When I first read about the sexual encounter between a woman called "Grace" and Aziz Ansari, I was flooded with ceaseless thoughts and emotions. This represented a turning point, because the conversation is no longer about something horrible that happened to someone famous; it's about a seemingly universal experience of good and bad sex. The worst night of Grace's life sounds like many nights of mine. Sure, we need to teach consent. We realized that after the first wave of horrific sexual assaults came to light. But here, now, is a more complicated case for talking about consent with our kids. Because, we don't just want our kids to avoid assault, we want them to learn about how to navigate enjoyable sexual experiences with other people. I know I want better for my kids than what I experienced.
I cannot recall ever hearing the word "consent" when I was growing up, let alone possessing an understanding of what that word actually meant. The messages I received about sex were more singular: situations were black and white, and as a self-identifying woman I had to be the one responsible for how those situations played out. So instead of learning that I had a right to say "yes" to sex, and to rescind that "yes" at any time, I learned I had a responsibility to say "no" to sex. Regardless. It wasn't just about establishing my personal boundaries, it was about establishing whether or not I was a "good girl" and, well, I knew what society expected of me.
It was my job to send the message of "undeniable purity" home, by either pushing a boy off of me, slapping him with abandon, or repeating the phrase "no means no" over and over again, like some abstinence-only mantra. The problem with this message, though, is that like many teen and 20-something women, I liked sex. Hell, I had sex. I sometimes wanted sex. So, when a guy took things further than I wanted to, tried to wear me down, begged for sex, pressured me, accused me of being coy, or asked why I kissed him, made out with him, or went down on him without wanting to "go all the way," I felt an obligation to have sex, regardless of my personal feelings or levels of comfort. Suddenly, my sexual encounters weren't this black-and-white "just say no" affair. They were complicated, they required open lines of communication, and I lacked the understanding to facilitate these necessary discussions.
Every sexual encounter I've had started with some type of consensual act, even the ones that ended in rape.
Sometimes I went along with sex because I was ashamed for letting myself get put in a so-called bad situation. Other times, I honestly wanted a particular boy to like me, and I was afraid that he might not consider me a worthwhile human being if I didn't let him convince me that sex was a necessity in the moment, right then and there, no matter what. Sometimes I was actually afraid of what might happen if I turned a boy down, because he was bigger than me, more powerful, I was drunk, or I had nowhere else to go. Actually, every sexual encounter I've had started with some type of consensual act, even the ones that ended in rape. Afterward, I felt like I couldn't tell anyone about it — not even my mom — because I felt like I deserved it. After all, I was a girl who enjoyed consensual sex, and that's not the type of woman society celebrates. Or believes.
I know I'm not the only woman with this story. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 70 percent of rape victims know their rapists — they are our friends, classmates, the guys we like, our partners, and our exes.
I think it's time we've changed how we talk about consent. And not just with each other, but with our kids.
I'm not excusing it, but it's no wonder that many people, including Ansari, think that his partner's state of discomfort (you can read her account of the evening here) after their night together was merely a case of "morning-after remorse." So many people online, and presumably amongst friends, are arguing about whether or not it was "really rape." But in these conversations people seem to be ignoring the fact that consent achieved after convincing or coercion isn't really consent at all. Perhaps more upsetting, is the undeniable fact that nights like the one "Grace" alleges occurred are so common, they've probably happened to every single woman you know. Yes, every. single. one.
That's why I think it's time we've changed how we talk about consent. And not just with each other, but with our kids. While my parents didn't teach me about consent when I was young, and I definitely didn't learn about it in high school sex ed, I'm teaching my kids about consent and bodily autonomy at a very early age. In our house, "no" definitely means no, but "not right now," "I don't like that," "please stop," and even an uncomfortable silence means we stop what we are doing immediately, too. My kids — both sons and daughters — own their bodies and have a right to not be touched. I will never make my kids give hugs or kisses, and I don't want them to learn that they have to do something because someone they like asks them to.
I want a different future for my kids. When they have sex, I want it to be wonderful. I want them to be ready, to know what a healthy relationship looks like, and how to ask for and give consent.
When my kids are older and ask me about sex, I want them to know that consent is not really about saying "no" or "yes." Instead, it's an ongoing, nuanced conversation, and what occurs between two people must be constantly discussed. If you don't want something to happen, even though you agreed to it earlier, that's OK. Waiting for an enthusiastic "yes," and even then, stopping along the way to check-in to make sure everything is OK, especially if you are with a new partner, are trying something knew, or they are suddenly silent or not responding, is what makes sex great. In fact, it's what makes sex sex, and not misconduct, assault, or rape.
Understanding consent seems so simple. After all, most children learn the words "yes" and "no" the moment they exit the womb. I mean, I don't know about you, dear reader, but my children definitely seemed to be innately capable of conveying their displeasure, and way before they were out of diapers. But at the same time, if we tell them they can say "no" and then don't comply with their wishes, or try to get them to change their minds when we can tell they're uncomfortable, what kind of lesson are they really learning? How powerful are our words, really, when our actions discredit them?
I want a different future for my kids. When they have sex, I want it to be wonderful. I want them to be ready, to know what a healthy relationship looks like, and how to ask for and give consent. I don't want them ever to feel so ashamed about sex that they can't come to me (or someone else) if something bad happens to them. So yeah, I am teaching my kids about consent now, when they are little and as soon as humanly possible, and I think other parents should, too. Ansari's own response proves that this is absolutely necessary, even if our moms didn't teach us the same and our sexual encounters "weren't that bad."
If you're a victim of sexual assault and need help, contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area. You are not alone.