“How could this happen?” The mother on the other end of the phone is distraught. “My son came home a wreck. He said his girlfriend wouldn’t quit coming on to him no matter what he said. He didn’t know what he should do or what he should say. He ended up doing things he really didn’t want to do. He feels like he can’t face her or talk to his friends. I don’t know what to tell him.”
Fortunately, this mom is the kind of mom a kid can talk to. Once she grounded herself, she was able to give her son comfort and to talk with him about how to prevent being in such a situation again. Sadly, she isn’t alone in finding out that her kid has been coerced into sexual behavior. Most parents give their kids a “sex talk” at some point; most warn their kids about “stranger danger.” But the talk often doesn’t include information about how to avoid being a victim of acquaintance rape.
Acquaintance rape often is thought of as manipulation by the male over the more vulnerable female. But acquaintance rape doesn’t always follow the stereotype. Acquaintance rape is about dominating another person sexually. It’s coerced sex. The force can be verbal or physical, manipulative or violent. Male or female, hetero or gay couple, when one member of a couple takes advantage of the other and demands, insists on, and forces sex, it has an ugly name. Rape.
Social norms and expectations are changing. It seems that some kids change partners as frequently as they change their jeans. The 2007 Youth Risk Surveillance System that investigates health risk behaviors for students in the U.S. reports that over half of the kids surveyed have had sex and 17.1 percent report having had four or more sexual partners. A Michigan State College study states that 60 percent of college kids surveyed claim to have tried out a “friends with benefits” arrangement at least once. Many think that mutual masturbation or oral sex “doesn’t count” as sex. Sex, at least for some, is on the same level as a video game or miniature golf. It’s something one does for fun, not as a seal of specialness in a relationship.
Yes, there has always been pressure for sex in teen relationships. In the ’50s, some boys would protest that the girls were giving them “blue balls” by making out and should therefore relieve their stress by having sex. In the ’60s, to not give in to pressure for sex was to be accused of being “uptight” and “establishment.” For many decades, girls have felt pressure to “put out” to be popular and boys have felt they needed to be studs to be seen as manly. But the pressure to be sexual is more persistent and insistent than ever. Kids who want to wait for marriage, or at least until they are in a secure relationship that seems to be headed toward commitment, have to be very strong to withstand the social and peer pressures to be sexually active.
How do we as parents help our kids navigate the shoals of modern teen sex? In a time when romance and dating seem to have almost disappeared, when kids seem to hook up and shack up without the courtship rituals that most of us grew up believing were necessary for intimacy, what can we do to help them understand that there really are things such as healthy boundaries and the right to say no?
As with most things, clear talk and even clearer modeling are the keys.
Things To Talk About With Your Teen
- Recognize that although almost half the kids are having sex, more than half aren’t. Your kids may not know that. With media and their peer group making sex seem as ordinary as brushing your teeth, it may be very reassuring to your teen to know that holding off until one’s 20s is, in fact, more normal than not.
- Help your teens understand that their consent is required if they are going to have sex. Consent means exercising active choice. Giving in to pressure isn’t consent. Going along with sex to fit in or to be loved isn’t consent. Falling for a trick isn’t consent. Doing it out of fear isn’t consent. Consent means being able to step back from the situation and to say a genuine yes or no. The difference between acquaintance rape and consensual sex is whether both people get to say what they really want to do and whether their decisions are accepted. This is as true for boys as it is for girls.
- Define acquaintance rape. Your kids may think that only being abducted by a stranger and being abused is rape. Educate them about the hard fact that they are more likely to be victimized by someone they know and it can be by either gender. Make sure your children understand that they have a right to say no even to people they know and care about and who they believe love them.
- Educate them about the tools of the victimizer. Force doesn’t have to be physical. It can be an attempt to make the victim feel bad for not being hip enough to do it. It can be pressure to be sexual in exchange for “love” or threats to tell others that the victim is or isn’t sexy. Sometimes it takes the form of blame for leading the victimizer on. Some people even use emotional blackmail, saying things like “I love you so much I’ll hurt myself if you don’t.” On the other hand, sometimes a victimizer does get aggressive and the victim is forced, drugged, blocked from leaving, or threatened with bodily harm.
- Warn your kids about the danger of drugs and alcohol on a date with a person they don’t know well. 75 percent of male students and 57 percent of female students involved in acquaintance rape had been drinking or using drugs.
- Teach your kids to respect their own feelings. If they are uncomfortable with a situation or with being alone with a person, they should leave. If someone they thought was safe starts behaving strangely or asking them to do things they don’t want to do, it’s okay to go.
- Talk about practical things they can do if they are ever feeling forced. Practice words they can say and how they can leave. Spell out some scenarios. Provide a safety net: Be the kind of parent who will pick a kid up, no questions asked, if she or he calls and says they need to get out of a situation. Equip your kids with cell phones and develop a code word or phrase they can text or say that lets you know they want you to insist they come home right away or they’ll be in trouble. It gives the kid an honorable way out.
- Remind them that they never want to fall into being a victimizer either. Make it clear that you expect them to respect their sexual partners, to make sure they have genuine consent, and to practice safe sex. Review that it’s not okay for girls or boys to manipulate others into being more physically intimate than they want to be or to question their decision. Being a respectful and loving partner means taking “no” for an answer – no matter what.
As with all things, what we do means even more than what we say.
- Model clear boundaries around physical behavior. Talk about how important it is to only touch people in ways they want to be touched. Don’t assume that everyone wants to be hugged or that tickling kids is okay. Ask permission. Stop rough-housing or tickling when your kids have had enough. Your kids are watching.
- Be aware of what the kids are learning as they observe what you watch on TV, what magazines come into the house, which websites you visit, and how you respond to other people’s off-color jokes. What you do every day shows them how adults regard the place of sex in their lives.
- Be clear about who it’s okay to do what with. Making sexual remarks to your teens’ friends is simply not okay. Flirting with a friend’s partner in the name of fun isn’t either. You may think you’re only joking but your kids may not see the distinction.
- Most of all, be loving with the person you love. Treat him or her with respect, consideration, and affection so the kids know what loving is about.