by John Hoffman
This blog post was inspired by an October 11 Facebook post made by my federal MP, Maryam Monsef. October 11 was the international day of the girl. That day, Ms. Monsef hosted a Girls Leadership Assembly at the Peterborough, Ontario school she attended as a girl. She asked Grade 7 and 8 girls what they thought were the biggest issues facing girls today in Canada. You know what one of the biggest issues that came up was?
As in, consent to engage in sexual activity.
I think we should stop in our tracks and think about what that means in terms of how we, as men and fathers, interact with women and parent our children. Consent has been a big issue for some time in the broader discussion of sex and gender issues. But it’s so sad that it is a top of mind issue for young girls who, as fathers, we would probably prefer not to think of as sexual beings.
But, in this country where we like to think that women have it pretty good, preteen and young teenaged girls are already worried about boys and men trying to force unwanted sex on them. What an incredible burden! One that we men (outside of child abuse) don’t have to deal with.
Except that we do. Because it’s our job to fix it. We could talk all we want about empowering girls and women, or toughening laws or better policing. But, really, this is a man problem. So what men do—how they treat and relate to females and how they raise their children—has to be the solution.
There are several things we can do as dads.
- Think carefully about the ways our kids (both daughters and sons) see us treating women and talking about women. Will they pick up subtle cues that we regard women as sex objects that men could/should have power over?
- Consider how we related to and treat our partners. This is our children’s primary model for male/female intimate relationships. Treating your partner as an equal and someone worthy of respect reinforces the idea of consent in sex.
- Treat all people with respect and teach your kids to do the same.
- Don’t insist that kids hug or kiss you or anyone else if they don’t feel like it. This may be hard for some parents. But I think we have to let kids come to us. Coercing them (even gently) to hug and kiss people conveys a subtle message that their bodies are not their own and that touching is something you have to do to please people.
- Watch for teachable moments. I do not think it’s a good idea to lay the problems of sexual consent on young children. Let’s let them be innocent for as long as possible. However, as kids approach the age where they start thinking about sexual attraction and activity, or are exposed to that stuff, watch for moments when it might be appropriate to talk about something you see in a movie, TV show or other media. “Do you think that was good way for a man to treat a woman?” “ How did you feel when he treated her like that?” Or, be more direct. “I really don’t think men should treat women that way.”
- Talk to our boys about consent. This one is most important by far.
Because of the HIV/AIDS crisis it’s become a given for parents to talk to kids about safe sex. Even lots of parents who don’t really have the big “sex talk” with their kids, make sure they deliver the message, “Never have unprotected sex.” Now we need to deliver another direct message that is just as important. “Never have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you.” Many of us grew up in a world where we constantly saw scenes of coercive sex in movies. A man would hit on a woman. She’d say no, either in words or gestures. He’d kiss her. She’d try to push him away. He’d persist and eventually she’d give in and eventually start to enjoy the kiss.
This was an incredibly harmful image for boys (and girls!) to see, even when it didn’t involve nudity or explicit sex. In fact, such images— which were common in movies long before they started showing nudity and explicit sex— were far, far more harmful than any sort of explicit sex. That’s because they fed the myth that sex was about men pushing, women resisting at first, but giving in. That, combined with years of sexual history where men had more power than women, kept rape culture alive, even as things got better for women in society. We need to give our boys a strong message that pushing sex on people is not only wrong, it’s not a healthy way to have a relationship, or even to have good sex. Good sex is sex that both partners want to have.
Might those be uncomfortable conversations? Maybe. But the way grade 7 and 8 girls are worried about sexual consent sure makes me far more uncomfortable. Everybody has the right to feel safe about sex. And men/fathers have the biggest responsibility to make that happen.