The Morning After

*Names have been changed for anonymity.

Trigger warning – contains references to rape.

“I warn Toby*, I tell him ‘You make sure, before you do anything with a girl, that she’s definitely into it!’ – you hear so many stories where girls change their mind and regret it the next morning.”

A comment spoken by a friend with a teenage son.  Her words stirred something in me, sparking a lengthy conversation between us, and ultimately becoming inspiration for this blog post.

“….But Katie*,” I asked her, “How do you know they change their minds, how can you be sure it was what the girls wanted in the first place?  Maybe they didn’t want it at the time but couldn’t say “No”?  Maybe they felt pressured, coerced? … Or too afraid to resist? Didn’t you ever do anything with a boy that you didn’t want to do, for the sole reason that you didn’t know how to get out of it?…What about all the times girls don’t want to, and say so…but aren’t listened to?”

My questions tripped over each other, like dislodged rocks, shaken loose and barreling down a hillside, gaining momentum with the rising level of emotion.  We talked for nearly an hour, as mothers of both boys and girls, and as women reflecting back on our own adolescent experiences.  We explored the topics of sex and relationships for teens today, how the internet and social media compound the complexity of it all.  But I kept returning to the issue of consent, how it is framed, and what consenting to sexual contact really means.

Hearing Katie’s instructions for Toby was not the first time I had witnessed these views expressed from mothers of teenage sons. Previously, I had only overheard such exchanges (thus assumed it poor etiquette to interject!)  It seemed these mothers were all intent on the same goal: alerting their teenage sons to protect them from being pinned with a rape allegation.  Although it sounds sensible advice about consent at face value, the underlying message is more about avoiding blame rather than proactively seeking a “yes” in relation to consensual sexual activity.  Additionally, and more concerning, is the subtle insinuation that some girls perhaps allege rape or sexual assault the next morning out of regret, spitefulness or some other reason.

[Those with any understanding of what a rape investigation involves, will realise is it extremely unlikely anyone would put themselves through it unnecessarily.  Under-reporting is high. Only 15% of sexual violence in the UK is reported to police.]

Teaching consent is essential. Does the reason given even matter, as long as boys get the message? I think the rationale behind consent is absolutely key to it being understood.  Promoting consent just to avoid an allegation shifts the focus off the most important aspects of consent – the choice, the control and the right to reverse it at any time, free from judgement.  By proactively and transparently promoting consent, including a total understanding that it is about “yes”, boys could have a better chance of valuing it, and their partners might feel more able to voice it.

Having written this blog in my professional capacity, I can also speak as a parent, with a son aged 15 and two daughters aged 13 and 11.  The simplified version for our three children is the same;

– consent applies to any sexual activity. It’s your body, you decide;

– change your mind at anytime, consent is never irreversible or dependent on anything;

–  you deserve to be heard and listened to at all times.  So does your partner.

While I feel hopeful my own three children are already developing a secure understanding of consent, their safety depends on their future partners’ understanding, too.  We can all strive to end victim-blaming, combat rape culture, and promote consent in its true sense – not merely as a mechanism to avoid being charged with a criminal offence.

Hopefully someday we will live in a society where consent is understood, embedded and mutually respected, and sexual assault statistics, around the globe, will be greatly reduced.