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How To Talk To Boys About Sex And Consent


Awkward question - how do you talk to your teenage son about sex and consent, especially given recent stories about sexual violence against women on college campuses?

ROSALIND WISEMAN: We have been constantly talking to girls about how to prevent a sexual assault, how to take care of each other in those moments and yet, we never talk to boys about it. Or if we do, it's often in very punitive ways like, don't do this, don't do that.

CORNISH: That's Rosalind Wiseman, the author of "Masterminds And Wingmen," a book that explores the realities of boys' lives.

CHARLIE KUHN: My mom said, you're ready to have sex if you're able to stand in front of your partner naked in daylight, and you're comfortable with yourself, and you're comfortable with them, in order to do this mature act.

CORNISH: And that's 26-year-old Charlie Kuhn, who helps Wiseman give workshops and lectures to high school boys all over the country. We asked them about some of the strategies you shared with us when it comes to the sex and consent talk. We begin with a letter from Mary Foderaro of Pueblo, Colorado. And she writes, I start the conversation any time there is a potential trigger.

She says, for example, when my now-17-year-old was in the seventh grade, he told me about a boy who pushed his girlfriend against a locker to kiss her, and I asked him what he thought of that, how did he think she felt?

And then they had a conversation about it.

So Charlie, using these kind of real-world experiences, do you think that works?

KUHN: Yeah, absolutely. I think that that's a great example of how you can begin this conversation without making it the sit-down birds and bees, because that is so uncomfortable for everybody involved.

WISEMAN: You can also depend as a parent, just like this parent did, that there will be opportunities if you look for them, and you don't have to have a four-hour conversation about it. You have a conversation in the moment that's in the context of what the child is bringing to you.

KUHN: Well, and I think the other thing is when you start it some time in seventh grade, you can have a four-hour conversation over the course of the years that they're with you. If you start in seventh grade, then you have seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th to begin to have this and not just say, OK, ready, son or daughter? Here's four hours - go. It kind of builds over time.

CORNISH: Another theme that emerged from the comments we got was to use a fairly dramatic approach. And I just want to warn people, again, this is a conversation about consent and sexual assault. We have a comment from Marie Maitre (ph) of Flower Mound, Texas and she writes, I asked my 15-year-old how would he feel if one day I came home and said, I was raped by some guy? He told me he'd be very, very mad, and I made him say why. Then I told him that every girl he meets has someone who cares about her the same way and would be very hurt and very upset to know she was raped.

I don't think this is an unusual approach for some parents to take.

WISEMAN: Well, it's a complex approach, and one of the reasons why I like it is because she's acknowledging the fact that these things happen to the people that we love. But I know - because Charlie and I have talked about it a lot - that there's a way in which you talk about mothers and sisters, for example, that doesn't work.

CORNISH: Charlie, do you want to jump in there?

KUHN: Yeah, I think when you provoke the my mom is a sexual being or my sister's a sexual being, those are stepping over some lines that I don't think a son or brother might think about too often.

WISEMAN: You know, I think one of the things we need to say is, well, if you're a guy walking into a party, you don't want to think about your mother or sister like that. You're not thinking about those girls like that. And the other part is that as much as there are people who have strong relationships with their mothers and their sisters, there are a lot of guys who don't and don't empathize with that.

CORNISH: So I want to talk about the effectiveness of approaches like this one from Jody Jackson (ph) of Solon, Ohio. She told us one of the things he says to her 16-year-old son is be that guy - the guy who gets a woman to safety, steps in when he sees other guys trying to take advantage of her.

And she also writes, if a girl has been drinking and is too drunk to drive, how can she consent?

And I didn't know if you guys could talk a little bit about how the alcohol conversation gets tied up in a conversation about consent.

KUHN: The first thoughts that come to my mind is that if you're trying to tackle, you know, sexual consent and alcohol in the same conversation, that's a really hard conversation to have with your son and have him listen to it all. You might have a 10 minute runway at most. I think when we give advice to parents, it's kind of three things in three minutes. And I know that this conversation deserves a lot more time than that, but I don't think that that time is always best used in one sitting.

CORNISH: What about that be that guy part of the comment?

KUHN: Be that guy - the idea there is great and spot-on, but how do you actually do that? You know, what are the skills? Could you say, hey, you know, buddy who I think might be doing something with this girl, hey would you come talk to me downstairs? Or, girl, your friends are looking for you, you've been missing for little while, we don't know where you are, you just want to check in with them.

Those are more practical approaches to this than saying be that guy, in my opinion. And then you stack on the drugs and alcohol that might lower your barriers? It just - be that guy is so easily said, but so very hard to actually do.

WISEMAN: We've got to be able to give people specific strategies, like Charlie's talking about, because it's easy when we're not in the situations to really appreciate how complex and difficult these situations are. And we don't want to think about our sons ever being in situations where they would ever witness or in any way participate in the degradation or, God forbid, the sexual assault of somebody, boy or girl. So we don't talk about it.

CORNISH: Charlie, talk to us a little bit about situations that you experienced in high school that you look back on now and you see are kind of examples of experiences that could be instructive?

KUHN: I look back and I say, you know, I was never told to watch out for these sorts of things and I feel pretty guilty. I feel like I was inadequate as a male in situations that I could've stepped in. And I think that speaks to just the blindness that many boys have in these situations. You don't go to a party to look at, when I should intervene. You go to have a party to have fun with the folks that you're around and no means no. It's like, of course no means no, but I haven't heard a no so how do I know when to stop? So it's almost an embarrassing thing to think back and say I was really naive and there might've been things that were going on behind my back that I just didn't see and wasn't aware of.

CORNISH: So, Rosalind, for parents what does that mean?

WISEMAN: That means you say, when you are in a situation like a party and it looks like sexual activity and how - you can say that however, because your kids are going to start go, oh, my gosh, and they're going to start to roll their eyes and try and shut you down - and you say to them, look, we're having this conversation. What do you expect when you walk in and you've got a friend who's really good at convincing you that things are all fine, and don't worry about it, and maybe you tack on the fact that he's, you know, hooking up with somebody who's been drinking and looks like she is really into what's going on. But maybe you think there's something that's just not right or maybe you see that she's getting isolated or that she's much younger, that you trust that those dynamics are wrong and that they so easily lead to somebody being taken advantage of.

And that when you say that to your son about, you know, these are the situations that I think are possible. Am I wrong? Am I completely wrong? If I'm wrong, tell me. But if I'm not then let's talk about what you think you can do, so that you can be the person and you can say that guy - you could be the man you want to be that you can be proud of in this really difficult situation that looks like maybe it'd be easier to not say anything.

CORNISH: Rosalind Wiseman. She's author of the bestseller "Queen Bees And Wannabes" and most recently, "Masterminds And Wingmen." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

WISEMAN: Thank you.

CORNISH: And Charlie Kuhn who also was an editor on that book, "Masterminds And Wingmen," thank you so much for speaking with us.

KUHN: Yeah, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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