Friday, 22 March 2013

A letter to my son about consent

Dear D,

I’m writing this letter after watching the parents in the Steubenville Rape Trial crying over their son as he was found guilty of rape. I’ll be completely honest with you; I can’t say that I found much pity in my heart for their pain. Instead I found myself thinking, ‘yes, you should be crying. Your son treated that girl like a toy, a rag, a nothing. You raised a boy that lacked even the most basic compassion for that girl as a fellow human being.’ I’m imagining your face right now, thinking ‘okay mom, not quite sure why you’re telling me this…’ Yep, brace yourself; mom’s got a bee in her bonnet. Just bear with me and carry on reading.

You see, somehow this crying couple’s son and his friends were convinced they had a right to do as they pleased – either because they were brought up believing themselves to be above the rules, or because they were so lacking in common decency that they had no concept of how to treat other people. Whichever it was, the parents and coaches of Steubenville failed their sons and contributed to a culture where a girl was treated in the most heartless and disgraceful way for these boys amusement. The horrible truth is that as long as parents anywhere allow their boys to think that their wants are more important than other people’s rights this will continue to happen. I’m writing this letter to you because I don’t want to fail you in the same way. I love you too much to leave these things unsaid.

I need you to know that writing this doesn't mean that I think you would act like these boys did. Discussing the potential for bad behaviour doesn't mean I think it’s inevitable, or even likely. It just means I need to know (for both our sakes) that I taught you what sexual freedoms and responsibilities really mean. Educating you about proper consent doesn't mean I see you as a potential sexual predator, any more than my educating you about the safe use of matches presumed you were a potential arsonist. This is about safety; your safety and the safety of any potential sexual partner.

I want you to consider a scenario. Imagine an average weekend when you’re staying at your mate’s house. You've had a good day laughing and joking with a group of people, some of whom you know and a couple of friends-of-friends. You've had a couple of drinks, laughed at stuff on the internet, played x-box for hours and then gradually drifted into various stages of getting comfortable, shedding some of your clothes and sleeping.

Now imagine waking up to discover a man on top of you, having obviously had some kind of sex with you. I know that’s a shocking thought. Something you've probably never considered, even though male victims make up 8% of reported rapes. Imagine your shock, your disgust and your anger. Now imagine everyone telling you that it’s your fault.

Would you feel that the fact that ‘you didn't say no’ while it was happening made it okay? Or that the fact you were drunk or partly clothed or sleeping in public meant you’d put yourself at risk and were ‘asking for it?  Would the fact that you’d spent some time together, been friendly, or accepted his offer of a drink, mean you were ‘sending out signals’ to him? Would the fact that you made a sexual joke earlier in the evening mean you were ‘up for it’? Would the fact that he heard you’d had sex with one of his friends, or relatives, be an acceptable reason? How about if you were walking home alone at night? Would you be actively putting yourself in danger and ‘partly responsible’ if a stranger dragged you into an alley and sexually assaulted you? If you accepted an invite to a friend’s house and he pinned you down on the sofa, would you be to blame for being alone with him?

I’m convinced your answer to each of those would be a loud and vehement ‘no’ – quite rightly.

So ask yourself this: if every single situation remained the same - except this time you’re female – does that make it acceptable? The answer, of course, is still no. No, nothing changes the lack of consent in these scenarios. Every one of those situations is sexual assault; no ifs, no buts, no maybes, and no excuses. Consent cannot be assumed, forced or taken. EVER. Consent is always, and only, something that is willingly given.

So let’s be absolutely perfectly clear: Sexual acts that take place without consent are rape, and the only thing that means yes is the word yes.

Not saying no does not mean yes.
Not fighting you off does not mean yes.
Not being awake does not mean yes.
Not being sober does not mean yes.
No type of clothing – or absence of clothing - means yes.
No amount of previous partners means yes.

Accepting a drink does not mean yes. Going out to dinner does not mean yes. Accepting a lift home in your car does not mean yes, and neither does an invitation in for coffee. Sitting next to you on the sofa does not mean yes. A gasp, sigh or returned caress does not mean yes. Erect flesh is not a yes – cold, fear, and even death can all cause the body to mimic the signs of sexual arousal. A yes to a kiss does not mean you can assume a yes to anything else. Never assume. Let me repeat that: NEVER ASSUME.

Resist the dangerous temptation to hope a kiss will just drift into something more without talking about it. Understand that ‘trying it on’ or ‘pushing your luck’ or imagining you’re correctly ‘reading the signs’ are all just polite euphemisms for being willing to risk committing a sexual assault in the hope that your feelings are reciprocated. Seriously, don’t. Every single woman I know can reel off experiences with this. Don’t be that guy.

The word yes is the only 100% unambiguous yes.

So, how do you get to yes? You ask. Really, it’s that simple. Ask the question, hear the answer, and respond accordingly. Even if it’s not the answer you were hoping for. Especially if it’s not the answer you were hoping for. That’s the difference between two people enjoying sex together, and one person sexually assaulting the other. The only reliable invitations to sex are clear, unambiguous, and verbal. If asking and affirming seem too embarrassing to contemplate, then maybe you just aren’t ready for sex with another person.

There’s only one person you should ever consider having unquestioning, silent sex with: yourself. That’s also the only person that might possibly ‘owe you’ an orgasm.

I know, all this sounds like such a list of rules and obligations for something that’s meant to be ‘natural’. Too much effort, even – well that’s tough. The world should not be treated like a sexual all-you-can-eat buffet where you can just help yourself. That’s exactly the attitude that has those boys (quite rightly) sitting in a cell. Sex that involves anyone beyond yourself is never just about your desire. If you imagine that your desires ever allow you to coerce another person into fulfilling your sexual need, then you have to ask yourself if you are willing to personally face the consequences of that view. We’re right back to that scenario where some stranger decides to use your body to fulfill their sexual desires, regardless of your feelings. Or you end up in a cell. Think about what that mindset means for the female relatives that you love. Should they be ‘fair game’ to any person attracted to them – like some commodity? That’s the rape-culture mindset, right there. It’s why I’m taking the time to put my thoughts on to paper; because the best lesson I can teach you is the ability to recognise that your choices have consequences, for you and the people you involve in your decisions.

So far, so negative… but there are real personal benefits to consent. Consensual sex is glorious. Verbal communication is hot. Listening to your partner and verbalising what you want will make you better in bed, and more responsive to each other's needs. Talking about your desires and fantasies is far more likely to lead to them happening than hoping you’re dating a psychic. I’m sure your cringing at me now, but if you got this far there’s chocolate in the fridge, help yourself to it. Yes, this is a test.

You might not think it now, but making sure the sex you are involved in always involves complete consent will be the best gift you can give your future self. You’ll never look at yourself in the mirror and wonder if you pushed someone to doing something they weren't ready for. You’ll never be the hypocrite that lectures their child while hiding a guilty secret. You won’t be burdened with regret at the harm you personally caused someone. You’ll never look a woman who has been abused in the face and know you’re a part of what caused her hurt. Most of all, you’ll be a leader not a follower. You’ll never be that boy in court; instead you’ll be part of a better consciousness that will make the world a safer place for everyone.

You’ll be the man I already see in you.

With love, always, Mum xxx


  1. Brilliant!

    Did you happen to see/hear about CNN coverage of the Steubenville trial, where the 'reporters' sat around with long faces decrying the damaging effect the judgments would have on the 2 boys' lives & careers? *sigh* There are some events that make me despair of humans overall....

    But then, there are things like this. Candles in the darkness, voices raised in defiance. Thanks for helping keep *everyone's* faith alive!

    1. I did see the CNN coverage of the verdict, it was awful wasn't it? It's hard to comprehend a society that has so much sympathy for the perpetrator and so little for the victim.

      Thank you so much for your gracious comments, I really appreciate them. I only started this blog at the urging of friends who encouraged me to post somewhere that could be publicly linked to. I've been overwhelmed by the positive responses elsewhere, but it was especially cool to get feedback here.

      Most of all, I hope some small good thing can come from all this heartbreak because as a society we need to make a change.

  2. This letter is absolutely brilliant. I think everyone should read it, whether or not they have children themselves. It is something that every parent needs to discuss with their children, both in terms of their own safety and because of the need to respect others.

    When football culture meets rape culture in this country, the media came down on the side of the football players. They completely ignored the fact that these boys violated this girl physically, and then posted pictures of their acts on the internet. If Ohio law hadn't defined rape as including the act of penetration with fingers without consent--they never would have been charged with rape. The total lack of even acknowledging this act was rape on so many levels is appalling.

    I felt like asking these boys: if someone drove you home because you were too drunk to be behind the wheel, and then when they dropped you off, they took your car without your consent, spray painted obscenities all over it, and then posted pictures all over the internet of it while laughing at you, would you consider it stolen? You damn bet they would.

    Your children are lucky to have you as a parent. And their future partners are lucky your are their mother as well.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, I really appreciate them.

      I recently read that Ohio was one of a limited number of areas that lists penetration by fingers/objects under its definition of rape. Had this case happened in NY, it wouldn't have been considered rape. I find it worryingly androcentric that rape can be defined by what part of the body a man uses to penetrate a woman, rather than what happens to the woman's body.

      I recently saw a set of results from a questionnaire given to high school students. The questions related to what circumstances the kids thought 'excused' a boy holding a girl down and forcing sex. It wasn't just the number of circumstances that the boys answered yes to that horrified me (we already know there are serious issues there) but the number of girls that found the answers an acceptable reason.

    2. I saw that questionnaire too--and it was not only appalling at the percentages of boys who thought a wide variety of non-consensual sex did not count as rape, but the number of girls who said the same was shocking. Horrifying as well. That's one of the reasons I think everyone needs to read this letter. :-)

      I just tweeted a link to @GoodMenProject. This is right up their alley. :-)

  3. I've read this over and over so many times now over the last week (and had others read it as well), and it still gets to me. I find it really moving as well as important, because I wish I had read this at an early age. In my opinion every child should be given a letter like this at about the age of 12 or 13. And then again at 15. And 18. And 21.

    Such a great way to address this issue, and also evidence of some damn good parenting skills!

    1. I'm so touched by this reply, Ingvild, that a thank you doesn't really cover it. I hope that the articles and discussions in response to Steubenville (including small opportunities like this letter) will start a real conversation about consent with the next generation. We need to make a change because we're failing everyone at the moment.

      Thank you x

  4. This is amazing. Thank you.

    1. It sounds weird to say, "glad you enjoyed it" given the subject matter... but thank you for the kind comment.

  5. I just read your letter on the Good Men Project. I am awestruck and lost for words. After hearing about this awful incident and then - what felt almost worse - seeing some people's reactions to it and the convictions, it is very calming to read your letter. I really like how you are putting the emphasis on whether a girl/woman says 'yes' and how completely irrelevant it is whether she says 'no'. I am so sick of hearing that if girls don't yell 'no' at the top of their voices, they are partly to blame for what's happening to them. It's beyond me people would think this way but sadly many did fifteen years ago and apparently they still do so. I myself lived in a children's home as a teenager where another fourteen year old girl was sexually assaulted (according to Ohio law it would be rape) by two sixteen and seventeen year old boys, one of whom had told her previously that he was interested in going out with her. She had told the girl who conveyed the message that she was not interested but thereafter the boy and his friend started going after her until things culminated in an awful night. The aftermath of the incident must have been like a second rape for her. I just remember all us girls sitting through a film where someone was brushing another girl's hair in a bit of a rough way. A voice over said that the girl has too say loudly and clearly that she feels hurt. I was just thinking 'this is so wrong'.
    So, thank you for putting things right!

  6. This is amazing. I wish every mother would have taught this to her son. I shared it on my blog for Indian Readers with all due credits to you.

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  8. I read your article and am also greatly troubled at the actions of these boys and society's sympathetic response to them and the lack of compassion for the victim. However, I take issue with the assumption that the parents (and coaches, etc.) had somehow failed to teach these boys the right way to treat others. Actually, I would have assumed the same thing a few years ago. However, sadly, my family is experiencing great sadness at our oldest son 's choices (he is almost 20) which are in direct conflict with everything he was raised to believe and cherish. He is living as a fool, a destructive double life (though fortunately has not harmed others). Absolutely contrary to the very proactive, moral teachings and loving parenting he received. It breaks our hearts. We have had to learn the hard can give your life to a child and he can still turn away from it and make his own foolish choices. Parents are not always to blame and I am sure that their grief is real.