Sex, Rape & Consent: Parents, Have ‘The Talk’ With Your Kids Now

Boys Locker Room: Parents, by avoiding talking about sex at home, are harming their kids more than they know.

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Opinion
7 min read
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One would hope that a case like this would be a wake-up call for parents – that we need to talk to our children about sex. Instead, there is a deep personal and persistent discomfort and fear that perceives sex education as a ‘problem’. But if we don’t talk to our children about sex, how on earth we are going to deal with it when their questions are about rape?

Three days ago, we woke up to the shocking news of the ‘Bois locker room’ Instagram page and controversy, and soon after, we were faced with the horrifying news of a 17-year-old boy dying by suicide.

How Will We Create a Wonderful World Sans Rape, And With Gender Equality?

Not only social media, but our homes, work places (mostly virtual at this point) and WhatsApp groups, are buzzing with conversations on sexism, rape culture, misogyny, toxic masculinity and much more. It took me back to the year 2004, when for the first time, a sex video was leaked online that involved high school students. As I took another sip of my morning tea, I wondered what has changed since then.

In the last three days, I have received frantic calls from many parents (mostly mothers), and all they want to know is how to ensure the safety of their children.

It is interesting that most parents see their children as ‘victims’ but never as ‘perpetrators’.

What I find interesting is the outpouring of outrage on such incidents. Everyone wonders why such things happen, and talk about the urgent need to help create a future that is safe for women and girls – a world where there is no rape, no sexual assault and consent is understood by one and all.

But there is little conversation on how all of this is going to happen. How will we get to that wonderful world?

And soon enough, the rage, anger, discussion and desperation dies down only to reappear when another incident happens. A classic cycle.

Life Skills Education Not Simply Restricted to Sex Ed

One would hope that something like this would be a wake-up call for parents. But alas, in my years of experience, it hasn’t been so yet. As a gender-rights activist and a sexuality educator, I have been shouting out to the world the critical need to impart life skills education to our adolescents – as a structured and integrated part of our curriculums – but also integral conversations that parents need to have with their children.

This also includes comprehensive sexuality education. And this is where I find doors being slammed shut and eyes and ears unavailable.

There is a fear about talking to our children about sex.

But what we fail to understand is that a life skills education, which is a more appropriate term for what I am talking about, is not just limited to information about the act of sex.

While it includes and encourages nuanced conversations on sex, sexuality, consent, respect, empathy, diversity, bullying, peer pressure, dealing with stress, internet safety, it equally teaches kids how to deal with work stress and anxiety.

It will also teach them what no current curriculum teaches – how to cultivate and maintain healthy relationships. Relationships can make or break our lives, and yet there is nothing in our education system that teaches our boys and girls on how to handle them. The recent movie Thappad is a great example of this. Vikram was so busy building his career (for which he surely was taught about in his MBA), that he forgot to nurture his relationship with Amrita. And it broke them both, despite both being achievers in their own ways. I have no doubt they both ‘did well’ at school.

No Parents & Teachers, Children Won’t ‘Experiment More’ By Learning About Sex

Unfortunately, the problem remains that there is more fear than support when it actually comes to implementing this solution. We struggle to get parents, teachers, schools and authorities on board because there is a deep personal discomfort, which comes from our own social conditioning and deep-rooted fear, that perceives sex education as a ‘problem’. At best, we have barely become comfortable talking about menstruation.

Parents and educators often feel that talking more about sex will get the children to experiment more with ‘stuff’. Dear Parents, let’s get real. Our children already have easy access to content we are supposedly trying to prevent them from – the content that objectifies women, content that is disrespectful, and content that promotes sexual aggression. It’s all around them – in the form of attitudes and conversation at home, and in their communities, popular culture, songs, games, sports and much more.

What is, however, missing is us – the adults and the structured conversations that can help them navigate the reality they are already living.

Instead, we treat any such conversation with shame, stigma or shock.

Ever wondered why a child’s first reaction is often not to run and tell their parents but to hide the fact that they have seen or experienced something that was inappropriate?

It is because we choose to avoid ‘The Talk’. It is because we do not encourage children to speak about and discuss these issues freely without feeling any shame. We, as parents, as adults, as institutions, fear that if we speak about sex and sexuality with our children, there will be a resultant loss of innocence and childhood.

But in reality, what children need is to know that the adults in their lives – their parents, teachers, family members – are capable of having these conversations. They need to see adults in their lives talking and discussing these issues responsibly and openly.

What Will We Say When Our Kids Ask Us About Rape?

In my work life, I have conversations with teenagers regularly. They often tell me that they don’t feel they can talk about their growing up experiences, emotions, feelings, peer pressure, violence and abuse with their parents. I hear a range of emotions that they experience: guilt, shame, anxiety, embarrassment, grief, numbness, and finally – relief. I still remember when a 11-year-old boy asked me about rape.

Yes, our children are hearing the word on the news and on the Internet. But if we don’t talk to our children about sex, how on earth we are going to deal with it when they question us about rape?

Interestingly, I am often asked, or am part of debates on the ‘right age’ for sex education.

In my personal opinion, age-appropriate sex education needs to start in primary years, for kids as old as five, and continue throughout middle and high school. Kids as young as five develop notions about gender (through the gender roles they see at home) and internalise the feelings that talking about your private parts is somehow a matter of shame. This, then, only grows manifold as children navigate middle and high school without any guidance from their adults.

The result is what we don’t want. Twisted ideas about gender, sexuality and consent – and at that stage, all we do is to react with outrage, just as we did recently.

Misogyny Isn’t Innate, It Is Learnt – And Can Be Unlearnt

I say this not only as an advocate for sex education, but also as a mother of a 9-year-old boy. Let’s talk about even younger kids. Children as old as one can learn to express a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ – that’s almost the first lesson on consent. Children are also very intuitive by nature, and people around them need to be intentional about cultivating and encouraging empathetic behaviour. Yes, as hard as it may be to believe, children can learn to be empathetic at a very young age. And we need to set the right foundation to raise empowered young adults who have empathy for others, and a clear understanding of healthy relationships.

In my opinion, aggressive behaviour toward women isn’t innate. It’s learned through our younger years, but it can also be unlearned.

Discrimination and patriarchal attitudes at all levels in our society leads to sexual violence. But the moment we choose to be silent, choose to ignore these conversations, or choose to exclude men and boys from these conversations, we are half partaking in aggressive and inappropriate behaviour. We, the adults, are culpable for not giving the right life skills to our children.

Some of us feel we have ‘sailed through’ without having any life skill education and now hope our kids would too. Unfortunately, the world has changed. Our children are growing up in a different reality, where they will have access to information and content. Wouldn’t it be better if we got their first?

Wouldn’t it be better if we taught them about sex and consent before they see it from that clip on the internet?

We, Adults, Must Do Our Part In Having THE TALK With Our Kids – Before It’s Too Late

If there's one thing I'm certain of, it's that all this hue and cry will be in vain if we don't go to the root of the problem – that is, if we do not break this culture of silence and keep our heads buried in the sand.

We, as adults, need to do our part. We need to have ‘The Talk’ – and we need to start early. Our schools and social learning systems need to implement comprehensive sexuality and life skills education. We need to guide our children towards trusted sources of information that help them examine their values and learn how to live their lives as responsible and healthy adults.

Our children NEED this to be truly successful in their lives and we need to provide the space and resources for them to do that. I am going to press for it in conversations with fellow parents, but also with the schools and the wider community. Will you too?

(Vithika Yadav is a human rights activist who has worked with human trafficking, slavery, gender rights and sexual and reproductive health and rights. She is the country head of ‘Love Matters India’ which provides information about love, sex and relationships for all genders and sexualities. She tweets @YadavVithika. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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