How I'm Teaching My Sons Consent In The Wake Of #MeToo

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Elizabeth Broadbent

Trigger Warning: Sexual assault.

Your Facebook feed is a sea of it. Two words: Me too.

Sometimes they elaborate, like the girl I know who wrote, “Me too. Since I was 12,” and quite possibly broke my heart. I’ve seen more allusions to child sexual abuse than I care to count. I’ve read stories of teens groped in swimming pools, of women whose “mentors” suddenly turned into something else and who were led to change careers because of it. I’ve read about being catcalled and called “dildos” and dismissed with “Shut up, you’re ugly.” I’ve read about bra-snapping. I’ve read about titty-twisting, and ass slapping, and men rubbing themselves against women simply because they could.

I thank God I don’t have daughters to release into this world. That’s the knee-jerk response, right? Especially when I read a blog post from a dad sharing his daughter’s “Me too,” and the raw pain when he learned of her childhood rape and harassment.

But I have something other than daughters. I have three sons. I have three sons who will, without our concerted invention, grow up to be the harassers, the gropers, the catcallers, the rapists. The rapists? Yes. The original “Ask a Rapist” thread from Reddit has been deleted, but you can get an idea of the comments posted on it here. “I was drunk.” “I just didn’t listen to her because I wanted it.” “I was fingering her and kept doing it even though she was whispering no and was afraid her friends would see.”

This possible destiny isn’t a result of my sons’ deviancy or particular anti-sociability. It’s because they’re (so far) cis white males, in a cis-white-male-dominated society that tells them women are less than, women are toys, women are to be used for their pleasure. And if the #MeToo movement has taught us anything, that’s a hard idea to resist.

I swear my sons will not be those men. But I can’t just hope for that, I have to take action to ensure it. That means that I have to teach them consent, and I have to teach them respect for women. All women.

Consent starts simply: consent regarding your own body. This isn’t just the “no one has the right to touch you in your bathing suit area” type of consent, though we obviously teach that too. It’s the “no one has the right to touch you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable or that you don’t like.” The umbrella for that kind of touch? Huge. It means that if they don’t want to kiss or hug Aunt Myrtle even though she’s asking them for it, or even guilt-tripping them for it, they do not have to — and we will step in to make sure their wishes are respected. Maybe they can manage a high-five. Maybe a handshake. But we won’t force it.

It also means that when they say stop, it stops, whatever “it” is (obviously within reason, because you can’t just drop the screaming toddler on your way out of Target). This includes tickling, something I have to remind every single freaking person in my house about on a regular basis. Tickling is only fun if people are consenting and laughing. As soon as they gasp “Stop!” — hands off, immediately.

Consent means if the kids don’t want a hug, they don’t want a hug and that’s it. Obviously, there are times when we have to touch them to get stuff done, and they may not like that touching — hair-brushing, teeth-brushing, nail-clipping, carseat-strapping. And we acknowledge their feelings then: “I know you don’t like this, and I’m sorry. But I have to do it, so you’re healthy.”

We also try to model good behavior by asking before we touch them: “Can I give you a hug?” “Can I have a kiss?” “Can I pet your head?” “I’d like to snuggle if you would.” We playfully teach them to ask for these things. When the youngest approaches us with his arms raised, we joke, “You want something. Hmmm… is it a sandwich? No… is it a rocket ship? No… is it a hug?” Then we swoop him up and he laughs. But the asking helps. It shows him how to approach intimate behavior.

Then we move into teaching consent with other people. You do not touch anyone who does not want to be touched. Period, full stop, end of story.

That’s hard as hell with three little boys who like to play rough and tumble. And it doesn’t mean that they don’t tumble and wrestle because you can do that without hurting or coercing (we encourage them to say something like, “Hey, wanna wrestle?” and we follow through with “Did you ask him if he wanted to wrestle?” If not, we make them ask on the spot). But it means that as soon as someone curls up, tightens up, looks scared, tries to get away, yells, screams, or actually begins to get aggressive, it ends because that is their way of saying stop. And we step in. We stop the play.

We say, “What could you have done instead of yelling? That’s right, you could have said stop.” “And what could you have done when he said ‘stop’?” we turn to the other and ask. We are hardline serious on kicking, biting, hitting, or any signs of actual aggression, which are seldom in our house. I can’t prove it, but I suspect it’s a side effect of the culture of consent we’ve built.

And as my boys age, there will be frank conversations. Very frank conversations. They will involve names like Brock Turner and whatever asshole date rapist is in the news at the time. They will involve conversations about alcohol and drugs, both use by them and by their partners, and how each one negates full consent in any sex act.

They will involve descriptions of all the acts those “Me Toos” mentioned and a discussion of why they are wrong. These discussions won’t take place at once, of course. They’ll come in dribs and drabs. “Do you know kids used to try to snap my bra when I was a kid?” I’ll say. I’ll describe it. “How horrible and disrespectful to women is that? What a terrible thing to do to a girl. What a horrible way to be a human being.” And we will talk. Our talks will get more and more complex from there.

Finally, we’ll talk about how to stand up to other guys. This will be mostly my husband’s department, because — and I know I sound sexist — he’s better at knowing how to deal with other men than I am. But I know the basic phrases: “Dude, that’s not cool. You don’t treat women like that.” “Hey, real men don’t act like that.” “Don’t be an asshole. She’s a person, not a piece of meat.” “Hey, we don’t say that.” And yes, I will make them practice those phrases. I will make them memorize them. I will make them ready to deploy them and ready them for the stupid male aftermath that may turn on them. I’ll tell them to stand strong and to remember those stories of girls who were harassed, who were raped, who were objectified and groped.

Most of all, I will teach them the words: “I believe you.” When a girl or guy comes to them with a story of sexual assault, because I dearly hope my sons will be a safe place, I will teach them to say, first: “I believe you.” The #MeToo hashtag will be long gone by then. But when they see something like it, I will want them to think, automatically: “I believe you.” Then I want them to have a second thought. A thought no less important, a thought no less meaningful. I want them to look at the person speaking, and then look at themselves. And I want them to say, “How can I help?”

If our hearts our shattered by this #MeToo movement, and the prevalence of sexual violence against girls and women, we can turn that pain and anger into action. We can. It starts in our home. It starts with consent. It starts now.