Talking with a good friend the other day about all the recent attention regarding sexual assault on college campuses—much of it bravely brought to light by coeds who have come forward to tell their stories—we quickly got around to an angle that cuts close to home: What would we tell our teenage sons, who themselves will go off to school in the next few years?
At one point, my friend held up her iPhone and, half in jest, clicked the video button. In order to protect her two boys, she said, she might advise them never to have sex with a girl before getting her consent on the record.
Sexual violence on campus has reached the level of a “crisis” in the words of a recent cover story in Time—one that led the White House last month to issue guidelines raising the pressure on universities to more aggressively combat the problem.
We know that regretted sex and false accusations are undoubtedly the exception, not the rule. Still, as my friend suggested, fabricated claims of rape do happen. And when they do, a young man’s reputation is instantly, and often irreparably, shattered. His freedom may be lost.
Certainly, we need to protect our daughters. But we need to protect our sons, too—especially given the widespread hookup culture and the messy realities of binge drinking and of drunken, casual sex on campus.
Let me be clear: This is not about blaming the victim or diminishing the crime of sexual violence on campus and its rampant mismanagement by universities more concerned with their image than with protecting young women.
But we suddenly live in an era where talking to our sons about condoms and STDs before they begin to have sexual encounters is not enough. We must talk to them frankly about consent—and by this I do not mean just teaching them that “no means no.” As parents, we must explicitly tell them what’s at stake and how to avoid finding themselves in a situation where their actions could possibly be misconstrued as having crossed the line.
With that in mind, there are half a dozen things that I’ll be telling my now-16-year-old son before he heads off to college.
First, I am going to talk to him about consent—something that might well seem murky to an inexperienced, awkward, nonverbal teenager, especially when alcohol is involved. A recent must-read article in Slate—which I will share with my son—makes plain that it’s a crime to have sex with someone who is too drunk to give meaningful consent, even if the young man is not violent and even if the young woman does not physically resist or verbally object.
Lindsey Doe, a clinical sexologist who has created a free YouTube series dubbed “Sexplanations,” lays it out this way: “Consent is not an absence of a no; it is the presence of a yes.” Her fantastic video on the subject, “What is Consent?”, should be watched by every freshman (male or female) before stepping foot on campus.
Second, I will tell my boy that if he’s drunk, he shouldn’t have sex. Period. Doe offers this gem: “If you cannot drive a vehicle you ought not to wield your wiener.”
Third, I will warn him that he should never take advantage of someone who is drunk. Indeed, if he thinks his only shot at having sex with a woman is because she’s smashed, that’s a sure sign he should walk away. This is also a great opportunity to explain to my son that sex is better when it’s with someone you genuinely care about.
Fourth: I know it can be awkward to talk about sex, but I will advise my son to do exactly that. I will tell him, specifically, that before having sex he should talk about it what it means to him (friends with benefits?) and to her (a relationship?) to make sure there is no misunderstanding. And I will tell him that if he’s ever unsure about the signals he’s getting from a coed, he should flat-out ask her if she wants to have sex—all without worrying that doing so is unromantic or unsexy or unappealing in any way.
Fifth, I will tell him to take the newspaper test: If what he is about to do were reported on the front page of the local paper, would it be considered improper behavior—or worse? If so, walk away.
Finally, I will tell my kid that it’s not enough for him to behave appropriately himself. There will be times when he can safely intervene, encouraging a guy to go home and take a cold shower, or escorting a young woman back to her dorm so she can sleep it off. As Charlotte Alter has pointed out on TIME.com, bystander intervention is becoming an important tool in fighting sexual assault on campus. I’ll encourage my son to be one of the good guys.