This year, my teenage son overstepped boundaries while texting a girl his age. He didn’t send anything inappropriate, per se: when I read the texts myself, they seemed a rather banal sequence of “hey there” and “how r u?” messages, interspersed with nonsensical emojis.
Still, the girl’s mom was upset. And, when I talked with my son, I was too. Even though the girl requested he stop texting, that she needed to go to bed, that he was bombarding her with silly notes, my son continued to send them, certain that she wanted him to continue—that she was, in his words, “just kidding around.” Finally, her mother stepped in and sent a text, telling him to stop, and that’s when he came to show the messages to me.
This incident might have seemed harmless, just two eighth graders learning to navigate electronic communication. Yet he and I spent a long time processing what had happened, concerned that he didn’t understand that when a girl told him to stop, she really meant it. As he matures and begins dating, I wanted him to know that no always means no, even when the interaction seems relatively benign.
I have become finely attuned to the issue of consent lately, in some part because my boys are too quickly turning into men. As a college professor, I am also aware of conversations on campuses across the United States about sexual assault and about the lack of clear institutional policies protecting students from nonconsensual sexual behavior.
Faced with surveys showing that one in four college-aged women have experienced unwanted sexual contact and 11 percent of them have experience a form of sexual assault, Vice President Joe Biden promoted last week a nationwide campaign to end college sexual assault. Biden addressed the current culture of sexual coercion, where a person’s no is too often considered an unmitigated yes. The It’s On Us pledge asks supporters to acknowledge “that nonconsensual sex is sexual assault” and that we agree “to intervene in situations where consent has not or cannot be given.”
Last month, California became the first state to require high school students to be taught about affirmative consent in sex ed classes. Teenagers will learn that they must give verbal consent before kissing and touching, as well as before proceeding with any sexual activity. For students new to the mysterious world of sexuality, these programmed discussions about affirmative consent are decidedly murky. According to some, they provide only minimal protection from sexual coercion or assault, especially for those who feel pressured to say “yes.”
We may assume that Christian teaching on sex and sexuality inures us from having such discussions about affirmative consent: because abstinence education teaches young people to avoid situations where consent might be needed; because Christian youth will not be incapacitated by substances that often complicate questions about consent; and because talking about “yes means yes” promotes sexual activity outside of marriage. (Never mind that that affirmative consent needs to occur within marriage as well.)
Helping young people understand affirmative consent might be difficult given Christian teaching about abstinence, but such conversations are imperative. Fundamentally, the Christian faith relies on outdoing each other in showing honor (Rom. 12:10), and on loving one another as Christ loved us (John 13:34). Affirmative consent challenges us to honor the worth of each person. Nonconsensual activity challenges this notion, suggesting that a person is worthy as an object for our own pleasure. Surely we can see the problems in this kind of coercion, whether it happens within or outside the bounds of marriage.
In her excellent new book, Facing "The Talk": Conversations with My Four Daughters about Sex, Wendy Elizabeth Chapin suggests what many of us now acknowledge: Christian conversations about sex have too often been based in fear and shame. Parents worry open discussions about sex might signal acquiescence and implicit approval for their children to have intercourse. Some studies suggest the opposite. The parents who speak most openly and comfortably about sex tend to have children who delay having sex as a result.
When sexual activity becomes shrouded in secrecy and shame, there’s the risk of doing more damage. Young people who experience assault may hesitate to report it, worried that engaging in sex—consensual or not—made them damaged goods. If this seems a far-fetched notion, one need only look at several well-publicized incidents at Christian universities in recent years, where women and men who reported sexual assault were expelled or faced disciplinary action for fornication, their judgment and morality called into question because they were under the influence or because they had consented to some but not all forms of sexual contact.
Chapin’s book provides an important framework for talk about sex and sexuality without resorting to fear and shame. She describes discussions she had about sex with her daughters, often during mother-daughter trips together. “The talk” was threaded through swimming at a hotel pool, watching movies, eating dinner. In a more relaxed atmosphere, Chapin felt, her daughters would be more candid with their mother; and also, Chapin chose to be more frank with them, sharing her own sexual experiences and lessons.
By being open and vulnerable, Chapin conveyed a message about sex and sexuality far different from what she received growing up. Her ideas seem applicable for those of us raising sons as well. Chapin makes the case that purposeful conversations can empower teens and equip them to decide far they are willing to go with a partner. Such agency is vital, especially for young women, who will have more confidence to avoid coercion, recognizing the power they have to say no when they really mean it.
And for those who have said yes? Chapin believes parents who initiate talks about sex and sexuality early and often are in a better place to help teens who have had sex. Open communication will foster an environment where children share their experiences rather than stay silent. And silence, too often, follows sexual assault, as victims wrongly believe they are to blame for what has been done to them.
Earlier this year, when I talked with my son about his barrage of uninvited texts, I wondered if I’d gone overboard: if I was making too much of his impulsive behavior, or if I was making too big a leap from “no means no” in texting to “no means no” in romantic relationships. Chapin’s Facing the Talk reinforced for me that such conversations, at every stage, are crucial. Open, grace-filled discussions about relationships, sex, and sexuality will help our kids become healthy teens and adults who can, in Chapin’s words, contribute to “God’s story of creative goodness for the world.”
I imagine, if more people were willing to discuss the necessity of affirmative consent in all stages of relationships, sexual assault—on college campuses and elsewhere—would also diminish, and that story of creative goodness might find a stronger voice. It’s on all of us, especially parents, to make sure that silence about nonconsensual sex, and the shame that often follows, is not an option any more.
Melanie Springer Mock is a Professor of English at George Fox University, Newberg, Oregon. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Nation, Christian Feminism Today, Adoptive Families, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Mennonite World Review, among other places. Her books include the recently released If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming all God Means for you to Be; Just Moms: Conveying Justice in an Unjust World; andThe Spirit of Adoption: Writers on Religion, Adoption, Faith, and More. Melanie blogs at Ain't I a Woman?