As a parent, you may have heard the word ‘consent’, but you might not know what it means or what it includes. Simply put, consent is permission for something to happen or an agreement to do something. Consent needs respect and communication. Consent is an important concept for children to learn about from an early age. It can lead to better relationships with family, friends, peers and, eventually romantic partners.
Consent includes knowing and respecting a person’s own boundaries as well as the boundaries of others. Understanding consent means that a person has the skills to leave a situation that doesn’t feel comfortable, and respects when other people want to do the same.
Tips When Talking about Consent with Young Children
It’s important to talk to your child about consent when they’re still young. Here are some tips that will help your child begin understand consent:
- Help your child understand that their bodies are their own and that they have the right to make decisions about their body. This includes not making your child hug or kiss family members or friends.
- Encourage your child to pay attention to other people’s cues about personal boundaries by watching other’s body language. For example, a person may take a few steps back to protect their space or they may move over slightly when someone sits too close to them.
- Practice with your child what they can say and do if they were in a situation where they didn’t feel comfortable.
- Encourage your child to speak up if something doesn’t feel right.
- Encourage your child to ask for consent (e.g., ask first if you can give someone a hug).
- Teach your child to respect ‘no’ messages. For example, if your child is roughhousing with another child, and the other child says “stop” they must respect that message.
Good Touch vs. Bad Touch
Touches that make us feel loved and cared about are important. It may also help to talk about feelings that a person may have when they get ‘okay’ and ‘not okay’ touches. The 3 main messages behind this idea are:
- Touches are important because they make us feel loved and cared about (like hugs, kisses, cuddles, a pat on the back, and high 5’s).
- Giving hurtful touches isn’t okay. It’s not okay for people who take care of kids to give them hurtful touches. It’s also not okay for kids to see other people getting hurtful touches. This includes touches like punches, kicks, slaps, bites, or anything else that leaves a mark on their body.
- Explain what child sexual abuse is. Introduce this as another kind of hurtful touch that’s also not okay. You can say something like:
“When someone bigger or older looks at or touches your private parts for no good reason or when someone bigger or older asks you to look at or touch the bigger or older person’s private parts.” (With older children include: “or when an older or bigger person talks to you in a sexual or other way that makes you feel uncomfortable or shows you pictures or sites on the Internet of naked people or of people touching people’s private (or sexual) parts.”)
Sexual activity includes kissing, sexual touching and sexual intercourse (oral, anal, and vaginal). Sexual consent means both partners agree to the sexual activity and understand what they’re agreeing to. Consent is the basis or foundation of sexual relationships. Consent must be given for every sexual activity, every time. Sexual consent is about a person’s right to make their own choice about sexual activity.
Tips for Talking about Sexual Consent with Older Children and Teens
It’s important to talk to your child or teen about consent. Here are some tips for talking about sexual consent:
- Talk about your family values and about sexuality.
- Talk about personal boundaries.
- Have your child think about situations where they might have to be clear about personal boundaries.
- Talk about sexual consent, coercion, pressure, harassment, manipulation and sexual assault. Tell your child that they have a voice and you’ll listen to them.
- Talk about the legal, social and emotional consequences of sexual assault.
Important Points about Sexual Consent
When it comes to sexual consent, there are some important ideas to understand and talk with your child about.
Consent is freely given. Agreeing to do something is consent only if it’s voluntary. If a person feels forced or bullied, or there’s something to lose by saying “no” (e.g., safety or a relationship), it’s not consent.
- Both partners agree to consent and both have a clear understanding of what they’re agreeing to. A consent conversation includes asking, answering and negotiating.
- Consent is positive and enthusiastic. When someone’s consenting, they agree wholeheartedly and are confident in their decision to consent. Body language and verbal language should both give the same positive message.
- Both people feel safe and comfortable. Safety and comfort (with themselves, their body, their partner and the situation) creates an environment where each person can freely take part in the consent conversation.
- For consent to happen, a person needs to have the chance to say “no”.
- Consent is ongoing. One person asks permission for an activity and another person gives it. This conversation continues as the activity continues or changes. The person who starts the sexual contact or who wants to move to the next level of intimacy is the one who must ask for and clearly get consent before continuing with the sexual contact.
Consent can be taken away at any time. At any point, someone can change their mind and withdraw consent. Consent given before doesn’t apply to any activities that happen later.
- You can’t assume consent because people are in a relationship. You can’t assume consent just because it was given for the same activity before. Permission must be asked for and given each time an activity begins, changes, or continues.
- Consent can’t be assumed or implied. Flirting, clothing, sexual texts or social media communication is not consent.
Communication that’s not clear or is confusing isn’t consent. If there’s any uncertainty that someone is agreeing to do something, the person starting the activity must ask permission, then wait until permission is clearly given before starting anything.
- ‘No’ always means ‘no’, whether given verbally or non-verbally: A ‘yes’ that’s not positive or freely given is also a ‘no’.
- A ‘yes’ is not consent if someone feels pressured, forced, threatened, guilty, blackmailed, intimidated, bullied or harassed.
- Silence, not answering, or not resisting physically is not consent.
- People who are drunk, high, sleeping or unconscious can’t give consent, either legally or practically. To have clear communication about consent, both people should be sober and alert.
Consent and the Law
In Canada, the age of consent is the legal age when a person can make a decision to have sexual intercourse. The law states that a 16 year old can consent to sex, except if the:
- other person is in a position of authority (e.g., teacher, coach, or employer).
- sexual activity will take advantage of the person (e.g., pornography, prostitution, or trading sex for safety).
There are ‘close in age’ exceptions to this law:
- 14 and 15 year olds may consent to sex if the partner is less than 5 years older.
- 12 and 13 year olds may consent to sex if the partner is less than 2 years older.
- Children younger than 12 cannot consent to any type of sexual activity. Having sex with a child younger than 12 is against the law and is sexual abuse.
What to Know about Sexual Assault
- Sex without consent is sexual assault.
- Sexual assault can happen to anyone of any age and gender. Anyone of any age and gender can commit assault.
- The person who did not get consent (the perpetrator) is fully responsible for sexual assault. Prevention messages are aimed only at possible perpetrators with the goal of preventing them from assaulting people.
- The term ‘survivor’ usually refers to a person who’s been sexually assaulted. If the person identifies as ‘victim’, one would use that same language. The word ‘victim’ is often used by police or in a legal sense.
- The term ‘perpetrator’ is used for someone who commits an assault but may not have been legally punished for that crime.
- Prevention messages about how to prevent being sexually assaulted are no longer acceptable. They didn’t reduce sexual assaults. Instead, they made the person who was assaulted feel more shame, made them less likely to use support services, and gave perpetrators excuses.
- Sexual assault is the legal term in Canada. It is acceptable to use the term in the classroom. If a survivor uses the term ‘rape’, a person would use the same language with them.
What to do if Your Child Is Sexually Assaulted
If your child has been assaulted, they may come to you for help. You will likely go through all types of feelings and reactions (e.g., shock, anger, fear, guilt, or anxiety)—these are all normal. The way that you respond to your child is important. Positive and supportive responses are more likely to help your child as they recover from the assault.
If your child tells you that they’ve been sexual assaulted, here are some supportive things you can do or say:
- Listen. Stay calm and give them your full attention. Let them know you hear what they told you.
- Believe. Believe what they tell you. Say, “I believe you.” Let them know that talking about the assault takes courage and strength.
- Be compassionate. You can say, “You do not deserve this”.
- Stress that it’s not their fault. Survivors usually blame themselves. Remind them that only the perpetrator is responsible for what happened.
- Know where to get help. Ask them if they’ve reached out to a support service. Let them know they can call a distress helpline or sexual assault support agency.
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