By now most if us have heard of the small town of Steubenville, Ohio, which became reluctantly but internationally famous as events that happened last year made headlines around the world. The story of a teen girl, dragged unconscious from party to party, her repeated assaults known of and even witnessed by peers, is a nightmare.
It chills any parent’s heart, for multiple reasons: the young woman’s vulnerability, the callous nature of the assault, the youth and former promise of the young men who committed it, and the small town politics that many allege obstructed the initial investigation.
I want to go over how to talk to your teens about sexual assault and consent. I touch on this in item number three of "10 Tips For Talking to Your Teen About Sex," but it deserves further discussion. It’s vital that you have a frank discussion with your teen about sexual assault, and the media coverage of the Steubenville incident gives parents a perfect opportunity to bring it up.
First of all, nobody wants to think their child is capable of sexually assaulting someone else. I’m not trying to imply that your child is a budding sexual predator who would perform the acts the young men did in the Steubenville case. However, bringing up the topic of sexual assault and sexual consent can help your teen with situations that some teens don’t know how to handle, or where others have made the wrong decision. You can also hear what your teen thinks, both about Steubenville and sexual assault among teenagers.
Rape and sexual assault are terms that apply to a wide variety of circumstances, not just a man forcing sex on a resisting woman. A woman can sexually assault a man, and same-sex sexual assault occurs all too frequently.
Some victims are temporarily incapacitated by drugs or alcohol (or permanently incapacitated by disabilities, which is beyond my scope here), and under these conditions, cannot consent. Having sex with a partner who is much younger than the other partner is also a form of sexual assault, and can be prosecuted as such.
Your teen needs to know the importance of taking “no” for an answer — you can’t really be too firm on this point — but also that consent goes deeper than that.
If someone is intoxicated or their thinking is altered by drugs, they do not have the capacity to choose whether or not they want to have sex. However, people can be awake and still too intoxicated to consent. Someone who is obviously under the influence is not someone that anyone should be physically intimate with.
Encourage your teen to seek consent from their partner, as opposed to just assuming it. Sometimes when a person perceives that a situation is getting out of control, they may “freeze” instead of fighting back. This happened to someone I knew in college; in the boy’s mind, she was going along and didn’t say “no,” and in the girl’s mind she had frozen on perceiving danger, and he had continued anyway.
Instead of waiting for “no,” talk to your teen about the important of a “yes.” A simple “Is this okay?” shows not only respect for their partner, but helps a teen know that they are with someone who is truly willing, and is enjoying the experience as much as they are.
Make sure your teen knows that sexual activity with someone younger than them, even if that person gives a resounding “yes,” may be illegal. If they have detailed questions, direct them here to see the specifics.
Have you tried to talk to your teen about this? How did it go? Did they say anything that surprised (or impressed) you? Did they watch the Steubenville case unfold, and what did they think about it?
Teens never cease to amaze me with their strength, creativity, and new perspectives! Throughout my career, I’ve enjoyed helping teens and their parents tackle health concerns and navigate social issues. Nursing is my second career; my first degree was in biology from Carleton College, and a few years later I went to the University of Virginia for their Second Degree Nursing Program. Recently I began a graduate program at the University of Washington.