By Carolyn Mackler
Photo by Stocksy

Recently my husband trekked 30 blocks downtown, late at night, from our Manhattan apartment to pick up our older son from a bar mitzvah. A guy friend of his—I’ll call him Josh—was having a dinner-and-dance party following his Jewish rite-of-passage ceremony. As my son spilled onto the sidewalk in his blazer and khakis, he asked my husband, “Can I sleep over at Josh’s? He just invited me and his sister is having her friends over too and please, please, please?” After a few minutes of negotiations, a green light from Josh’s parents and a phone call home to me, in bed, we decided that yes, he could join. Josh is a nice kid and we know the parents casually, though we aren’t close enough to guarantee what level of adult supervision would be in place. But our son is a solid guy, responsible and honest. We push him to work hard in school, and he deserves a spontaneous yes now and then. And man, if you’ve ever tried to negotiate with a 13-year-old at midnight, they can wear you down.

My husband and son hurried home to grab shorts for him to sleep in, a T-shirt, his toothbrush. By this point, our son was anxious to be walked the few blocks to Josh’s. But since my husband and I are newbies at sending our son to a boy-girl sleepover—Josh’s sister is also a young teen—we were descending into panic mode. 

“Do you think there will be kissing sort of stuff at the sleepover?” I asked our son as we hovered in our foyer.

“I don’t know, guys.” 

“Do you think there will be alcohol or weed there?” my husband wondered.

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

“What if someone wants to kiss you but they’re drunk or high? Do you kiss them?”

“I don’t know. I’m not really thinking about that. Can we leave now?”

For a kid who can argue anything for hours, he suddenly became a (young) man of few words. And so, on the walk from our apartment to Josh’s, my husband filled in the blanks: If you want to kiss someone, you only kiss that person if there is consent. Consent meaning that both parties actively agree to do what they are doing. Alcohol? Weed? Maybe it won’t be there, but you never know and—as we’ve discussed—this is definitely not something we want you doing at your age. But if someone else gets drunk or high and wants to fool around? Never. Just…never.

“Good night!” my husband said, pushing our son through the front door of his friend’s apartment. “Love you. Have fun!”

The thing is, it’s not the first time we’ve talked to our son and his younger brother about this. Ever since they were little, we’ve supplied them with books on human sexuality. Also, I’ve always been a mom who has open conversations about body parts, appropriate and inappropriate touch, and sex. After all, I’m a YA novelist who writes realistic books about teenagers, so I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know what young people are thinking, doing or wanting to do. My most recent novel, The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, chronicles the fallout in a family after a 16-year-old girl’s brother is arrested for a drunken rape on his college campus. My older son has read this novel and we’ve talked about how, since the brother doesn’t remember the sexual assault because he was drunk, does that make it as wrong? We’ve talked about my main character’s reaction to her brother’s arrest, and how she is enjoying her own early sexual encounters, which are healthy and stand in stark contrast to what her brother did. 

So with these conversations under our son’s belt and the overall honesty we’ve built in our relationship, I’m fairly confident that, going into this co-ed sleepover, my son is in the know. What I’m less confident about is when hypothetical conversations transform into real-life situations. Partially, we are all reeling from the revelations of sexual assault that have come out in the #MeToo movement, and parents are hoping to raise a better generation of boys and men who understand that consent is crucial. Also, social media and easy access to porn (depicting unhealthy power and gender dynamics) have sent parents scrambling. As happened with the parents in The Universe Is Expanding and So Am I, I never want to find out my son is being arrested for sexual assault. I never want my boys to force someone to do something they don’t want to do. And I can’t just cross my fingers and hope it never happens.

Let me back up a second. I’m definitely not assuming most young teens are planning to have sex. In fact, my guess is that they’re begging for more screen time or asking what’s for dinner or complaining about their early bedtime. But if they’re approaching adolescence, kissing and handsy explorations are probably in store soon. And sex isn’t necessarily that far away either. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a 2017 survey of high school students in the United States revealed that 40% had had sexual intercourse. Even if my kids—or your kids, for that matter—are not going to be in that 40%, these are crucial conversations to start. As Vijayeta Sinh, PhD, a New York City–based psychologist and young adult expert (therapycouchnyc.com), says, “This is an important age group to address, because children and adolescents, from a development perspective, are learning social norms and working on their identity.”

So what’s a contemporary parent to do? It seems clear that we should talk about sexual consent with our kids, but will it ruin the magic of early, fumbling handholding and awkward school-dance kisses? And are the conversations about consent different with our boys than with our girls? According to Sinh, while sexual consent applies equally to both boys and girls, it’s important to keep in mind that “boys and girls are socialized differently based on their gender.” While girls should be encouraged to be open and forthcoming in saying what they do and don’t want, Sinh recommends “reminding boys to be more mindful of how they get consent and not being too pushy or aggressive about it.”

Sinh emphasizes the importance of making sure all teenagers—boys and girls—understand the definition of sexual consent and all the nuance that goes along with it. As Sinh says, “Sexual consent, simply put, is when you and your partner actively agree to have sex. You need to check with your partner to ensure that they want sex—you cannot assume it from their body language. Consent can also be revoked midstream, which means that you or your partner are allowed to change your mind about a particular sexual act or about going forward alto-gether, and you should absolutely speak up if something makes you uncomfortable and you want to stop.” 

Of course, with young teens it’s not necessarily sex…yet. But it’s still crucial to have consent in all the stuff leading up to it. As for the magic of early courtship? Thinking back three decades, if someone had said to me, “Is this OK?” while holding my hand or coming in for a kiss, it would have melted my teen-girl heart. Or, if I didn’t want to be doing whatever we were doing, that question would have preserved a friendship. In my humble opinion, that’s actually pretty magical.

Maybe the boy-girl sleepover threw us for a loop because it came out of the blue, but I reminded myself that we do have conversations about respect and consent with our sons. And more than that, we frequently find ways to put consent into practice. Here are a few. 

No means no.

Siblings and friends are a valuable resource for working on no means no. With my boys, there are constant Nerf blaster wars (no, don’t shoot yet), can I take apart your Lego build? (no, you can’t have those pieces), and dunking games in the pool (no, my goggles aren’t on right). Speaking of pools and swimming, this is one of the best places to practice no means no because, as I’ve explained to them, water safety is a matter of life or death. Therefore, whenever we visit my mom, who lives on a lake, or even when we take a dip in a hotel pool, we are hardcore about no means no while swimming. If someone shouts, “No, don’t

do that!” while in the water, you have to listen ASAP or you’re on the deck for five minutes. No means no in water requires constant respect for each other’s bodies, even when you’re horsing around, even when you’re excited. It protects my boys in the water, but it’s also gotten them comfortable with no means no as a concept, and my hope is that this will carry into future encounters as they grow older.

Use the family dog.

Maybe this sounds goofy, but hear me out. We have a floppy, furry, totally tolerant goldendoodle who will let us carry her around, dress her in baby clothes and nuzzle her in our laps through an entire movie. But does she always want it? I encourage my boys to watch Maple’s body language—is she backing away? Is her tail down? Is she licking her lips nervously?—and honor her nonverbal wishes. Dogs (or cats or guinea pigs) now, humans later.

Ask...then kiss.

Rapid-fire, grab those soft baby cheeks and kiss and kiss and kiss. I was rapid-fire kissed by my grandmother and my dad, and I love nothing more than smothering my boys in smooches. But I’ve learned to ask permission, and I’ve given my boys permission to say no thanks, not right now. It’s hard not getting my kissing fix whenever I want, but it makes it all the sweeter when my little guy slides in next to me and requests a cuddle. And my kids get the message loud and clear: Kissing involves consent. 

Here’s one where I’m very blunt: I’ve told my boys, in no uncertain terms, that hooking up is not OK while they’re drunk or high or the other person is drunk or high. We’ve had a lot of conversations about drinking and drugs, and making smart decisions—the Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford hearings gave us a lot to talk about—but I also want to be clear that even though many people, especially in college, mix alcohol and sex, it’s a terrible move. Sinh concurs: “If you’re drinking or doing drugs, it impairs your ability to give consent or for the other person to give consent. Asking for consent when someone is high and doesn’t know what is going on can get you into hot soup as it is akin to rape.” Since my kids are years away from college, these conversations are mostly laying the foundation for future discussions. I don’t want the first time they hear about the risks of combining alcohol and sex to be as we’re setting up their dorm room. I want to revisit this and repeat it and maintain a comfort level where we can talk about it with ease.

Back to the bar mitzvah sleepover. In the morning, when our son arrived home with his backpack slung over one shoulder, my husband asked, “How did it go?” 

“Fine,” he said. “We had bagels and orange juice for breakfast.”

“No, last night,” I asked. “How was that part? Did you guys hang out with the girls?”

“No,” my son said, shaking his head. “We actually never saw them. They were in her room. Josh and I played video games in his room and then we went to sleep.”

Ah well. At least the groundwork was set so we’re ready for next time. Because we want there to be a next time, many next times. For both our sons, we want parties and kissing and hooking up and some day waaaaay far off in the future, we want them to have healthy sexual relationships with mutual consent. And the building blocks for that start at home. 

A few weeks later, my sons and I were playing UNO. They had just received a new deck of UNO cards and it’s this updated version where there’s a Wild Customizable card—essentially a blank Wild card where you’re supposed to take a pencil and fill in any rule you want. As we dealt that card, the three of us were confused about what we were supposed to do, so my older son unfolded the directions and read them out loud.

“The only limit is your imagination and the consent of the other players,” he read. “Everyone has to agree and no means no. Before the game begins—”

“Hang on!” I said, surprised by the turn of events in the UNO directions. “Does it really say that? No means no?”

My older son grinned and shook his head. “It says ‘consent.’ I added the ‘no means no’ part.”

As my sons played their cards, I let myself absorb this small victory, right there: consent in daily conversation. When it was my turn, I smacked down a “draw two” purposely for my younger son. He hates to lose so I have to push him sometimes with small, safe setbacks. More life lessons because, seriously, a parent’s job is never done.

Carolyn Mackler is the author of nine novels for teenagers and children. She lives in New York City with her husband, two sons and their dog, Maple.

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