The Brock Turner sexual assault case (and his victim's stunning statement) has captured national attention and left a lot of parents questioning how to talk to their children about the difficult topics of sexual assault and consent.
But before parents can embark on those important conversations, there are a few basic concepts that they themselves need to make sure they understand. Like, what is consent? And how does it work in real life? Before you talk to your kids, at the very least make sure you're clear on these core ideas.
1) Consent can never just be assumed.
Consent is an agreement that can be communicated verbally, with clear questions like, "Is this OK?" or statements such as "I'm open to trying XYZ" (assuming, of course, that both of those parties have the legal capacity to give consent, as defined by the state they're in). Consent can also be communicated non-verbally, with physical cues that make it clear both parties are comfortable with what is happening, or with moving it to the next level. But consent can never just be assumed -- and the absence of a clear "no" does not necessarily mean that a person is saying "yes."
"Of course, no means no. But sometimes [a person] doesn't have the agency to say no," explained Ignacio Rivera, a sex educator and leadership team member with FORCE: Upsetting Rape Culture. They might be confused, frightened or both.
Again: silence and passivity do not equal consent. A person must actively agree to what is happening sexually through verbal or non-verbal cues, and they cannot do so if they do not know or understand what is going on. In other words, explained Alexa Schwartz, coordinator of The Talk Project, a peer-to-peer program aimed at combating sexual violence, people cannot give consent if they're too intoxicated to know what is happening.
2) Consent can be withdrawn.
"Consent can be given and taken away at any time," said Rivera. "You can always say, 'I changed my mind.'" Parents should remind their children that, Rivera urged, and empower them to listen to their intuition if a certain type of contact or sexual attention feels wrong. "Kids have to learn to follow their own guts," Rivera said. "If your gut is telling you, 'This is weird. This is horrible and I don't like it,' then it's freaking horrible."
Also, prior consent does not mean consent has been granted again. Just because a person said yes to sex once does not automatically mean it's OK in the future.
3) Consent needs to be respected even in really young kids.
From a young age, children need to learn that it's not appropriate to touch or be touched without consent, said Schwartz. Parents might be quick to dismiss this idea as ridiculous or overly cautious, but making it clear to a young child who doesn't want to hug a particular adult, or sit on his or her lap, that it's OK to decline is how children begin to learn their bodies are their own.
"Never force children to interact with an adult by giving them hugs or kisses," echoed Riviera. Our concepts about boundaries, including what they mean and why they matter, begin to develop at a young age.
4) Consent is a must. Always.
When it comes to sexual assault, victim blaming is widespread and takes many forms, from suggesting a young woman could have avoided rape if only she didn't get drunk, to implying it's the victim's fault for behaving or dressing a certain way. But sexual assault can occur anywhere, to anyone, and it's not because the victim did anything wrong. It's because sexual contact or behavior took place without clear, positive consent. And when it comes to sexual activity and behavior, consent is a non-negotiable. Period, the end.