Consent for sex is in the news these days – from Bill Cosby's acknowledgment to using drugs which removed partners' capability to consent, to mutual consent state laws and campus policies – there is a lot of buzz on this topic and that's a good thing.
The buzz is turning into initiatives on college campuses and elsewhere to require clear and provable mutual consent before sex, but that solution brings with it another raft of problems. The better solution – which parents can do themselves, today – is to show and teach their children the values of honesty and respect that will make date rape unthinkable.
Parents need to be their children's primary sex educators. But unlike the conversations about anatomy and physiology, which I know makes some parents uncomfortable, conversations about honesty and respect should be easy to have.
And you're probably doing some of it already.
We start with the youngest of kids when we teach them not to take things that don't belong to them. We teach them to think about the effect their behaviors have on others. We teach them to be kind and honest, and we teach them to stand up for themselves if they are being taken advantage of. And as they grow up, we hope they will develop good judgment. That doesn't happen overnight and there's a good reason why.
In his book aptly entitled Why Do They Act That Way? A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, David Walsh, PhD, says that modern neuroscience provides a window into some of the mysteries of the teen years. He says "because the prefrontal cortex's (PFC) wiring is incomplete, the adolescent's PFC can't always distinguish between a good decision and a bad one, no matter how smart a kid is." Couple this undeveloped ability to assess risk and make good decisions with hormonally induced physical urges and appetites, and we see that kids need adult guidance now more than ever and want it less, making parenting a challenge.
Brain development continues into the early twenties; we are sending kids off to college before their capacity for judgment is fully formed. Situations that arise from bad judgment, like substance abuse and ill-considered sex on campuses is certainly not news; the American College Health Association has been promoting programmatic solutions to these issues for at least three decades, and many campuses take advantage of proven tactics to reduce out of control behavior.
What is new now is that we are finally talking about sexual coercion and ways to make it stop; the calls for consent laws and polices is a sign that this behavior is no longer tolerable.
Social media is filled with expressions of disgust at entitled, high-status males helping themselves to the sexual acts with females incapacitated by drugs or alcohol.
Whether it's TV's favorite Dad or a college football team, its variations on a theme and the mood is right to make it stop. Parents can step up and be the heroes here who raise children to live by the values that abhor this behavior. When teens are in situations where their undeveloped sense of judgment may be overcome by hormones and alcohol, they need sober peers and adults in their life to monitor their behavior. And if parents aren't physically present, their values can be there with their child. When tempted to do something stupid there's nothing wrong with a parents voice resonating a young man's head saying "that's not how we behave in our family".
Consent laws are also a new idea, but as well-intentioned as they are, consent laws are essentially unenforceable and may also have some unintended consequences. Recorded consent to sexual acts may go viral and do as much damage as a physical act. A wide net may be cast and trap people who had no ill intent.
The best thing about the proposed consent laws and polices is that they're starting a starting some very important discussions. The best prevention comes from parents' expression, in word and deed, that sex is an expression of a relationship between two people whose consent is never coerced.
Rosenzweig is also the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent's Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter.