Beyond 'no means no': Talking to teenage boys about sexual consent
WASHINGTON - A mile east from the U.S. Capitol, on the eve of the hearing that would transfix a nation, 17-year-old Hollis Howe sliced his steak as he listened to his mother talk about sexual assault.
Holly Howe, 45, told him about a young patient who recently came into the emergency room where she works as a nurse. The woman had been found outside her apartment door, wearing a dress but no underwear, recalling nothing from the night. Hours later, after sobering up, "she looks at me and she goes, I think something happened," Howe recalled to her son and husband, Gerred Howe, at the dinner table.
"Do not ever, ever think that because you're both drinking and you both think that it's consensual, that it's necessarily okay," Holly Howe told her son.
"Because what if she wakes up and decides that it wasn't consensual?" replied Hollis, a senior at the all-boys St. Anselm's Abbey School in Washington, D.C.
"Exactly," his mother nodded.
As the son of an emergency room nurse, Hollis has heard these stories time and time again from his parents, perhaps more than the typical high school boy. The Howes have drilled into his brain the importance of consent, which was almost a foreign concept when they were teenagers. They talk openly about sex, and teach him to never combine it with alcohol.
In the age of #MeToo, and in the wake of the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, parents across the country have been wrestling with the anxieties of raising teenage boys to understand consent. How does a parent bring clarity to an issue that is too complex even for the country's political leaders to navigate? How can a mother or father prevent their teenage son from someday being accused of sexual assault?
Perhaps nowhere are these worries more palpable than in the homes of students in Washington's all-male private preparatory schools, the backdrop to Christine Ford's sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh. Some parents from these schools, particularly Kavanaugh's alma mater, Georgetown Preparatory School, feel that their sons are being unfairly stereotyped as misogynistic, privileged party boys. They've taken to forcefully defending their sons, who they say are raised in a culture of respect, dignity and brotherhood.
Indeed, sexual assault takes place in schools all over the country, public and private, single-gender or co-ed. Even in the Washington area, the all-boys prep schools vary widely in size, culture, and religious affiliation.
But it's especially important that parents of students from all-boys schools are having these conversations at home, experts in adolescent developmentsay. One 2013 study from Arizona State University found that single-gender schools reinforce and increase gender stereotypes. Another study in 2011 found that cross-gender friendships decrease aggression.
"The only thing they're being exposed to is the traditional masculine culture," said Campbell Leaper, a developmental and social psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "If you are separating the boys and the girls, it's all the less likely that the boys know how to relate to the girls."
If boys and girls only socialize at parties on the weekends, and if there's drinking involved, Leaper said, "that's just a prescription for disaster."
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Teaching consent to teenagers is still a relatively new concept. In previous decades, conversations about the "birds and the bees" focused on abstinence or, at most, using protection. In recent years, consent has gradually made its way into public school sex education curriculum, but it's still rare. Only 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in public schools, and fewer than a dozen states mention the terms "healthy relationships," "sexual assault" or "consent" in their sex education programs, according to a report in May by the liberal Center for American Progress.
Three of those states, Maryland, Rhode Island and Missouri, passed legislation this year mandating consent education, propelled by the #MeToo movement. The extent to which these lessons are taught in private schools is less clear. Some students in Catholic all-boys prep schools said they primarily learned about sex in religion classes.
Similar gaps persist in conversations about sex between parents and their sons. Many adults still don't have the framework for teaching consent, said Andrew Smiler, a licensed psychologist who specializes in masculinity. Talks about consent tend to be overly simplistic, focusing on "no means no." "At the nut and bolts level, what does that mean?," Smiler said.
Technology makes the landscape of teenage sex even more confusing for parents, said Rosalind Wiseman, co-founder of Cultures of Dignity, which provides training, speeches and curriculum on the physical and emotional well-being of young people. What kinds of photos are okay to post on Snapchat? When is it appropropriate to send an eggplant emoji, representing a penis, in a text message to a girl?
And the way parents talk about sex often varies depending on whether they're talking to a son or a daughter, Cultures of Dignity Co-Founder Charlie Kuhn points out. For teenage girls, parents are more likely to explain in detail the need to be careful at parties, to avoid walking on dark streets, to stay with close friends.
"Part of the difference comes from, we have bought into this stereotype that boys are inherently promiscuous and are not into relationships," said Smiler. "Then really the only thing you need to tell them is to be safe. Because what more would they need to know?"
For Vince and Kathy Mathis, whose 16-year-old son Ryan attends Georgetown Prep in Maryland, their Baptist faith informs the way they talk about sex as a family. The parents teach their two children that the decision to have sex is serious, and that it's best to wait until they're married.
"They usually say, don't be in such a rush so early," said Ryan, who attends Georgetown Prep and is currently dating a girl from Holton-Arms, the Maryland high school attended by Christine Blasey Ford. "Be a kid right now and worry about those kinds of things later."
While they have talked about "no means no," Vince and Kathy Mathis say they don't feel the need to lay out specific scenarios or explain to their children how to move from one step to the next. They focus instead on instilling the bigger-picture values of respecting others and "controlling your own destiny," Vince Mathis said.
In their minds, Ryan's Catholic education at Georgetown Prep only reinforces those values. And despite going to an all-boys school, Ryan has had no shortage of interactions with girls, his parents said. He goes to swim practice almost every day with a co-ed swim team. He attended a co-ed school through eighth grade.
"He has a sister, he knows what that's like," Vince Mathis said.
Wiseman, the teenage educator, says she has noticed a tendency among some parents to assume their sons are incapable of treating anyone with disrespect, because that's the way they as parents raised them, Wiseman said.
"What I hear is, you know that you should be treating these girls like your mother or your sister," Wiseman said. "And that is not helpful, because those boys don't see those girls like their mother or their sister."
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Wiseman has sensed a growing fear among parents that a young woman might someday falsely accuse their son of sexual assault, or "change her mind" after a sexual encounter that at first seemed consensual. This mentality discredits girls, Wiseman said, because it assumes that if something were to go wrong, it would be the girl's fault, not the boy's.
The Kavanaugh hearings seem to have brought that fear - of miscommunication, blurred lines or even false accusations - to the forefront for many families.
"I want every female to be able to say this is not okay with me," Holly Howe, the emergency room nurse said. "At the same time I have three sons that I am worried about getting in a pickle because they think they're having consensual sex with someone and it turns out that later this person thinks that it wasn't consensual sex."
"It is hard as a male right now," Howe added. "It's really hard."
At the dinner table, she recounted how one of her older sons drove home a heavily intoxicated girl from a party during his first week in college. The son was a designated driver for his fraternity that night, so when he saw the girl slumped against a wall, nearly passed out, he drove her back to her sorority.
"I got so angry with him," Howe said. What he should have done was call an ambulance immediately, the mother said. "Don't pick up a drunk, unresponsive girl who later may or may not wake up and say 'Oh the last thing I remember I was in Harrison's car. I don't know what happened to me'."
"Bad idea," she told her 17-year-old son. "These are the things that could happen to you."
"Don't take a girl home because she's drunk?" Hollis said. "See, that is a good deed that you can no longer do."
The teenager, who has read at length about the #MeToo movement, worries that there might be an overcorrection happening. One of his older brothers, talking to their father over the phone earlier that day, said "any interaction with a girl is scary as hell now. But it probably should be."
Their father, Gerred Howe, agreed - to an extent. To give an example, he turned to his wife, touching her hand, then her elbow and then her shoulder. "How romantic is it if I'm sitting there asking, is this okay? Is that okay? I'm this close now," he said. "It becomes a little bit ridiculous."
Smiler, the psychologist, agrees that it's unrealistic to require teenage couples to verbally ask for a yes or no each time they progress from one step to the next. "The vast majority of the time, consent is non-verbal," Smiler said.
Smiler urges teenagers to move slowly. He tells teenage boys: When you're with a girl, wait three seconds after you place your hand somewhere. See if she reciprocates. If she brushes it off, you stop. If she says no, you stop. If you get no response, or if the girl freezes up, then you need to stop and ask her directly if it's what she wants.
That sort of detailed guidance is essential to teaching a teenage boy about consent, he said. It's not unlike the definition of consent ingrained in Hollis Howe's memory from a video he watched about three years ago. Holly Howe sent a link to the viral video to all three of her sons, telling them they had to watch it and talk about it as a family.
Hollis Howe can still summarize it, step by step, years later.
It begins with someone asking for a cup of tea.
"Now that you've started the stove, warmed up the water, poured it into the glass and presented it to them, they don't want tea," Hollis explained. What do you do? It's common sense for the 17-year-old.
"Don't try to pour tea down their mouth!" he said.
This article was written by Samantha Schmidt, a reporter for The Washington Post.