Negotiating sexual consent: what teenagers need to know
Most teenagers will experiment with sexual behaviour at some stage. If and when teenagers start being intimate, doing sexual things or having any kind of sex with other people, they need consent.
But consent isn’t always as simple or easy as ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
For example, it isn’t always easy for teenagers to tell whether other people want to be intimate or have sex. In fact, it isn’t always easy for teenagers to figure out their own sexual desires and feelings. And teenagers can feel guilted or pressured into having sex. This pressure might come from peers or from TV, movies, social media and pornography.
So it’s important for teenagers to understand that consent is essential to healthy, respectful and safe sexual experiences. And if getting and giving consent feels awkward or embarrassing to them, it can help them to know that consent can become a sexy and enjoyable part of their sexual experiences.
Consensual, enjoyable sexual activity is about constant communication. Sometimes one person will be asking for consent for something, and sometimes they’ll be giving it. If teenagers can communicate openly and freely during their sexual experiences, these experiences are likely to feel good. They’re also likely to be equal, respectful, legal and safe.
Getting sexual consent: key messages for teenagers
If your teenage child wants to start engaging in sexual activity with other people, they need to start by getting consent. Non-consensual sexual activity (even kissing and touching) is harmful and against the law.
The best way for your child to get consent for a sexual activity is to ask. Your child should never assume other people have given consent or take things as signs of consent. For example, if another person invites them into a bedroom or sends them sexual messages, it doesn’t mean they have consent for sex.
When your child asks for consent, they need to pay attention to other people’s body language as well as their words. For example, if a person moves closer, this might indicate consent. But if the other person pulls away, your child needs to stop what they’re doing.
Your child needs to get consent for different sexual activities. ‘Yes’ to one sexual activity doesn’t mean an automatic ‘yes’ to another. Stopping to pay attention to other people is the best way for your child to tell whether they have consent for something different or new. It’s best for them to ask, ‘Are you OK with this?’ or ‘Do you want to stop?’
And if other people don’t consent to something, your child needs to stop. Your child shouldn’t beg, pressure or guilt people into something that they don’t want to do.
Asking for consent can be a sexy, enjoyable part of the sexual experience for everyone. For example, your child can ask, ‘Do you like this?’, ‘Can I take your top off?’, ‘Is it OK if I touch you there?’, ‘Do you want to keep going?’ and so on.
It’s good to encourage your child to think about how their behaviour during sex makes other people feel. For example, are they treating other people with respect and consideration? Are they thinking of other people’s comfort and pleasure? Does the experience make other people feel important and valued?
Giving sexual consent: key messages for teenagers
Teenagers need to understand that they have the right to feel safe, comfortable and pleasured. They can exercise this right by saying ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘I’m not sure, so let’s take a break’.
It’s always OK for your child to say ‘no’. And they can say ‘no’ to one activity after saying ‘yes’ to another. They can say ‘yes’ one time but ‘no’ at another time.
It’s also OK for your child to feel uncertain about a sexual activity and to say so. It might help if you suggest some things your child can say when things are going too fast. For example, ‘How about this instead?’, ‘Let’s slow down’ or ‘I don’t want to go any further’.
Likewise, your child has the right to change their mind at any stage of sex. For example, they might feel OK when they start being intimate with other people, but then things change. They might start to feel unwell or unsafe, or the situation just doesn’t feel right anymore. If they don’t want to do something, they don’t need to feel guilty about it.
It’s important for teenagers to know that they don’t have to consent to sex or to a particular sexual activity just because ‘everyone else is doing it’. Sexual activity needs to feel right for them.
When teenagers can’t give or get sexual consent
Teenagers can’t give or get consent when someone:
- is threatened or verbally or physically forced
- is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs
- doesn’t fully understand the sexual activity or its consequences
- is under the legal age for sexual consent
- is asleep, unconscious, semiconscious or irrational.
Teenagers might think that pressure to have sex is always physically violent or forceful. But it can be verbal and emotional. For example, ‘You can’t lead me on all night and not give me oral – that isn’t fair’, ‘I know you want to …’ or ‘If you don’t have sex with me, I’ll post that nude to Instagram’.
When teenagers have distressing sexual experiences
Sometimes teenagers agree to sexual activities they don’t enjoy. Even when these experiences involve consent, they can be upsetting.
If your child has had sex they regret or feel sad about, your response and support can make a big difference. It’s important to listen, believe what your child is telling you, and never blame your child for what has happened. With support, your child can heal, learn and look forward to a healthy sex life.
If your child has experienced a sexual assault, they’ll need your support, including your support for decisions about reporting the assault.