When I was about 15, a friend was confiding in me about our friend Sasha’s* fight with her boyfriend James*. Sasha had been dating James for a while, and their relationship included sexual activity. She told me that Sasha had cheated on James, and he had found out and been furious.
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He was really mad. He yelled at her and threw things and made her have sex with him,” she said.
“Like, he made her have sex, when she was saying no?” I said, incredulous.
“Well… I don’t know. I don’t think so. He said she was crying but didn’t fight him or anything.”
Reading this as an adult makes me cringe. But as teens, we were a little confused as to whether James could really rape Sasha, given that they were going out and had had sex before. When we saw Sasha next, she and James were together and they seemed happy. We concluded that she couldn’t have been sexually assaulted.
When we think of teens being sexually assaulted, we often think of stranger/ acquaintance rape, but teens can and are sexually assaulted by their romantic partners. This can occur even if they have consented to sex in the past, and might again in the future. Consenting to one episode of sexual contact does not mean that there is blanket consent for sexual consent at all times.
This seems like an easy concept for adults to understand, but it’s important to remember that the very idea of date and marital rape wasn’t really addressed by our society until the 1970s. One of my earliest memories of talk radio is listening to (and being confused by) a debate in the early 80s that boiled down to, “Is it really possible to rape your own wife?”
Teens- especially younger teens- can be confused by the concept of sexual assault within the confines of a romantic relationship that has already involved sexual contact. It’s important that teens realize that it’s wrong to make, or coerce, someone into having sex, even if they’ve consented to sex before. It’s also important that teens know they can say no to someone- with every expectation of an immediate halt to sexual activity- even if they’ve said yes before, no matter what the circumstances. In Sasha’s case, I found out later she felt she’d “deserved it” for having sexual contact with someone else while dating James.
While it’s very important that your teen realize that it’s important to gain consent for sexual contact, they also need to know that consent is important for every sexual contact. It doesn’t necessarily mean that a teen has to seriously sit down and formally ask for consent every time (although they can if they want to), but they do need to realize that consent is not a one-time process when one is dating someone, or has had sexual contact with them before. This may not be one of those concepts where you can give a step-by-step guide on how to deal with it, but it’s still important that they’re aware the concept exists.
Once you’ve discussed how important this is with your teen, ask them how they’d go about making sure every sexual contact is consensual. There isn’t one correct answer. Discuss their ideas with them. Depending on your teen, they may be so embarrassed at the idea of talking to you about this that they stop the conversation, which is fine. Once you’ve asked the question, you can leave their mind to fill in the blanks when it’s time… although bringing it up again when they’re in a romantic/ sexual relationship never hurts.
What conversations have you had with your teen about this? What was their reaction?
Part 1: The Steubenville Incident
Part 2: Drinking and Drugs
Part 3: The Age of Consent
Part 4: Trusting Your Gut
Part 5: Developmentally Delayed Teens
Part 7: Changing the Culture, One Teen at a Time
Part 8: The Media’s Response to the Steubenville Convictions