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Parents: How To Talk About Rape, Sexual Assault, And Consent

Since a judge handed down the verdicts in Steubenville, Ohio, many of us have been thinking about how to talk about rape with our teenagers.

So we asked Sondra Miller, vice president of community engagement for the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, for her advice. Here’s what she shared with Your Teen.

How To Talk About Sexual Assault, Rape, And Consent

1. Tell your teenager: “If anyone has or anyone ever does hurt you, you can talk to me. I will believe you and I will support you.”

Unfortunately, we can’t assume our teenagers haven’t already experienced a sexual assault and, what’s more, we want our teenagers to understand they can trust us with their story, explains Miller.    

2. Make rape part of the conversation.

“We hope that parents are having healthy conversations about relationships and sex early and often. But it’s important to take the conversation one step further by actually defining what is rape,” explains Miller. “You need to show you are comfortable having a conversation about rape. A lot of teens think they can’t even say the word.”

3. Be specific about what consensual sex is and is not.

You may understand what rape is, but don’t assume that your teenager does too—and don’t assume they’ll learn it at school. While some districts provide this information, many do not. Explain very clearly that rape is when a person is forced to have sex against his or her will. It’s time to start teaching consent.

An important part of this conversation, says Miller, is the concept of consensual sex. Specifically, teenagers should understand that they must give or get consent from their partner before having sex. “And that means you actively hear a ‘Yes’ from the person, without coercion or threat of violence,” explains Miller.

What’s more, make sure your teenager understands that if a prospective partner is drunk or passed out, as was the case in Steubenville, then that person is not capable of giving consent.

Explain that consent means your teenager or his or her partner can change his or her mind at any time. When someone says “stop” or “no” or otherwise indicates that he or she no longer wants to have sex, the sex must stop right then and there. Period. 

Finally,  talk about the broader category of sexual assault. This can include unwanted kissing, touching, and other sexual activity. Again, no means no. Stop means stop. Teaching about consent is necessary.

4. Urge your teenager to trust—and act on—his or her instincts.

Sadly, what happened in Steubenville, Ohio, is not so out of the ordinary. One in five adult women in Ohio alone will be the victim of rape in their lifetime, and the majority of those rapes will be perpetrated by an acquaintance. “You are more likely to be hurt by someone you know than you are by a complete stranger. But the way our society thinks about rape is that it’s a vision of a woman walking in a dark alley at 3 a.m. and someone jumps her and hurts her,” explains Miller.

Remind your teenager that whenever he or she feels any discomfort in a potentially sexual situation, to act on that instinct. It’s also important to remember that males can be victims of sexual assault too, though it’s much less common.

5. Have this conversation more than once.

The unfortunate events in Steubenville can act as a prompt for you to have a conversation about rape with your teenager. But don’t stop there. “This is not just a one-time conversation when a teenager reaches a certain age,” says Miller. “And fortunately or unfortunately, our media is full of examples that involve sexual assault, whether in movies or song lyrics. There is a lot of opportunity for parents to start having the conversation.”

Diana Simeon

Diana Simeon is an editorial consultant for Your Teen.