your teen speak….your teen needs to feel heard and respected, even if you disagree with anything you hear.”

Direnfeld’s advice for starting the conversation? Try starting with something as simple as, “I’ve been reading on the Internet about issues with sexual consent. What does that mean to you?” If your teen shies away from the conversation, sympathize with the awkwardness, but let him know you would like him to hear your point of view. Emphasize that this is a conversation, not a demand.

White Ribbon recommends using a strength-based approach. They recognize that some boys put up barriers because they don’t want to be labeled as part of the problem. Mayoh recommends that parents encourage their sons to recognize the role they have to play in terms of preventing violence. Instead of lecturing your son about what he shouldn’t be doing—which can cause him to put up those barriers—you should focus on telling him what he can do to help.

Mayoh recommends parents say, “Here are the things you can do, personally, that have a really positive impact. Here are the things you can do in your group of friends… here are realistic steps you can take to change that culture.” For example, letting your son know that if he sees something happening that shouldn’t be, he can report it to someone to reduce the threat or he could talk to a teacher or a coach about an issue such as locker room talk.

It’s important for parents to have this conversation with their teens because “in the end we want happy kids. This is best achieved by helping them to be responsible,” says Direnfeld. Talking about sexual consent helps teens take responsibility for their sexual behaviour, and it also helps them to take responsible action in harmful situations. ■