Consent is when everybody involved in a sexual experience actively and freely agrees to what is happening without threat, pressure, being intoxicated, or being too young (the exact age is slightly different in each state). Read our article on ReachOut.com for more information about what active sexual consent is.
Yes, we know this is probably an awkward topic of conversation, but it’s also really important. Talking to your teens about sex and consent helps them understand their rights and what safe and healthy sex should be like.
Here are some ways to teach your teen about consent:
Discuss what consent means for them
Don’t assume your teenager knows (or doesn’t know) what consent means - take this opportunity to ask them. This will give you an idea of what you need to talk about, and any confused or harmful understanding of consent they may have. Most importantly, consent must be explicit (i.e. only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’) and any sexual activity without consent is sexual assault. Sexual consent is a conversation - that’s because someone can change their mind at any point during sexual activity to stop, even if they have already started having sex. If that happens, their partner must respect them and immediately stop.
Talk about their changing lives
When your teen is in the midst of growing up and going through puberty, it can sometimes make it hard to think clearly. Make sure your teen knows that these new, possibly overwhelming, feelings are okay and that they can always talk to you about them. Help them understand that, despite these feelings, they still must respect themselves and others.
Let them figure out their own boundaries...and respect others
The goal is to give your teen the tools to work out what they are comfortable with, and feel confident to communicate those boundaries to their partner in the future. You can help do that by:
- Encouraging them to ask themselves questions, such as: why do I want to have sex? Do I feel pressured do have sex? Do I feel safe? Am I more anxious than excited? These aren’t questions they need to tell you the answers to; they are just good prompts for them to reflect on when working out if they are ready to have sex.
- Reminding them that they don’t owe anybody sex. It doesn’t matter if they are in a romantic relationship with someone else, or are already comfortable with kissing or touching their partner. It doesn’t matter if they have previously had sex. It’s also important to know that saying ‘I love you’ or giving gifts also does not mean they have to have sex or do anything in response.
- Telling them that it’s important to talk about sex and intimacy with any partner. They should feel comfortable expressing what they do and do not want to do, and if that changes over the course of a relationship or interaction.
- Discuss what impact they think their actions may have on other people. If you hear your teen objectifying other people, remind them that those people they are talking about are human beings – not just sexual objects.
Read our article for more information about helping your teen set boundaries in romantic relationships.
Remind them that consent and respect is a two-way street: they must also respect their partners' sexual boundaries.
Get them to reflect on their understanding
Ask them questions like, “How do you know if someone wants to kiss you?” and “How can you tell if someone is interested in you?”, “How can you tell if your partner is ready for sex?” If you don’t think they’ll feel comfortable answering those sorts of questions face-to-face, you could do it via email or text, or ask them to write their responses down on paper. Or you could even organise for them to chat with another trusted adult they feel comfortable with.
Check in about parties, drinks and drugs
Ask your teen what they’ll do to keep themselves and their friends safe while partying. How will they know when they (or someone else) has had too much to drink? Alcohol and drugs affect someone’s ability to give consent; if they or someone else is really drunk or high, they can’t give consent. Being sexual with anyone who can’t give informed consent is sexual assault.
Be careful with your language here and make it clear that the sexual assault is never the fault of the survivor. Responsibility always lies with the perpetrator to make the right decision and not harm anyone.
Keep the dialogue open
As your teenager starts engaging in relationships, continue to bring up the topics of consent, healthy boundaries, and respect. By talking about it regularly, the topic of consent will become normalised and your teen will have a much better chance of enjoying healthy, safe and respectful relationships.
Tell them that if they feel like their (or their partner’s) boundaries have been violated, they can always talk to you about it.
Reassure them that you won’t blame them if someone hurts or violates them. It doesn’t matter if they weren’t in the right place, or if they have been drinking alcohol - you understand that sexual assault is only the fault of the perpetrator.
It can also be useful to talk to your teen about which other trusted adults they can speak to with a problem, if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you. Ask your teen: “If something happens, and you can’t talk to me, who are three people that you can speak to?
Did you find what you needed?
- Yes - Share how your conversations about consent have gone in our forums
- No - Try watching this video about consent with your teen
- I need to know more - Read our factsheet about sex