Tuesday 22 January 2019

How to talk to children about sex and consent

It's not easy to do but in the wake of the Belfast rape trial and #MeToo, this may be the time to start a ­conversation with children about sex and consent

'Build up slowly to complex issues': Sarah Sproule at home in Dublin with her three children. Photo: Mark Condren
'Build up slowly to complex issues': Sarah Sproule at home in Dublin with her three children. Photo: Mark Condren

Kathy Donaghy

The sheet inside my youngest child's folder read: "Never keep a touch a secret". His homework was to colour it in and talk about this statement at home. After the recent rape trial in Belfast, small, ordinary things like this in family life seem to have taken on a more urgent new meaning.

The trial and the Harvey Weinstein allegations have inspired a tsunami of coverage and initiated conversations that we may never have had before. It's forced us to look at the sometimes uncomfortable truths of our own sexual pasts and grapple with how we think about consent and what that means.

They've raised issues that have affected many people and experts now believe it's high time to grasp the nettle and begin to have conversations about sex and issues around consent with our children.

Earlier this month, Education Minister Richard Bruton announced a major review of relationships and sexuality education (RSE). It's the biggest shake up of sex education in 20 years and is putting consent on the table as a priority issue for comprehensive review.

Alex Cooney, CEO of CyberSafe Ireland, says while the review is most welcome, talking about relationships and sexuality must start at home while children are still in primary school. "As with any important issue, the discussion would be much better to start at home, and the education system reinforces that. I wouldn't like to leave that discussion to the school," she says.

Cooney says because children are getting online very young, they may have access to things that are highly inappropriate for them. She cites research commissioned by the NSPCC in Britain which found that 53pc of 11-to-16-year-olds had seen explicit material online, nearly all of whom (94pc) had seen it by the age of 14, as a warning to parents to be more engaged with what their children are up to online and to lead the way by setting restrictions around internet use.

"We need smart kids making smart choices. We can't completely stop them from seeing things, but we can equip them with skills - and having these conversations about what is and isn't okay is fundamentally important," says Cooney.

Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, says while there is a focus now on second-level students, conversations around issues like consent must start much earlier.

She says consent has to be about understanding respect for yourself and for other people. "It doesn't have to be about sexual activity. It can be about learning how to say yes and how to say no. In a sense, if this was accomplished, a lot would be accomplished," says Blackwell.

Sarah Sproule, a mother-of-three and an occupational therapist working with families to support conversations around sexuality and consent, believes it's important that we tackle our own fears around these subjects first.

She says we live in a culture where most conversations about sex have been shut down leaving many of us ill-equipped to talk about sex, which she feels could be no different to learning about nutrition from a young age if parents had the right support.

Sproule is clear that parents should not feel that this is a conversation that needs to be introduced by talking about rape.

"Start off small," she says. "Talk about things in everyday life, like what's happening in online video games or how people are portrayed in advertising. It's that everyday awareness that we need to start bringing into our kids' minds. It's slowly building up the skills to have conversations about more complex things. Don't be overwhelmed by this, it definitely can't start as a conversation about rape.

"We also need to approach these things giving ourselves permission that it's okay not to get it right. Just because we're not getting it quite right doesn't mean we can't try. We don't need to wait till we have it rock solid - try the conversation out with your kids. You're creating this 'we are muddling-along-together' culture in your family," she says.

In an ideal world from the ages of four to six, Sproule says the ground work for 'bigger' conversations should already be laid down by having talked to children about the basic concepts of bodily autonomy.

Interactive relationships

"When kids are small, you can have the conversation about consent - and it's not about sexuality at all. When two kids are rough-housing at home and one says 'I don't like this', they've already worked out what they don't like. You can help them talk to you and to other people about what they do like and what they don't like," she says.

As children get older, Sproule says it's important for parents to initiate conversations with their children around issues they might hear on the news - like the case of the Belfast rape trial, where there were regular reports on bulletins - at a time when the parent doesn't feel under pressure. This might be, she says, when you're travelling in the car with them.

And she says if you start off by saying something like 'I've been thinking about what you said yesterday' - it shows them you've been listening to them and are taking what they're saying on board. That give-and-take approach is key in any communication.

"It's important to remember when a kid says something that's upsetting to you, it's not necessarily what the kid believes - it may simply be what they are hearing from the culture they are living in," she says.

"In parenting, our relationship with our kid is everything. Having an open, interactive relationship with our kids give us the opportunity to present options and alternatives to what they think and say. That's why it's so important to take time away from your parenting to think about these big issues on your own. Then you can keep a clear head when you are with your kids," she adds.

Sproule says when she's talking to her own older children about complex issues, she sometimes sends information to them via text or email. "Instead of making it embarrassing for them to have that conversation face to face, you can send them something online that they can read in their own time. If you find the right YouTube video, that can be a really powerful way to communicate.

"This work is hard but it is possible. It's one of our lifelong journeys as parents that we attempt to create a culture in our families where we talk about everything. You need to treat your kids as a person with something important to say. Kids are the experts of their own lives. They know best what it's like to be a teenager. There is no place for a parent to be didactic and telling teens how to live. There's only a place for collaboration," she says.

"Consent is something you're teaching them from a young age through the experiences they have with you. You develop this culture of 'I am being consensual with you'. Consent is not about making someone else be the way you want to be, but accepting other people and being rock solid about who you are."

Donegal-based mum-of-five Taryn de Vere says she started talking to her children about consent early. "To me it's about family values and one of those really important values is respect; respect for each other and respect for yourself."

As part of this respect, Taryn says she has always taught her children - ranging in ages from seven to 17 - about bodily autonomy. "My kids know what that means. It's a powerful way to describe to children that they are in their own bodies and that it's your choice what happens to your body," she says.

"One of my older children is a child who didn't like to be touched. She taught our whole family to be respectful of boundaries. Even kissing the top of her head was not okay for her. She helped everyone else to be aware - we can't just assume that someone wants a hug or a kiss.

"As a parent, one of the worst things that one of my kids could do is not respect the body autonomy of another person. I can remember a scene with two of my kids - they were 11 and five at the time. The 11-year-old was dominating the five-year-old and he was getting really annoyed. My 11-year-old said 'he didn't say no'. I said 'look at his body language, look at his face'. Every time something happened was an opportunity to teach about non-verbal cues. I was able to teach them about all the different ways people say no," says Taryn.

"I think it's really important to do this when you're consuming media with your kids because a lot of media doesn't contain consent. We could be watching something on telly and we'll stop and discuss it. They're not hard conversations - they're simple. It gets harder when you've got teenagers," she says.

And she believes when you have teenagers and the issue of consent comes up, you have to talk to your children about the fact that the majority of sexual assaults are carried out by people known to the person.

"The basic premise of consent is communication with the people you want to touch or who might want to touch you. It's about respectful communication and making sure everything you are doing is a wanted thing. Consent is just about being a human in the world and respecting others.

"It's about every single interaction you have where you're touching someone. In my head, consent is not about sex. Respect and autonomy are what I think about. Yes, consent gets introduced to your sexual relationships, but it's been a bedrock in all of your relationships up to that point," says Taryn.

When it comes to an issue like consent being taught at school, Aodh Quigley, a music student at Trinity College Dublin, says in their case it was as unbiased as it could be.

But it was only when Aodh (19), who identifies as non-binary, went to BeLonG To - an organisation that supports lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans young people and where issues around sexuality are explored in peer-led workshops - that the blinkers came off in terms of how these things could and should be talked about.

"How we communicate around sex is really important. Irish people in particular tend to sweep things under the rug. It's so important that we see things as not black and white - particularly around consent. We need to talk about the conversations we're having before we have sex," says Aodh.

Non-judgmental lessons

"The kind of sex education you have in school - particularly for young women - tends to be around how you have a baby. We were lucky in school to be taught about contraception. A lot of my friends were not as fortunate. It needs to be unbiased and non-judgmental.

"Coming from my experience teaching music - sex education doesn't seem to have a specific curriculum. It's really important that there is a curriculum with specific learning outcomes. There has to be a progression every year up to sixth year and it should be taught like maths for example," says Aodh.

"I remember we did have a conversation about consent in school. I think it was in fourth year. It was all 'yes means yes and no means no'. We didn't have proper discussions about what constitutes a yes or a no or what happened if you maybe consented once - does that mean you have consented to whatever happens after that?"

"We had these conversations in BeLonG To that if you consented on one occasion, that didn't mean you consented to it the next time. That's one of the big things people need to realise," says Aodh.

Read more: 'Consent isn't only about sex'

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