The results of this small sampling of parents reflect much of what we see out in the field: parents and educators want to talk about consent, and most do in one way or another. We can see in question 1 that most parents feel that they have addressed consent by talking about respecting people’s feelings. We often hear men say that they understand consent because they were taught to “respect women.” While this is a start, and very well intended, it does not adequately address the complexities of interpersonal and gender-based violence. Nor does it do anything to address the violence that boys, men, non-binary, and transgender people face. The same is true for the response that parents are still sticking to the slogan ‘no means no.’
The problem then is not that consent is being ignored as a conversation that parents are having with their children (very few said they do not discuss it), it is that such a deep and broad topic is often boiled down in ways that do not cover the most relevant aspects of this discussion. Should respecting each other and stopping at ‘no’ be a launching point for discussing consent with children? Yes. Should it be the beginning, middle, and end? No.
It is encouraging to see that in question two most parents replied far and above on average that they do feel comfortable talking to their children about consent, even though they may be confused or overwhelmed by aspects of it. This is terrific news because it means that there is an opportunity to continue educating parents and teachers on how to feel better equipped in exploring consent conversations with youth. The greatest obstacle is reaching those who feel uncomfortable with the topic entirely.
Only one parent responded that they feel consent is a conversation about pre-marital sex and none of the respondents said no straight out. The media exposure to the topic is creating a positive ripple effect: parents see that this something that must be discussed and that they need to start earlier than they previously thought. Even when they know that there are aspects of where consent conversations are going that they don’t understand, they still know that having an open dialogue with their children and planting whatever seeds they can offer is better than burying their head in the sand.
The topics that parents are most comfortable talking to their children about regarding consent were “no means no,” “bodily autonomy,” and “verbal and non-verbal consent.” This is consistent with the messages we have received culturally on sexual assault prevention over the past 30 years and mirrors some of the recent conversations we have seen in the media on respecting children’s personal boundaries.
The least discussed of options presented were token resistance/compliance, communication barriers, and power dynamics in relationships. This also was of no surprise to me. Even when working with other prevention educators and victim advocates these are topics, they have rarely been exposed to much less trained on; this is the difference between someone who was training on the job and someone who is a scholar and researcher on a specific subject matter.
Few people will know exactly what tokenism is, much less how it is interconnected with consent. Tokenism is a direct component of communication barriers—understanding why victims have a hard saying no or setting clear boundaries is so crucial to understanding the affirmative dynamic of consent and yet is rarely discussed. Both tokenism and communication incongruences are wrapped in the mantle of power dynamics unless we can explain why different positions of power create different levels of comfort and afford varying levels of access to adequate and honest communication, we are still missing the mark on discussing consent holistically.