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VOL. 43 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 9, 2019

Real life makes The Talk more serious for parents

By Kathleen Carlson

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Middle Tennessee State University’s Office of Health Promotion hosted “What Were You Wearing,” a clothing installation that kicked off Sexual Assault Awareness Month last spring. These shoes and clothing were part of the exhibit, which recreated the stories of 55 sexual assault survivors by displaying clothing similar to what they were wearing when they were assaulted.

-- Mtsu File Photo By Jayla Johnson

When it was time for Nadine Pierre-Louis to have The Talk about sex with her two sons, she realized there weren’t a lot of specifics to guide mothers of boys.

These days, her sons are adults and her mission as a marriage and family therapist in Florida is to help parents, especially those with sons, have those tough but necessary talks that will equip kids to live responsibly. She and others say it’s not too late for parents to talk with their young adult children about sex and consent in the countdown to sending them off to college.

Pierre-Louis holds a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from St. Thomas University and a doctorate in conflict analysis and resolution from Nova Southeastern University. She is founder and CEO of Doc and Jock LLC, which focuses on men and communication skills. Through Doc and Jock LLC, she has teamed with former NBA star Jason Caffey on a book, “Richard and the Boyz: The Puberty Experience,” to help parents talk about puberty with sons.

She urges parents to talk with their children about the real-life situations they’re likely to encounter throughout life so they know what to expect and how to act in accordance with their values, stressing empathy and clear communication.

She says parenting must change to accommodate a shift from old attitudes that girls alone are responsible for controlling sexual encounters with boys who supposedly want “just one thing.”

“Both boys and girls need firm boundaries,” she says. “We’re handicapping our kids when we don’t teach them about boundaries.”

Nonverbal communication, empathy

Ideally, parents will have talked with their children, particularly sons, from the time they were small on how to read body language and to empathize with others.

“In general, 90% of communication is not verbal,” Pierre-Louis explains. “Especially with boys, we don’t put a lot of emphasis on empathy, especially on reading body language.”

Author and social justice advocate Tony Porter speaks with MTSU students last April as part of a series of presentations to students and student athletes in observance of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Porter is co-founder and co-director of “A Call to Men: The Next Generation of Manhood” and his organization’s mission is combat gender-based violence, including sexual assault.

-- Mtsu File Photo By Jimmy Hart

She cites research indicating that 70 percent of teenage boys have trouble distinguishing between anger and fear. That can cause problems if a boy reads a fearful person as angry and gets into a physical altercation.

Parents have to sit down and actually test their child on nonverbal cues, she adds. Role playing can help boys learn body-language signals.

“If you lean in to me and I pull back,” she says, “I have given you a ‘No.’ I am not consenting for you to be in my personal space. Do not assume that I want you to go into my space and touch me.”

Decoding consent

Consent isn’t just about having sex, but includes consent to simply being touched, Pierre-Louis says. Unwanted touching can lead to a charge of assault, she notes, adding that unwanted touching in general hasn’t been part of the conversation on consent.

“We need to teach boys to communicate, to get them away from the strong, silent type that’s the movie stereotype,” she adds. “We need to give kids the option to express feelings in a way that’s comfortable for them. This has to be taught. They’re not going to wake up and know how to do this. They’ll be resistant, but they’ll come back and thank you for it later.”

She has a multi-step approach to teaching about consent.

First, communicate. Young persons need to learn how to verbalize what they’re experiencing. For example, a young person might say to his date, “I really would like to kiss you right now,” then wait for the response.

Parents need to let their child know that his or her date may say “no” to the kiss, and when that happens, they shouldn’t worry that they’ve struck out.

“It’s simply a no in that moment. Just move on and go on with the date,” Pierre-Louis points out.

If it’s a first date, the two may not know each other well, so a “no, thanks” response shouldn’t be unexpected. Once the couple gets to know each other better, responses may change. Your child will have played his card, and then it’s his date’s turn to play hers. It’s not a big deal.

Pierre-Louis

If your son or daughter thinks it is awkward to say, “I’d like to kiss you,” ask them how much more awkward it would be if they pulled in for the kiss and the other person pulled back. That’s harder to recover from, Pierre-Louis says. Teach your son or daughter to change the subject and move on.

Second, teach your child not to pressure the partner for an outcome he or she wants. That means not persisting in questions and not asking again five minutes after getting a no. You accept that they are wherever they are in getting to know you.

On the other hand, there’s always a possibility that during the date, the other person may change his or her mind and be open to the kiss. If that happens, Pierre-Louis says, the other person may send signals through more-open body language, or they may speak openly about changing their mind. It might be possible to try again, mindful of the other person’s preferences, she acknowledges.

Pierre-Louis comes back to the importance of teaching empathy for others and communicating clearly. The belief that romance will just happen naturally, without any conversation, isn’t helpful and can lead to problems, she says. It’s better to make requests and expectations clear.

Silence isn’t ‘yes,’ and ‘yes’ isn’t forever

The third and biggest, most important part of consent is to know that “silence is not consent – silence is a no. That’s another area where boys get in trouble. Legally, ethically, morally, silence is a no,” she says.

Finally, just as a person may change his or her mind after first saying no, a person may change his or her mind after saying yes.

“Just because she or he says ‘yes’ doesn’t mean they can’t say no” at some future point, Pierre-Louis says. Consent doesn’t eliminate the right to withdraw from an activity. “It’s a very fine hair to split but it needs to be split.”

Recognizing that people can change their minds about consent goes against the myth of the “point of no return,” that once sexual activity reaches a certain point, there’s no going back, she explains. “If you don’t teach a boy there are always opportunities to stop,” you’re perpetuating that myth.

Adhering to the point-of-no-return myth for males is “actually demeaning to them, disrespectful,” Pierre-Louis says. “If you teach them restraint, they will learn that males are no less capable of restraint than females.”

Drinking and consent

Extra caution is required if alcohol is involved. When both parties are drinking, consent is very, very tricky, Pierre-Louis says. Her guideline is that if a person cannot say his or her thoughts out loud, he or she can’t consent to sex. If you can’t open your mouth to speak, if the person you’re with is too inebriated to say yes or no, they can’t consent, she says.

“It doesn’t matter if they’re all over you,” she continues. “If they can’t form the sentence they can’t consent.”

Pierre-Louis suggests that parents use a variation of the “asking for a friend” approach when talking to their teens about drinking and sex.

“The key is to tell your child that someone they know, one of their friends, is probably going to mess up in a drinking situation, and here’s what you can do to help that person when it happens,” she says.

Parents can sketch out a hypothetical situation and ask their son or daughter how they would handle it. When the child says what they’d do, the parent can respond with other suggestions, taking care to be nonjudgmental and factual. The conversation gives the child tools to use to handle a touchy future situation.

Can a girl rape a boy?

Another factor to consider in understanding consent is female empowerment, especially about having sex.

Over the years, females have become more assertive in their sexual experiences, she says. However, some young women on college campuses have seen female empowerment as the opportunity to do to males what males have previously done to women, that is, having as many sexual partners as they want, celebrating it, and even claiming bragging rights about the number of people they have slept with.

In fact, the collecting of ‘scalps’’ and bragging rights have been incorporated into some aspects of sorority life on some campuses, Pierre-Louis says.

Girls need to know that boys can be sexually assaulted by girls and that sexual assault isn’t always something that men do to women.

“There’s a common misconception that boys always want sex,” Pierre-Louis says. “When you have that mentality, that means boys can’t say no. Boys physiologically may respond (to sexual overtures) but they’re still not consenting” if they haven’t said, “Yes,” she notes.

If the young man is inebriated but sexually responsive, she says, some young women will take it to completion when the man hasn’t consented. When that happens, Pierre-Louis adds, young males will experience similar trauma to the trauma that sexually assaulted females do.

“You have taken away their right to consent,” she points out. It’s not the act – it’s the (lack of) consent to the act that makes it a violation. Just because the body responds doesn’t equal consent.

Moreover, she says that “boys are extremely reluctant to come forward and say they were assaulted in this situation.” The belief is that boys don’t get raped, but that’s not the reality, she says, and girls need to be disavowed of this belief. Just as it’s important for boys to seek a girl’s consent to sexual activities, girls need to seek a boy’s consent.

Letting go 101 for parents

Ideally, Pierre-Louis says, parents and children have had continuing conversations about sex, consent and good decision making in general over the years, as part of the continuing parent-child relationship. Before college, you can talk about whether the child is comfortable with making decisions on their own.

If son or daughter has a history of poor decision making, then the child lacks maturity to go away to college, she says.

If you’ve been a very authoritarian parent and have never let the child make his or her own decisions, it’s almost a guarantee that there will be problems with decision making in college, she says. It’s as if you’ve given a child a sports car when they’ve never learned to drive. She suggests community college, where the child still lives under the parental roof but parents are pulling back and letting him or her make decisions incrementally.

If you’ve raised a child who shows good decision-making skills, who may make mistakes but gains insight and learns from them, “you need to swallow your reservations and let them grow up.”

If you’ve done a good job, a college campus still offers some protections to students. If children are capable of insight, there’s no better way to practice living on one’s own in the real world than on a college campus, she says.

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