Recently, I attended my 12-year-old daughter’s instrumental concert. The group sounded lovely, and you could tell how much work the kids had put into their performance. My daughter has been playing viola for five years. She has an ensemble class twice a week in school and takes weekly private lessons. She is also supposed to practice on her own.
When it comes to learning an instrument, or mastering driving, cooking, playing a sport, or becoming fluent in a foreign language, this type of training is the norm. We would never expect someone to instinctively excel at, let alone enjoy, these things without at least some routine instruction or study.
Yet when the topic is sex, something that is arguably more nuanced and complicated than many other life skills, we often assume that putting similar structures for instruction in place will be harmful to young people, or will encourage risky behavior. Or we’re just too uncomfortable to talk to them about it at length. But having worked as a health educator for the past 15 years, I have seen how harmful this misguided approach can be.
The United States’ high rates of adolescent pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections are well documented. But what isn’t discussed as often is that the actual experiences of teen sex can be really negative. Frequently, teens hook up in secret, without a committed partner, maybe under the influence of substances and often with the fear of getting in trouble. Many are pressured into things they would rather not do. Others are having experiences that aren’t consensual. And even when it’s consensual, a lot of the sex happening among teens doesn’t feel great, particularly for girls with male partners.
This bleak picture contributes to an understandably common view that teens are just too young to have sex in a healthy manner, and that the best choice is for them simply to abstain. Certainly that assumption is fair for many.
But this view ignores the fact that plenty of these negative experiences are not the byproduct of youth, but rather the result of the conditions under which many teens are having sex. In a culture where abstinence-only programs have taken the place of real sex education, and where many teens lack the resources to prevent pregnancies or STIs, let alone the ability to deal with these situations if they occur, it is common for teens to feel shame, fear and anxiety about sexuality. And many feel like they cannot turn to adults for help when they need it.
So what would it look like if we gave teens the tools to help them succeed? For one thing, we know that accurate information about sex and access to reproductive health care makes teens less likely to become sexually active in the first place. Then if they do have sex, these supports mean they are far more likely to use condoms and contraception, and are at significantly lower risk of having nonconsensual experiences.
It might feel counterintuitive, but parents who want to help teens grow into sexually healthy adults are going to need to step up to the plate. Here are six ways to do that,
Actively support comprehensive sex education in your community and oppose abstinence-only programs. Attend school board meetings where the issue is being discussed, and share your opinion with school officials. Many studies (including one published last month in the American Journal of Public Health) have found that abstinence education has not only failed to prevent teens from having sex, it has also put teens who receive it at greater risk for STIs, pregnancy and even sexual assault than those who get comprehensive sex education.
Make sure teens understand consent. They need to know that sex can’t be truly consensual if there is pressure involved, or if either person is inebriated. It should be clear that if they aren’t completely certain that someone wants to have sex, or if they are questioning how far someone wants to go sexually, they don’t have consent. Teens should also be aware that while many people assume that a lack of a verbal “no” constitutes consent, that is not the case. Teens should be encouraged to clearly state their desires and boundaries.
Support healthy teen relationships. Get to know your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend. If you have concerns about their relationship, share them. But if the relationship seems solid, make it comfortable for the couple to spend time in your home and allow them privacy. Doing this won’t cause teens to have sex if they otherwise wouldn’t, but we do know that if young people choose to become sexually active, doing so in the context of a loving relationship is far safer than a casual hookup. In fact, studies have determined that for older teens, being in a respectful sexual relationship with a caring partner can help them develop better social relationships in early adulthood, can increase self esteem and decrease delinquent behavior.
Teach them to communicate. Make sure teens understand that they should express their limits, likes and dislikes to a partner, and that the expectation should be that both people enjoy the experience. That means that in opposite gender encounters it isn’t only about a boy’s pleasure.
Create an environment in which your children can talk to you. Many parents fear that a conversation about sex will be uncomfortable or will make them seem overly permissive. But letting these fears prevent open dialogue tends to do more harm than good.
Help teens access reproductive health care. Putting barriers in the way of teens’ health care can be dangerous, and the American Academy of Pediatrics has advocated for all teens to have access to confidential reproductive health care, saying it greatly improves health outcomes for adolescents. If you live in one of the many places where teens cannot independently access health care, help them make appointments and ensure they have time alone with their doctors.
The idea of helping teens develop sexual skills may feel like parents are condoning something that they should actually condemn. But American teens face a lot of hurdles on the path to developing healthy sexuality, and when we look at the research, it becomes clear that the best thing we can do for our kids is to help them become sexually informed and proficient long before they become sexually active, and then to help them stay safe and informed once they do.
Despite living mere blocks from a sex shop, I’d never been inside. Until one sweltering evening this past summer, when my writer friend, Elle, invited me to a “Scene Building 101” class hosted by Pleasures & Treasures (2525 University Ave.).
It sounds like a writing class, we joked. Let’s go learn a thing or two!
But, no, it was not a writing class. This was a BDSM class. “Scenes” and “play” are what we plebes lump into the cliché umbrella of roleplaying, but to the BDSM community this sort of thing is fundamental.
Scene Building 101, taught by Bikkja Amy, is considered a “soft skills” class. Hard skills, on the other hand, are things like spanking and mummification. (I’ll save you the private browser googling session: Mummification is wrapping your sub entirely in plastic wrap for an escape scene or for sensory deprivation.)
Elle, it turned out, had been to a Pleasures & Treasures class before (FYI it was a hard skills class). I learned this as we went around the room for introductions. Everyone was asked to identify themselves as a top, a bottom or a “switch,” and whether it was our first time at a class. It was hard for me to focus on everything I had just discovered about Elle, but I was up next.
“I’m Julia. I’m–” Oh god. I didn’t want to out myself as a nothing, nor did I want to pretend. I also didn’t want to out myself as a writer because it felt just as incriminating to either be a journalist or a wannabe BDSM novelist who was there to gather material.
For the love of God don’t say, “I’m a writer,” I thought.
“Just say you’re a switch,” Elle whispered.
“I’m a writer,” I said.
The class was primarily structured around where to find new ideas, and how to start and configure a “play date.” Seated in folding chairs in a circle, it was less instruction and more of a brag-adjacent discussion. I wrote in my notes, I think this class could really benefit from narrative and character elements!
I also wrote down some of the zingers: “I saw someone with a fishnet outfit and people cutting it off with a knife. And I was like, gonna try that!” one woman said. “I like to light people on fire and throw them in the pool,” someone else said.
As the class progressed, I was so busy marveling at the sheer variety of previously unfathomable BDSM kinks that I almost didn’t notice the bulletproof lesson on consent rippling quietly beneath the surface.
Everyone here had braved a stuffy evening discussing pervy stuff with near-strangers to master the “ask,” and to learn how to lay groundwork. Scene building in the BDSM community is not about developing relatable characters with a full narrative arc ahead of them. It’s laying out expectations, boundaries and, most importantly, consent.
“If I didn’t mention it [beforehand], those things are off the table. It is the stupidest thing on the planet to say you have no limits,” the instructor explained.
A woman spoke up, in a weirdly chill voice: “So, I’m a masochist? And I don’t want to top from the bottom.” Her concern was that spelling out her boundaries ahead of time can sometimes feel like “topping,” but the instructor was steadfast. Set the boundaries and exchange consent, all the time, and every time, they told us. Find creative ways to do it, but definitely do it.
It wasn’t the place I expected to hear such a clear message on something so wholesomely universal. I think I found my kink.
As a boy, Tom Yarwood was assaulted by his musical mentor. Decades on, telling the story has not become any easier
In telling of the sexual assaults I endured as a child, I have always had the sensation of speaking into the void. I usually offer only the bare bones of the story, because I want my listener to fill in the emotional content, to tell me what I felt, what they might have felt in my position. I want them to explain to me how I could have suffered, when I felt pleasure, and how I was not to blame, though I didn’t resist. But their response is always underwhelming: they seem to understand so little about this kind of thing, less even than me. And it’s all so exquisitely embarrassing that I soon move on, apologise for myself, repeat the usual reassurances. It was nothing, really, it didn’t matter, I coped.
Each telling is a new humiliation, a new disappointment. And yet, like an idiot, I always go on to attempt another. Six months or a year later, usually when I’m drunk, at four in the morning, suddenly I can imagine it again – the moment someone will explain me to myself at last. Because on the one hand, I really do tend to think it was nothing, what happened. But on the other, it never leaves my head, the image of it, the stink of it, and he never leaves me, he is always there, the loathsome, pathetic man. And there’s this enduring longing to relieve myself of the weight of my silence, my slow-burning despair.
Still, something in this picture has shifted lately, since my father’s death three years ago, and my 40th birthday not long after. In childhood and youth, I knew, with the heroism of the young, that I would vanquish the effects of the abuse, by 20, then by 30, or by 35. The idea it might stay with me, in me, was as inconceivable as my own death. But now I’m closer by far to 60, the age at which my father had his first heart attack, than to 12, my age when the other man first laid hands on me. It has dawned on me that the assaults are with me for good. And so in talking about them again, I’m less inclined to defer to others. This time I will stand, for once, at the centre of myself.
As a small child, I was obsessed with classical music. My parents bought a piano from a junk shop in Ludlow, read us stories about the great composers. We didn’t have a television at home on our Shropshire housing estate, and so I spent a lot of time sitting in a little green velvet chair by the record player with my eyes closed, elaborating wild fantasies about my musical heroes as I listened to their symphonies. I started piano lessons at the age of four, but rarely practised, preferring to delight the neighbours (I felt sure) with endless improvisations, generally fortissimo and con fuoco.
In the summer of 1987, when I was 11, my mother took me and my siblings on holiday to Europe. My father was working abroad at the time, as he often did. In Bruges, we came across a grand exhibition of musical instruments, where I was thrilled to have the chance to try out a harpsichord. While I played, a man approached my mother and told her I was gifted. He said he was a conductor – a specialist in baroque music – and would love to foster my talent. Phone numbers were exchanged, and a couple of cassette tapes offered to my brother and sister and me – his own commercially produced recordings of Handel and Purcell. He was evidently a prominent figure in his field.
That autumn, my father took me to London to visit this dazzling new mentor. We spent the afternoon at the conductor’s house, playing the harpsichord and talking about music. I was self-conscious, and desperate to impress. He was charm itself, but I found something faintly peculiar about him. He had a manic, childlike energy, a tendency to clowning in which I detected no genuine mirth, and beneath it I sensed he was very tense. Still, we got on well enough, and my father trusted him sufficiently that I went back to see him for another day of music-making a few weeks later.
Before long, I was spending whole weekends on my own with the conductor, sleeping in his spare bedroom in London and attending rehearsals and recording sessions with him and his orchestra. There was little formal teaching, but I got to listen to some good live music, and doubtless soaked up some other valuable lessons – not least how to make tea, and set up a music stand – and occasionally we looked at scores or listened to recordings together. He would sometimes drive me all the way back to my parents’ house in Shropshire himself, and stay for supper.
My anxiety around him never abated. It wasn’t only the unnerving air of inauthenticity about his manner. He also seemed very driven, and he could be vituperative towards timewasters. Then there was the social gulf between us. My parents were bohemian members of the new middle class, but the conductor was an upper-middle-class product of the public school system. All was well in his world when people cleaved, outwardly, to the “sensible” values expressed by the authority figures of his childhood – headmasters, barristers, clergy. Those who made a fuss of their differences were “mad”. More unsettling still was his disdain for children of a certain kind – the vast majority, I suspected – the rude ones, the dirty ones, the ones who were not good.
He introduced me to alcohol, mixing gin and tonics for me, and cocktails sweet and heavy with cassis or curacao. I was drunk when he assaulted me for the first time. It was early on a Sunday afternoon, and he was in the kitchen, making a bland English bachelor’s lunch of pork chops, potatoes and frozen peas. He seemed to find something about the peas amusing. With wildly contrived laughter, he tossed them about the kitchen, pretending he was dropping them. I was embarrassed for him. He tipped several peas down my T-shirt, and chased me into the living room and around the sofa with the rest. I’m not six years old, I wanted to say. I grew out of this sort of thing quite a while ago.
He dropped a frozen pea down my trousers and wrestled me on to the sofa, undoing my trouser button. I ceased to struggle when he grabbed my penis. “Ah, the pea!” he said, as he tugged at it. After a while, he pulled down my pants, and complimented me on my first pubic hair, which I had noticed only days before. Nothing more was said as he went about his business. I did not move a finger. Afterwards, he cleaned me up, pulled up my trousers and did up my fly, telling me meanwhile that this was what boys did, and wasn’t something to worry about. We returned to the kitchen and the pork chops.
Not a single day has passed in the three decades since this incident without some effort on my part to cut through the tangle of dark thoughts and feelings it induced, and to understand the insidious effects it has had on my life. The physical sensations were pleasurable. But I did not want any kind of sexual contact with the conductor. I found him repugnant, and had he asked me whether I wanted him to continue at any point, I would have said no, and meant it. I had experimented sexually with friends in childhood; I had turned down sexual overtures from other friends. In this respect, I knew my own mind. And this is why it always seemed so strange to me that I said nothing, and didn’t resist.
I still remember the all-consuming shame I felt on being manhandled by a bigger creature, at relinquishing control of my body to another person, against my will. And I remember too how destroyed I felt at the exposure of my sexuality to an adult. The secret, underdeveloped heart of my psychosomatic being – still fraught with danger, still hedged around in thorns – had been torn out and thrown quivering before me, in full public view.
But it is only in recent years that I have gained the distance from these horrors – the sense of security in myself – to acknowledge their intensity. As a child, it was impossible for me to face my victimhood, impossible to own and name what had come to light.
I withdrew into a kind of mental panic room. This is nothing, I told myself. This doesn’t matter. This is him. This is not me. I will remain aloof. I will rise above. I marshalled all my contempt for the conductor and all my knowledge of sex. He thinks I find him attractive, but in fact I find him repulsive. I saw him, the adult in control of me, as a child – a “silly” child, as my mother would say, still fixated on other children’s penises like this. It was an extension of his general puerility, his weird clowning, his fake laughter. How pathetic, how contemptible, how sad. I had reversed our roles in my imagination – a fatal self-deception.
The panic room became a prison, a lunatic’s cell. This, I hazard, is the snare in which many victims of childhood sexual abuse find themselves – they are traumatised, but unable to face the fact. For almost three decades, I could not look back (or look down) at what the conductor did to me, but had to keep moving on, moving up, clinging to a reassuring sensation of balance like one of those weighted toys that always rights itself, no matter how hard you hit it.
Now that I can gaze more steadily at the ancient scene, I am struck by how very strange it appears. How strange it sounds, to have sex, to feel your body consumed by that fire, and actively to deny to yourself that you are involved in it at all. And how strange it looks – the child’s mute stillness, and the adult’s complete camouflage of his own desire, his voice never wavering from an even, nannying tone, as if he were teaching chess or changing a nappy.
The memories of the abuse still return many times a day, stirred up by chance impressions – scents like the soap the conductor used, or of his sweat, music that reminds me of his – even, of course, my own sexual thoughts and erotic sensations. And with these impressions come the associated emotions – the shame, the fear, the grief. But I always recoil instinctively from naming them, from facing the half-known horror that paralysed me during the assault. Lots of boys go through this, I might tell myself. He didn’t mean any harm. I’ll survive. Anything but the truth, the big taboo, the real words of power: I didn’t want it, I couldn’t deal with it, it tore me apart.
The loneliness was terrible. The abuse came between me and my parents, my siblings, my peers, sapped art of meaning, experience of joy. I felt a constant, immense pressure to speak, but something always seemed to intervene at the last minute, catching my words in my throat, forcing them back down, sickeningly, into my belly. I was, I can see now, the dream victim for a predatory paedophile. My father was often absent, and my mother’s attention was taken up by my adopted younger sister, who had severe behavioural problems. Since toddlerhood, my older brother and I always felt that we were holding the fort: the idea of turning myself into a problem child was anathema.
After the first attack, I buried my head in the sand, imagining that perhaps it had been a one-off, like a trip to Alton Towers. But on the next visit, I woke up late at night to find the conductor sitting on the edge of the bed with one hand under my duvet, stroking my thigh. He assaulted me again, and another sleepless night ensued.
I started working on my mother, trying to communicate my distrust of him. For a while, after several more assaults, it worked: she stopped phoning him, and each time he called, she found an excuse for me not to see him. Then, to my horror, he appeared on our doorstep in Shropshire – like a sexual Terminator, quite unfazed by what I thought of as the vast gulf between my family and the city. Although it makes me feel unhinged to think of it now, I had an overwhelming fear of what might come out if he were crossed, and so I insisted repeatedly to my parents that everything was fine.
When he had me strapped into the passenger seat of his Volvo, he drove a little way, pulled into a layby, took off the Schwarzenegger shades he wore when motoring, looked at me with wide eyes (his face, as usual, too close to mine), and told me that he knew he had upset me by what he had done, and that he promised, absolutely promised, that should I please him by resuming my visits, he would never, ever touch me again.
After that – and after he had been redeemed entirely in our family conversation – the assaults started again, becoming steadily stranger. He would pick me up and carry me up the stairs like an infant, apparently expecting me to find this humiliating horseplay as amusing as he pretended it to be. He would insist on bathing me. And as the assaults escalated, he took to putting a pillow over my head so I didn’t have to involve myself in what was going on – but I found this the greatest mortification thus far. It suggested he imagined I had thoughts and feelings about what he was doing, whereas I needed him to understand that I was not there.
It didn’t matter to me what he did, so long as he would let me be alone, inviolate, in my head. As an adult, I notice people often want to know the mechanics of the abuse you went through, and especially whether it was painful. Did he beat you, cut you, tie you up? If not, you sense, perhaps you’re making a bit of a fuss over nothing. The law also seems to operate like this, with its intricate scale of sexual transgressions, escalating in perceived severity, above and beyond the mere fact of exploiting a child for your own erotic gratification.
Pain and physical injury are traumas in their own right, but I suspect that the insult specific to sexual abuse in childhood is simply to have another person take ownership of your body against your will – to destroy your sense of sexual self-possession – after which everything can feel, indifferently, like rape.
Perhaps that is hard to imagine if you haven’t been through it yourself – if you haven’t felt forced, for the sake of your psychic survival, to dissociate yourself entirely from your erotic response, and then struggled to put these two aspects of your being – you and your capacity to feel – back together, to get them to work again as one.
I went to Eton on a music scholarship at 14, entering the school in the second year. The conductor had suggested it to my parents, after I was offered similar bursaries by Shrewsbury and Westminster. I came top of the music exams during my first term there, competing against boys who had spent years at choir schools and had enjoyed Eton’s excellent music tuition for a year longer than me. And that term I also told a wonderful new friend about the abuse, bursting into tears as I reassured him it was nothing. He told a senior music teacher. The teacher did nothing.
The conductor assaulted me more than 20 times over the course of three interminable years. The last attack came after a gap of several months, when I was 15 – old enough to acknowledge what he was doing. I objected repeatedly, and he overruled me, repeatedly, returning to my bedroom three times through the course of a single night, and finally getting what he wanted when both of us were haggard with sleeplessness, well after dawn.
At 16, I finally plucked up the courage to tell another adult at Eton the story in person. I gave them no room for doubt that I had hated my encounters with the conductor, but they explained to me that such incidents often cropped up in boys’ lives, and generally originated in the younger man’s admiration for the older. If there was no force used, they said, there was no reason to suspect harm.
Though I had long feared it, the revelation that the grown-up world as a whole couldn’t understand what I had been through came as a shock. My anger, my shame, and the ceaseless war between them – all this was my fault, it seemed, a fault in me. I was, in short, crazy. My immediate response was to give up music. It was a cry for help, a deliberate act of self-harm – killing off the great love of my life – but no one took much notice.
(It amazes me that I had kept going with music for so long; it is so tightly bound up with sex in our brains and bodies. My skin used to crawl every time the conductor called a favourite piece “erotic”, but somehow I had succeeded in imagining that there was music like his and music not like his, sex like his and sex not like his. Those lines became hopelessly blurred after I told my story to an adult at Eton. Touchingly naive adults such as my parents aside, the world was teeming with paedophiles and their sympathisers, and I was damned if I was going to open my body and soul to share the food of love with them again.)
I spent puberty and adolescence trying to construct in fantasy a relationship with my sexuality that was pristine, personal, free of the stain of rape. But when at last I went to Oxford and plucked up the courage to pick up another man for the first time, a friendly PhD student in his mid-30s, I was shocked to find that this mental construct had not taken root in my body. Something within me just wouldn’t move, wouldn’t melt, wouldn’t let go. Anger followed, shame, despair – all muted by stoicism. This is just me, I said to myself, this is my fate, I’ll get by. As a young adult, I developed an anxiety disorder to set beside the depression and insomnia that had plagued me since the first assault, and became prone to panic attacks.
The voices of denial – denial not that children have sex with adults, but of the fear and shame that shackle them, and of the violence of the act – always leave me feeling faintly deranged.
First came the voice in my head during the assaults. Then came his voice, explaining that the abuse was just a fact of life, an inevitable expression of my nature as a boy. And later, there were the voices of those from whom I sought help during my 20s – the mentors and teachers and parents and police and therapists and boyfriends – in whose responses I always found some admixture of bewilderment, embarrassment, incomprehension or indifference.
But only recently did I notice how closely these voices echo one another. It strikes me that our resistance to confronting the horror of child sexual abuse has common roots in human nature. The silence of victims and the general silence must also have reinforced one another over the millennia. I imagine those to whom I looked for help were simply as fearful as me – as fearful and more ignorant. I should have been bolder all along.
In 2007, when I was 31 years old, I heard from a friend that the conductor had been arrested and charged with sexually abusing four other boys in the 1980s. I am sceptical about the value of retributive justice, but I decided to join the prosecution. I needed to tell the world the truth.
The conductor was sentenced to three years and nine months in prison. I had no desire to see him punished, but I took this jail term as an indication of how seriously our society regarded his crimes. It seemed rather light. In his ruling, the judge apparently drew attention to the fact that the conductor had recently married and had a child, arguing that in doing so he had entered a new phase of life.
Searching the internet for commentary on the case not long afterwards, I found the loudest voices were those raised in my attacker’s defence. In classical music discussion forums, his admirers persuaded others that his “alleged” victims could well be liars, and had most likely suffered no harm anyway. And in the Observer, the poet James Fenton used his opportunity to comment publicly on the conductor’s conviction – the most prominent proven case of child sexual abuse in the history of classical music – not to consider the hurt he might have caused to the talented young musicians he assaulted, to their hopes of fulfilling themselves through music, nor to ask how the music industry as a whole had so long allowed the conductor to get away with it – but to argue passionately that his mistakes in life should not be allowed to damage his career. Fenton was relieved that the judge had allowed the conductor to keep associating with children: “To be debarred for life from working with the male treble voice would have been a harsh fate.”
In all this, I saw further evidence of our culture of denial. And I see it too in the way the music industry has welcomed the conductor back since his release from jail. Singers and instrumentalists with MBEs and honorary positions at the Royal Academy of Music go on appearing with him in the world’s most famous concert venues – the Wigmore Hall in London, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, the KKL in Lucerne, and so on – and fans go on funding his performances and recordings.
They have restored to him the power and status with which they had entrusted him before, in putting their talent, labour, property and good names at his disposal. And they have done so despite the fact he abused all this – abused them – to gain the confidence of families and attack their children, and even though he called his victims “liars” and “loonies” during the trial, and has not expressed remorse.
There’s nothing more we can ask of the conductor himself. He apologised to me when I was 13, and went on to assault me again: another apology would be meaningless. And he has served his time. I don’t want revenge. I don’t want to dwell on the past. And there are doubtless many other moderating thoughts to which I should also give voice – about the value of mercy, for instance, and about how blessed my life has been in other respects.
But it has fallen to me to say something simpler here. I did not ask to be one of the ones who had these words to speak. They were a burden given to me a long time ago. I might have felt less crazed by others’ silence, or by their denial, had I spoken them earlier – shouted them from the stage of a London concert hall 30 years ago, perhaps, into the darkness of the stalls.
They are the words for which I have reached so often, the words I needed to hear when I was a child. Make of them what you will.
First-time sex has a lot of logistics attached to it—like where it happened, when it happened, and who it happened with. For most of us, it’s the “when” that holds a ton of weight. As a society, we tend to place so much importance on how old we were when we first shared that intimate moment with someone else. We rarely even consider if we were mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to do it. Now, new research shows your age really isn’t the only thing that matters when it comes to sexual readiness; there’s much more in-depth criteria that includes physical, emotional, and psychosocial well-being.
A study published in the journal BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health questioned 2,825 people between ages 17 and 24 about their first sexual experience, including the nature of their relationship with the person they had their first sex with, both of their ages, and how much sexual experience their partner had. The researchers also asked about their socioeconomic status, their education level, family structure, ethnicity, and how and when they’d been taught about sex.
What does it mean to be “ready” for sex?
Rather than focusing on age as a key factor, the researchers used four distinct points to gauge how ready each person was based on the World Health Organization’s standards for sexual health. WHO defines sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality,” which includes a “positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.”
Only those who met all four criteria were considered “sexually competent”—that is, ready to have sex—at the time they first did it.
“The concept of ‘sexual competence’ represents an alternative approach to timing of first sexual intercourse, considering the contextual attributes of the event, rather than simply age at occurrence,” the researchers wrote in the paper. “This departs from the traditional framing of all sexual activity among teenagers as problematic, and recognises that young age alone does not threaten sexual health, any more than older age safeguards it.”
Here are the four main criteria:
1. Contraceptive use
Are you using birth control of some sort? A person who isn’t willing and prepared to use contraception during sex is not mature enough to be having sex. That’s why researchers included it as such a major point, especially for those doing it for the first time. Of those surveyed, most people did use reliable contraception, but around one in 10 did not.
Are you having sex because you truly want to do it, or does it have to do with peer pressure or drunkenness? Sex should always be on your own accord and not because it’s something everyone else around you is doing.
Here’s a crucial one: Did both parties verbally and physically agree to have sex? If not, neither party was ready to do the deed—one person was forced into it and experienced sexual assault, and the other person assaulted someone, which is the furthest thing from sexual competence. The researchers excluded instances of forced sex from their study, but they noted that almost one in five women had reported not being in charge of the decision to have sex for the first time.
4. The “right” timing
Do you feel like this is the “right time”? Participants reported whether they personally felt like they’d picked the appropriate time in their lives to start having sex. Though the study didn’t specify, there are many personal reasons why it is or isn’t a good time to start having sex; they weren’t ready to have sex—you might be struggling with stress or insecurity and don’t want to complicate it by introducing intimacy in your life, or you might be very erotically charged and have a lot of free time, so why not? Other factors like finding a partner they feel attracted to and comfortable with could factor into this question.
More women than men felt their first sexual experience did not happen at the right time—40 percent versus 27 percent, respectively. This was the most commonly reported negative feature of first-time sex.
It’s no secret that many parents struggle with talking to their kids about sex. But a new study from Britain suggests those awkward conversations may be key in helping kids navigate their first sexual experiences—and offers some useful guidance on how to do it.
The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles poll delves into sexual behavior in Britain. It asks some obvious questions, such as “What age did you first have sex?” Others dig deeper: “Did you feel peer pressure to have sex when you did it for the first time?” “Were you drunk?” “Did you want it as much as your partner wanted it?”
Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine used the survey to do a more in-depth study on the circumstances surrounding young people’s first time and how they felt about it, interviewing 2,825 young people from the survey. (The broader national survey included 15,162 men and women, aged 17-24, between 2010-2012.) The study, recently published in BMJ Sexual & Reproductive Health, was retrospective, meaning that young adults were asked to reflect on their first experience, which could have been years earlier.
In an effort to get beyond the simplistic question of “When did you first have sex” to the more important ones around whether young adults felt ready, the authors sought to assess respondents’ “sexual competence” based on questions the young adults answered in the survey. The components of sexual competence include:
Did you use contraception?
Did you feel in charge of your decision (or was the decision influenced by things such as peer pressure and/or drunkenness)?
Were you and your partner equally willing to do it?
Did it happen at the right time?
Competence feels like a loaded word, especially in the context of sex. But if you lose the word and look at the questions embedded in the definition, you have an interesting road map to what readiness may look like, including consent, protection, safety, and interest.
Not surprisingly, many people found their first times to be not-so-great. A whopping 40% of women and 26% of men did not think that their first sexual experience occurred at the ‘right time,’ while 17.4% of women reported that they and their partner were not equally willing to have sex the first time it happened. A similar share of women reported a non-autonomous reason—such as peer pressure or drunkenness—for their first sexual encounter. Nine out of ten young adults used contraception.
According to the researchers’ definition of competence, 52% of women and 42% of men were not sexually competent for their first time.
The relationship between age and sexual competence was not straightforward, but it was clearly directional: 78% of 13-14-year-old girls were not competent, compared to 36% of 18-24-year-old girls. (For boys, 65% were not competent at 13-14, compared to 40% at 18-24.)
First times are often fraught for a variety of reasons: peer or partner pressure, expectations, mechanics. But being older clearly has advantages. The study suggested that there was also a connection—for girls at least—between having conversations with parents or learning about sex and relationships in school and feeling ready.
“That young women who had discussed sexual matters with their parents, and those who reported school to be their main source from which they learnt about sexual matters, were more likely to have been sexually competent at first sex resonates with previous research,” the study said. The authors suggest that may be because parental input and conversations, and school-based relationships and sex education, “may provide the knowledge and skills required to negotiate a positive and safe sexual experience.”
That association was not observed with men. The authors suggest one interpretation is that communication is less important for men as they reflect on their first encounter.
Self-reported retrospective interviews necessarily may be influenced by flaws of memory and bias. But if self-reporting shows this much uncertainty and openness about not being ready, it seems safe to assume the numbers are even greater.
Clearly, parents need to do more to help kids figure out the right time to become sexually active. Forty-seven percent of 14-year-old girls and 58% of 14-year-old boys said they had never discussed sex with either parent. And as awareness of sexual health and well-being develops, conversations between parents and kids must go beyond advice like “Use protection. Don’t get a disease” to what healthy relationships look and feel like, what consent is, how to say no, and how porn pollutes our idea about what sex should be like.
A starting point for those conversations is a vernacular that makes sense. The definition of competence laid out by the BMJ researchers is compatible with that of the World Health Organization, which also goes beyond physical health (contraception and sexually transmitted diseases) to include mental well-being and social aspects, referring to a “positive and respectful approach to… sexual relationships” and “safe sexual experiences, free of coercion.”
Based on the BMJ study, the BBC suggests that parents talk to teens about sex using this checklist:
When is the right time?
If you think you might have sex, ask yourself:
Does it feel right?
Do I love my partner?
Does he/she love me just as much?
Have we talked about using condoms to prevent STIs and HIV, and was the talk OK?
Have we got contraception organised to protect against pregnancy?
Do I feel able to say “no” at any point if I change my mind, and will we both be OK with that?
Do I feel under pressure from anyone, such as my partner or friends?
Could I have any regrets afterwards?
Am I thinking about having sex just to impress my friends or keep up with them?
Am I thinking about having sex just to keep my partner?
Researchsuggests that our early experiences with sex can have a long-term influence on sexual health. So it makes sense for parents to do what they can—from an ongoing conversation to an anonymous checklist left on the table—to increase the odds that teens’ first encounters are good ones.
The situation looks something like this: You’re out with on a date, the drinks are flowing and you’re feeling decidedly frisky. Somewhere between your third drink and that Cardi B song you love, you decide your date is definitely coming home with you.
Once you get there, you are both ready and willing to get in the groove. Unfortunately, your body is not as enthusiastic as your brain. You still want to have sex, but no matter how much you rub your clitoris, it is not down for the count. You’re on an endless plateau and no orgasms can be found.
Alcohol has loosened your inhibitions, but it has also taken the wind out of your sails. The situation is … not great.
So, why do we drink when we’re out partying, on dates, or with hanging with friends? What impact does alcohol have on sex, orgasm, and libido? Here is what we know.
Alcohol can act as social lubricant
While alcohol and sex don’t always mix well, it can act as a social lubricant, easing tension in social situations. When you’re trying to get some action, a couple of drinks can make the initial awkwardness less overwhelming, “The only possibilities for positive effects is for alcohol to create a feeling of less self-consciousness and to reduce inhibitions,” says Felice Gersh, M.D., OB/GYN, and founder/director of the Integrative Medical Group of Irvine, CA.
This is why we often feel sexy and in the mood after we’ve had a couple glasses of wine, our nerves are settled and we feel freer. “For women, moderate alcohol intake may increase libido and reduce anxiety or inhibitions toward sex,” addes Dr. Anika Ackerman, MD, a New Jersey based urologist.
Boozy vaginas are dry vaginas
Have you ever heard of Whiskey Vagina? This charming term (popularized by yours truly) refers to when you’ve had too much to drink. You start fooling around, and suddenly realize your vagina is not in on this game. Your drunk brain might be saying, “YES! I WANT TO GET IT!” but your vagina is not having it.
“Alcoholic beverages do have a negative impact on the development of sexual health,” Gersh says. “[It] can impact vital female sexual functions, such as the creation of vaginal moisture, by impacting the autonomic nervous system.”
In short, alcohol might calm you down by affecting the nervous system, but it will also dry you out for the same reasons.
Alcohol can inhibit orgasm
Drinking is all fun and games until you can’t have an orgasm. Not only has alcohol been shown to decrease natural vaginal lubrication, it increase issues with erection in men and destroys orgasm. “Alcohol can increase impotence and reduce the ability to orgasm and their intensity,” Gersh tells us.
Again, this is due to the negative impact alcohol has on the nervous system, a vital component in orgasm. Gersh says that without a normally functioning nervous system, orgasm might be off the table entirely.
Not to mention, the drunker you get, the sloppier and less coordinated you become. “The more inebriated a person becomes the more impaired they become,” Gersh says. This is both not particularly cute and overall super dangerous, especially if you’re going home with someone for the first time.
Alcohol complicates consent
Another critically important factor in this situation is consent. When you’re drunk, you don’t have ability to consent to sexual activity, according to the law. What’s more, you may be too impaired to even remember what happened the night before at all. Perhaps you didn’t even want to have sex, but were too drunk to say no. These are dark implications, but ones that need to be addressed. Sex an alcohol are a dangerous combination. And consent is an ongoing conversation.
It’s about moderation
If you want to have a glass or two of wine, that’s perfectly OK. Having a drink won’t harm you. It’s when you start pounding shots or take a bottle of wine to the face that your sex life (and life in general) will suffer consequences. So keep tabs on your intake and don’t overdo it. If you have issues with controlling your alcohol intake or have had struggles with abuse, it’s best stay away from alcohol altogether
In the end, alcohol is a big part of our social system, but when it comes to sex, the negative effects seem to outweigh any positive aspects. If you’re trying to have a screaming orgasm tonight, it might be an idea to not go overboard on the booze.
There’s no question that offering consistent and accurate sexual health information in schools is important.
Providing students with these resources not only helps to prevent unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), but it can also help to ensure the overall well-being of an individual.
Yet the state of sexual education and awareness in some areas of the United States ranges from medically inaccurate to virtually nonexistent.
At present, only 20 states require that sex and HIV education be “medically, factually, or technically accurate,” (while New Jersey is technically the 21st state, it’s been left out since medical accuracy isn’t specifically outlined in state statute. Rather it’s required by the NJDE’s Comprehensive Health and Physical Education).
Meanwhile, the definition for what’s “medically accurate” can vary by state.
While some states may require approval of the curriculum by the Department of Health, other states allow materials to be distributed that are based on information from published sources that are revered by the medical industry. This lack of a streamlined process can lead to the distribution of incorrect information.
In our survey, which polled more than 1,000 Americans, only 12 percent of respondents 60 years and older received some form of sexual education in school.
Meanwhile, only 33 percent of people between 18 and 29 years old reported having any.
While some previous studies have found that abstinence-only education programs don’t protect against teen pregnancies and STIs, there are many areas in the United States where this is the only type of sexual education provided.
States like Mississippi require schools to present sexual education as abstinence-only as the way to combat unwanted pregnancies. Yet Mississippi has one of the highest rates of teen pregnancies, ranking third in 2016.
This is in contrast to New Hampshire, which has the lowest rate of teen pregnancies in the United States. The state teaches health and sex education as well as a curriculum dedicated to STIs starting in middle schools.
Yet in a 2017 survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 40 percent of high school students had already engaged in sexual activity.
“When it comes to promoting sex education, the biggest obstacle is definitely our country’s cultural inclination to avoid conversations about sexuality entirely, or to only speak about sex and sexuality in ways that are negative or shaming,” explains Jennifer Driver, SIECUS’ State Policy Director.
“It’s hard to ensure someone’s sexual health and well-being when, far too often, we lack appropriate, affirmative, and non-shaming language to talk about sex in the first place,” she says.
In 2016, nearly a quarter of all new HIV cases in the United States were made up of young people ages 13 to 24, according to the CDC. People ages 15 to 24 also make up half of the 20 million new STIs reported in the United States each year.
Which is why it’s concerning that in our survey — where the age bracket 18 to 29 made up nearly 30 percent of our participants — when asked whether HIV could be spread through saliva, nearly 1 out of 2 people answered incorrectly.
Recently, the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) published a study that states comprehensive sex education (CSE) programs not only increased the overall health and well-being of children and young people, but helped to prevent HIV and STIs as well.
Driver cites the Netherlands as a prime example of the payoffs from CSE programs. The country offers one of the world’s best sex education systems with corresponding health outcomes, particularly when it comes to STI and HIV prevention.
The country requires a comprehensive sexual education course starting in primary school. And the results of these programs speak for themselves.
Though Driver acknowledges that the United States cannot simply “adopt every sex education-related action happening in the Netherlands,” she does acknowledge that it’s possible to look to countries who are taking a similar approach for ideas.
A whopping 93 percent of our respondents were unable to correctly answer how many days after intercourse emergency contraception is valid. Most people said it was only effective up to two days after having sex.
In fact, “morning-after pills” such as Plan B may help stop unwanted pregnancies if taken up to 5 days after sex with a potential 89 percent reduction in risk.
Other misunderstandings about emergency contraceptives include 34 percent of those polled believing that taking the morning-after pill can cause infertility, and a quarter of respondents believing that it can cause an abortion.
In fact, 70 percent of those surveyed didn’t know that the pill temporarily stops ovulation, which prevents the releasing of an egg to be fertilized.
Whether this misconception about how oral contraception works is a gender issue isn’t clear-cut. What’s understood, however, is that there’s still work to be done.
Though Driver cites the Affordable Care Act as one example of the push for free and accessible birth control and contraception, she’s not convinced this is enough.
“The cultural backlash, as exemplified by several legal fights and an increase in public debates — which have, unfortunately conflated birth control with abortion — illustrates that our society remains uncomfortable with fully embracing female sexuality,” she explains.
93 percent of our respondents were unable to correctly answer how many days after intercourse emergency contraception is valid.
Knowledge by gender
When breaking it down by gender, who’s the most knowledgeable when it comes to sex?
Our survey showed that 65 percent of females answered all questions correctly, while the figure for male participants was 57 percent.
Though these stats aren’t inherently bad, the fact that 35 percent of men who participated in the survey believed that women couldn’t get pregnant while on their periods is an indication that there’s still a ways to go — particularly when it comes to understanding female sexuality.
“We need to do a lot of work to change pervasive myths, specifically surrounding female sexuality,” explains Driver.
“There is still a cultural allowance for men to be sexual beings, while women experience double standards regarding their sexuality. And this long-standing misconception has undoubtedly contributed to confusion surrounding women’s bodies and female sexual health,” she says.
From the #MeToo movement to the Christine Blasey Ford case, it’s clear that creating dialogue around and providing information about sexual consent has never been more imperative.
The findings from our survey indicate that this is also the case. Of the respondents ages 18 to 29, 14 percent still believed that a significant other has a right to sex.
This specific age bracket represented the largest group with the least understanding as to what constituted as consent.
What’s more, a quarter of all respondents answered the same question incorrectly, with some believing that consent is applicable if the person says yes despite drinking, or if the other person doesn’t say no at all.
These findings, as concerning as they might be, shouldn’t be surprising. To date, only six states require instruction to include information on consent, says Driver.
Yet the UNESCO study mentioned earlier cites CSE programs as an effective way “of equipping young people with knowledge and skills to make responsible choices for their lives.”
This includes improving their “analytical, communication, and other life skills for health and well-being in relation to… gender-based violence, consent, sexual abuse, and harmful practices.”
Of the respondents ages 18 to 29, 14 percent believed that a significant other has a right to sex.
Though the results of our survey indicate that more needs to be done in terms of providing CSE programs in school, there’s evidence that the United States is moving in the right direction.
“We’re at a 30-year low for unintended pregnancy in this country and a historic low for pregnancy among teenagers,” said Dawn Laguens, executive vice president of Planned Parenthood.
“Sex education and access to family planning services have been critical to helping teens stay safe and healthy — now is not the time to walk back that progress.”
Moreover, SIECUS is advocating for policies that would create the first-ever federal funding stream for comprehensive sexuality education in schools.
They’re also working to raise awareness about the need to increase and improve the access of marginalized young people to sexual and reproductive healthcare services.
“Comprehensive school-based sex education should provide fact and medically-based information that complements and augments the sex education children receive from their families, religious and community groups, and healthcare professionals,” explains Driver.
“We can increase sexual health knowledge for people of all ages by simply treating it like any other aspect of health. We should positively affirm that sexuality is a fundamental and normal part of being human,” she adds.
Sexual consent is an important, complex and often awkward topic to talk about. And when people have been consuming alcohol or other drugs, it makes negotiating sexual consent even more complicated. Indeed, drawing the line between consensual sex and assault when a complainant is heavily intoxicated is a particularly difficult area of law.
What is clear though, is that context matters. The gender of the people having sex, their sexuality, the nature of their relationship and how they became intoxicated – whether willingly or unwillingly – all shape the judgements that we make about intoxicated consent.
The importance of context was brought to the forefront in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the so-called “feminist sex wars” divided Western academics who were interested in gender equality. The debates were dominated by arguments over pornography and sex work, but the issue of sexual consent – and what it means for women living in a patriarchal society – was always present.
Context and consent
Influential legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon drew attention to society being organised in such a way that men hold the power; women’s consent and sexuality is, to some extent, conditioned and controlled by these power structures. MacKinnon’s contemporary, Andrea Dworkin, took this argument further. She claimed that women’s subordination underpins male sexual desire.
So, to give and receive consent meaningfully, there needs to be an awareness of the power dynamics at play, and the impact they have on the relationships among people. This raises questions about just how meaningful women’s sexual consent can be under patriarchy. When women are not on an equal footing with men, are they really “free” to make choices about sex with those men?
Others have highlighted the role that sexuality plays in shaping mainstream views about sexual consent. For example, anthropologist Gayle Rubin has argued that historically, sexual consent has been a privilege afforded only to those who engage in socially accepted (or even socially encouraged) sexual behaviour – that is, heterosexual, monogamous, procreative sex. In the UK, as recently as 1997, the age of consent was higher for same sex sexual activity than it was for heterosexual sex. So, even if individuals were freely choosing such sexual activity, their consent was not legally recognised.
Assumptions around gender and sexuality also affect the way people think about intoxicated sexual consent today. For example, consider the public response to the so-called chemsex phenomenon: chemsex refers to the intentional use of drugs – often methamphetamine, GHB and mephedrone – to enhance and prolong sexual encounters between men who have sex with men.
Chemsex has largely been portrayed as a public health crisis, with an emphasis on the potential for the transmission of HIV. Yet little attention is paid to the sexual violence and exploitation men might well experience in chemsex settings. By contrast, when chemsex is discussed in relation to heterosexual people, the issue of sexual consent moves to the forefront.
A worldwide survey
It’s useful to reflect on how categories such as gender and sexuality – and indeed race, ability and social class – might affect the way intoxication and sexual consent are talked about and understood. But while these categories are important, they are not enough to explain why certain intoxicated sexual experiences are perceived by those involved as consensual, and others not.
Based on an earlier project, for which Aldridge spoke with a diverse group of people who had had sex on drugs, it seems that in order to understand the complexity of intoxicated consent, it’s necessary to probe further into the specific contextual elements of sex on drugs. That might include the settings in which this activity takes place (sex club, house party, music festival), the type of drug being consumed (MDMA, cannabis, alcohol) and the nature of relationship between those having sex (one-night stand, long-term relationship, group sex).
Intoxicated consent can be negotiated successfully, but understanding how these other contextual factors affect sexual relationships is vital to addressing situations where it’s not. At present, only a fraction of sexual assault incidents are reported and even fewer result in convictions.
In 2013, the Global Drug Survey began to explore people’s experiences of intoxicated sexual consent. Out of 22,000 people, 20% reported having had been taken advantage of while intoxicated, while 5% said that this had happened in the last year. What’s more, 14% reported that they had been given drugs or alcohol by someone who intended to take advantage of them.
This year, the Global Drugs Survey is delving deeper. Researchers will be collecting contextual information from people who have been taken advantage of while intoxicated, including where they were, who they were with, their relationship with the person or people who took advantage of them and the type of drug they were using.
Cultural norms and tolerance for such behaviours vary between countries. Because the 2019 survey is translated into 22 languages, researchers will be able to compare outcomes across regions. The aim of this survey is to give a voice to those unable to speak out. The findings will be used to shape interventions that minimise harm and maximise support for people who have experienced sexual assault, while ensuring that perpetrators are correctly identified, and held responsible.
Students who receive sexuality education, including refusal skills training, before college matriculation are at lower risk of experiencing sexual assault during college, according to new research published today in PLOS ONE. The latest publication from Columbia University’s Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation (SHIFT) project suggests that sexuality education during high school may have a lasting and protective effect for adolescents.
The research found that students who received formal education about how to say no to sex (refusal skills training) before age 18 were less likely to experience penetrative sexual assault in college. Students who received refusal skills training also received other forms of sexual education, including instruction about methods of birth control and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. Students who received abstinence-only instruction did not show significantly reduced experiences of campus sexual assault.
“We need to start sexuality education earlier,” said John Santelli, MD, the article’s lead author, a pediatrician and professor of Population and Family Health at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. “It’s time for a life-course approach to sexual assault prevention, which means teaching young people—before they get to college—about healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships, how to say no to unwanted sex, and how to say yes to wanted sexual relationships.”
The findings draw on a confidential survey of 1671 students from Columbia University and Barnard College conducted in the spring of 2016 and on in-depth interviews with 151 undergraduate students conducted from September 2015 to January 2017.
The authors found that multiple social and personal factors experienced prior to college were associated with students’ experience of penetrative sexual assault (vaginal, oral, or anal) during college. These factors include unwanted sexual contact before college (for women); adverse child experiences such as physical abuse; ‘hooking up’ in high school; or initiation of sex and alcohol or drug use before age 18.
Ethnographic interviews highlighted the heterogeneity of students’ sex education experiences. Many described sexuality education that was awkward, incomplete, or provided little information about sexual consent or sexual assault.
The research also found that students who were born outside of the United States and students whose mothers had lived only part of their lives or never lived in the U.S. had fewer experiences of penetrative sexual assault in college. Religious participation in high school did not prevent sexual assault overall, but a higher frequency of religious participation showed a borderline statistically significant protective association.
“The protective impact of refusal skills-based sexuality education, along with previous research showing that a substantial proportion of students have experienced assault before entering college, underlines the importance of complementing campus-based prevention efforts with earlier refusal skills training,” said Santelli.
The body’s natural reaction to dealing with the trauma of sexual assault can have negative effects on a person’s long-term physical health.
by Leah Campbell
When Amber Stanley was 23 years old, a friend’s boyfriend raped her.
They had all been at a party together. She had fallen asleep in one of the spare rooms. When she woke up, he was on top of her.
“There were children asleep in the house, so I was afraid to scream,” she told Healthline. “I didn’t want to scare them or for them to see what was happening if they woke up.”
She told her friend what had happened the next day, and then went to the police. But there, she was essentially revictimized when the police officer with whom she filed her report questioned her story and credibility.
“He flat out told me that if he could prove I was lying, he would press charges against me. My rapist was in the army, a ‘national hero,’ so my word wasn’t good enough and he was never prosecuted,” she said.
Stanley says she’s been in therapy on and off for the last 13 years, trying to deal with what happened to her that night. And she still struggles with anxiety today.
“I don’t like feeling like I’m not in control of things. And I don’t like being around groups of people who are drinking, or alone at night doing things like shopping. I’m highly suspicious of strangers, even more so now that I have three daughters,” she said.
For Stanley, one of the worst nights of her life has turned into a lifelong struggle. And she’s not alone.
The many effects of sexual assault on health
A recent study presented at The North American Menopause Society (NAMS) annual meeting in October revealed that a history of sexual harassment was associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure, high triglycerides, and clinically poorer sleep quality.
For survivors of sexual assault, there was an increase in depressive symptoms, anxiety, and sleep issues consistent with clinical disorders as well.
In other words, experiencing sexual harassment or sexual assault contributed to negative long-term health outcomes for survivors.
Sexual assault survivor advocates also report that survivors may be more resistant to going to the dentist and doctor, as both can require a fair amount of trust and invasiveness. This can contribute to health complications as well.
Out of 300 study participants, 19 percent reported workplace sexual harassment, 22 percent reported a history of sexual assault, and 10 percent reported having experienced both.
In light of the recent #MeToo movement, those numbers are only surprising because of how low they are.
A national study on sexual harassment and assault released by the organization Stop Street Harassment in February 2018 reported that 81 percent of women would experience some form of sexual harassment or sexual assault in their lifetime.
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center also reports that 1 in 5 women will be raped at some point in their lives, 1 in 3 women will experience some form of contact sexual violence, and nearly two-thirds of college students will experience sexual harassment.
This means there are a lot of women potentially susceptible to a host of long-term health complications.
What experts say
Lisa Fontes, PhD, is a researcher, activist, author, and psychotherapist. She told Healthline that sexual assault and sexual harassment are both considered trauma. During trauma, the body releases hormones that help a person cope with the emergency.
“The body releases cortisol to avoid pain and inflammation, and it raises our blood sugar to help us flee from danger. Unfortunately, these physical responses become long-lasting for many survivors of sexual assault and harassment, contributing to poor health,” she said.
She explains sexual harassment is considered a “chronic stressor,” because it’s typically sustained over time. Child abuse and intimate partner sexual abuse also often involve repeated assaults, leading the survivor into a constant state of hyperalertness.
“Even a one-time sexual assault can produce long-term consequences as the survivor copes with intrusive memories that make her feel as if she is enduring parts of the assault again and again,” Fontes added.
Healthline also spoke to Elaine Ducharme, PhD, a board-certified clinical psychologist. She talks about the repeated trauma that occurs even with singular assaults.
“You have the trauma at the time the event happens,” she explained. “Then if it’s reported, there is repeated trauma because you are talking about it and dealing with it again and again throughout the process of pursuing charges.”
But even for those who don’t report or press charges, the trauma can continue.
“For people who have children, we often see a flare-up of trauma when the child reaches the age they were at the time the assault occurred,” Ducharme explained. “And even for women who think they are fine, years down the line they may see a movie with a rape scene and suddenly feel like they want to throw up.”
For many women, the recent #MeToo movement has proven to be empowering and healing. But for some, it’s resulted in having to relive those memories and experience the trauma all over again.
For those women, Ducharme suggests taking a break from media and considering a return to therapy.
“They may need to learn ways to manage the anxiety that can be triggered by some of this, and using mindfulness can be helpful,” she said. “I’m a huge believer in working with my clients to help them settle themselves down and be mindful and in the moment, trying to learn to stay present.”
“I don’t blame the #MeToo movement for the fact that we are hearing more about sexual assault these days,” Fontes added. “I blame the assailants and the years of cover-ups.”
When asked what advice she would have for women struggling with the mental and physical health implications of their past experiences with sexual harassment or sexual assault, Fontes said, “There is power and healing in numbers.”
If you’re currently struggling, Fontes suggests the following:
See if your local women’s crisis center has a discussion group you could join.
Speak with trusted loved ones about how you’re feeling.
She says those who return to therapy may not need a lot of sessions — just a few to figure out how to cope with the new landscape.
“Sexual abuse is so common. There is no reason any woman has to feel like she is alone, or to suffer alone,” Fontes said.
Too often in sexual encounters, consent is considered implicit: it’s rarely asked for, and sex continues until someone – usually the woman – says no.
However, in BDSM scenarios, only a clear, enthusiastic and ongoing ‘yes’ constitutes consent. There’s a big difference between our mainstream ‘no means no’ mentality and BDSM’s ‘yes means yes’ approach.
Speaking to Metro.co.uk, sex educator, queer porn maker and BDSM provider Pandora Blake explains that the absence of a ‘no’ isn’t enough to constitute consent.
‘We’re conditioned from a young age to not say no,’ Pandora tells us. ‘Women are socialised to be people-pleasing, and when you get into the habit of people-pleasing it can make it hard not only to say no but to even be in touch with what we want.’
Because BDSM is an umbrella term that encapsulates a wide spectrum of different activities, Blake explains that you can never assume what your partner will be keen on.
‘Saying “I’m into BDSM” doesn’t mean you’re going to know what the other person actually likes, and you have to talk through it to find out if you have any kinks in common.
‘In mainstream sex people think they know the script, and actually that script doesn’t work for a lot of people, but there’s this assumption that they know what sex is.’
In the BDSM scene, partners explicitly negotiate specific sex acts beforehand, rather than assuming it’s kosher until somebody says no. Because BDSM can be risky and push people’s comfort limits, those who practise it don’t just assume a partner will be okay with a certain act just because they haven’t said ‘no’.
‘Everybody who plays BDSM games has their own ways of keeping themselves safe, and there are different community standards which different people subscribe to,’ says Blake. ‘One of the mantras that people use is Safe, Sane and Consensual, which is the idea that any riskier activities are done in a way that minimises risk and is as safe as possible.
‘Sane refers to people’s abilities to give informed consent, so: are they in a state of mind where they’re able to look after themselves? Are they sober, for example? Are they going through a crisis in their life right now where they’d be inclined to make bad decisions?
‘Another system people use is Risk-Aware Consensual Kink, which makes slightly more space for risky activity, if they consent.’
BDSM is a subculture where consent and negotiation are normalised and accepted. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Sex Research found that compared to vanilla people, the kink community had significantly lower levels of benevolent sexism, rape myth acceptance, and victim blaming.
Another survey published in 2012 by the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom also found that 85% of BDSM practitioners polled agreed with statements such as ‘a person can revoke consent at any time’, ‘consent should be an ongoing discussion in a relationship’, and ‘clear, overt consent must be given before a scene’. Over 93% of respondents endorsed the statement ‘consent is not valid when coerced’.
‘From pre-negotiations to post-mortems – just talking about things before, after and all the way throughout – it really just comes down to communication and making sure that everybody is on the same page,’ explains Blake.
‘Most consent violations happen because people are selfish and don’t have the communication tools to find out what’s going on with the other person, but most of us want to be having sex with people who genuinely want to be having sex with us.
‘There is nothing sexier than getting that information from your partner.’
Pleasure plays a huge part in consent, and heterosexual women are the ones who get the sh*t end of the stick in bed. While 95% of straight men regularly orgasm during sex, only 65% of straight women do. Society discourages us from talking about sex (ahem, prudes), making it harder for women especially to explore what they like in bed.
If we don’t encourage women to speak up about what they want in bed, how will we ever normalise affirmative consent?
‘This idea that consent is a contract is really pernicious,’ Blake says. ‘Consent is revocable and ongoing, and being encouraged to change your mind is necessary for consent. By saying you’ve changed your mind, you’re helping your partner respect your boundaries.’
‘Consent isn’t about just avoiding negative situations, it’s not about getting permission to do something, it’s an active process and collaboration between two people who respect each other to create the best experience for everyone involved.’
The same rules of engagement the BDSM community respects can easily be applied to vanilla encounters. Talking about what you want before, during and after a sexual encounter isn’t just necessary, but can be incredibly sexy too.
Asking and giving consent doesn’t have to be a formal sit down where you lay out all the things you’re ok and not ok with (although, if you want to do it that way, it’s perfectly cool).
In fact, foreplay and dirty talk are perfect ways to practice explicit consent. Asking things like ‘can I do X?’, ‘do you like it when I X?’, ‘I want to do X to you, do you want that?’ not only make the experience that much hotter, but they make sure you’re respecting your partner’s boundaries.
The only reason some people think of consent as a formal request for a sex, something that ruins the mood, is because in heteronormative, vanilla sex scenes, consent is rarely given as explicitly as it should be.
Explicit consent has a number of advantages over the implicit consent practised (or better yet, not practised) in traditional sexual scripts because everyone is required and encouraged to ask for what they want.
Boundaries and acts that are off-limit are clearly discussed, there’s no intimidation or coercion, and there’s no ambiguous silence that can be exploited. Just because you’re not keen on a flogging session, doesn’t mean you can’t learn a thing or two from BDSM.
The XConfessions app lets users swipe left or right on sex acts they’re willing or not willing to try
Erika Lust is currently making five films at once – no small undertaking, especially as her erotic films are cinematically beautiful; often feature-length, with professional crews who work on styling, location, cinematography, and everything else to make it visually arresting.
But that’s just a small part of the filmmaker’s mission to promote and create feminist pornography that centres women’s experiences and desires. Lust believes the most important thing with sex is communication and consent; clear rules that many people seem to skim over. She’s serious about promoting those values, too – she is determined to maintain an ethical work environment where all actors are comfortable, which she tells me goes from “feeding everyone on set” to “performers being able to stop shooting anytime they feel uncomfortable”.
Lust’s series XConfessions, which saw her win a Feminist Porn Award in both 2014 and 2015, is based on crowd-sourced erotic stories and fantasies from confessions that viewers can leave on her website. Now, she’s released the XConfessions app, an app which presents users (either playing alone or in a couple) with kinks: each person swipes left or right depending on whether they’re willing to try it. It’s billed as an inclusive app, taking into account all genders, sexualities, and types of relationships.
The XConfessions app takes the most awkward and complicated part of kink – the fear that your partner mightn’t want to try what you do; the fear of exposing yourself only to be embarrassed – and makes it disappear. We speak to Lust about the app, her work, and the ever-evolving porn industry.
I think the best thing about XConfessions is that – with trying new things sexually – there’s always the fear that your partner won’t want the same thing and it’ll get awkward. Was that your primary motivation?
Erika Lust: It was designed for exactly that – to open up conversation and take away some of the pressure of broaching the topic of fantasy with your partner. I think the fear of embarrassment is really common. It can be very difficult to open up about your fantasies, even to someone you’ve been with for a long time, but these conversations can potentially take your sex life to the next level and intensify your bond and relationship with your partner. It’s really important in a relationship to have strong, open communication and I believe that this is part of it. Sexual fantasies are perfectly healthy and normal, and sharing them can be a really fun experience.
Where do you think that embarrassment comes from?
Erika Lust: I think a lot of it stems from the shame tied up with sexuality. Unfortunately shame is cultivated in the society we live in and the sex education (or lack of) we receive growing up. We’re also taught to view sex in a very narrowly defined heteronormative way, which makes it seem that anything outside of this is deviant or weird. Women especially have to confront shame within their sexuality because they’re fed the message from a young age that they shouldn’t enjoy it too much.
Do you think that’s the most important thing in both kink and sex – communication?
Erika Lust: I think there are two equally important things, communication and consent. When we don’t communicate about sex, our wants and our needs aren’t met. A lack of communication means that we don’t try things that interest us and we will go along with things that we may not necessarily want to. We must always be aware of consent when having sex – ongoing conversation or clear non-verbal cues.
It baffles me that the kink community has a bad reputation in ‘mainstream’ circles when they have such a strong model of what it means to obtain consent and speak about what they’re comfortable doing. It’s the norm in kink situations to speak about what sexual activities you want to do. I’m not saying that the kink community is perfect or that boundary violations don’t exist, but I think there is a lot we can learn. I think it’s also important to remember that consent and communication are not one-time conversations.
The app takes away something that can be common in kink – a perceived pressure to comply. If your partner says ‘I want this’ and you say ‘well, I don’t’, you can feel ‘boring’ or like you’re depriving them of something they want. This makes the conversation more positive and takes away that fear, while prioritising pleasure.
Erika Lust: I wanted to make the app in a way that users can play individually, as well as with their partner. In part, to take away some of the pressure to comply, specially when fantasies are spoken about during sex, there can be a pressure to say yes to avoid making things uncomfortable.
I think it’s a good idea to first have the conversation of fantasy with your clothes still on with a fun app. This is where the app works well, by going through the cards individually, and thinking about them alone you can decide if the fantasy is something that interests you. This also allows you to develop your sexuality and fantasies independent from your partner.
What is it like for you looking back on your career?
Erika Lust: I often tell people about the book that influenced me which was Linda Williams’ Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the ‘Frenzy of the Visible’. It gave me my lightbulb moment and I realised that pornography was a genre, a specific cinematic trend with its own history. It wasn’t just ‘porn’ to me anymore, it was part of a discourse on sexuality making a statement and expressing ideologies and values on sex and gender.
I shot The Good Girl when I moved to Barcelona, which was a humorous take on the classic pizza delivery boy porn trope. To be honest I can’t really watch it now without cringing but it was a start and it changed my life! That’s when I realised there were other people out there looking for alternatives to mainstream pornography, and I decided to start making adult films that reflected my own ideas.
What drives you to make these films?
Erika Lust: My mission was, and always will be, to show that women’s pleasure matters. I want to show that women have their own sex drive and desires, and are not passive objects exclusively focused on pleasuring the men. XConfessions is adult cinema that is smart, sex positive and respectful to women. It offers a representation of women’s pleasure and sex on screen that challenges the unchecked misogynistic attitudes, racist categorisations, and degrading narratives of mass-produced porn. Gagging, slapping, vomiting… some women may like it. But it is not a niche, it has become mainstream. That is extremely problematic. Studios produce it as it is the alpha and the omega of sex while it is content made with a very misogynist male-centric standard. It seems it is not arousing unless it is degrading to women. In my cinema, I show women enjoying themselves while receiving and giving pleasure in relatable scenarios. Women have their own sexual agency and take ownership of their bodies.
I also want to fight the fetishising and categorising that the mainstream industry does. Performers are categorised by their race, age or body type. I am really concerned with such ‘othering’.
What else are you doing to change the industry?
Erika Lust: With my ongoing guest directors open call I also have that community of new filmmakers. There are more female filmmakers in the industry who have loud voices and who stand by their work, and it’s great to be able to get more depictions of sex and sexuality, and more people doing something different to a lot of the mass produced stereotypical porn on the free tube sites.
What sets your work apart?
Erika Lust: I think working with a female team really shapes my films. From the moment I created Erika Lust Films I knew I wanted to get more women in positions of power in all aspects of the business. I have a mostly female crew when I’m working on set, it can vary slightly but it’s usually 80 per cent women, with women working as camera people, producers, editors, runners. The female viewpoint is vital for me and to really get that I need to have a predominantly female team. With tube sites and the vast majority of studios, you don’t know who made those films. We should be asking ourselves who is making the porn that we watch.
You can download the XConfessions app and find out more about it here
The topic of sexual consent seems to be in the news on a daily basis, especially since #MeToo went viral one year ago. From posters to podcasts, there are endless resources promoting the importance of getting and giving explicit consent. Many suggest that a “yes” must always be enthusiastic, and that partners should “ask first and ask often”.
In principle, these are good messages. But my research with more than 100 young people aged 13 to 25 indicates that they understand the importance of consent, yet find it hard to put this advice into practice. They want opportunities to figure out how to manage desire and rejection. But very often conversations about consent – especially in schools – tend to start and finish with legal definitions and very black and white examples.
A key finding from my research is that doing explicit and verbal consent is awkward. It is important to acknowledge and talk about this awkwardness, rather than simply present ideal examples of consent, as though everyone will suddenly be able to “just ask” or “say no” without doubt or confusion.
It’s important to talk about the “grey areas”; those contexts where differing assumptions mean getting and giving consent can be confusing or difficult. For example, when sex doesn’t follow the progression often portrayed in porn, films and series, or when young people are learning to navigate the different dynamics that emerge with people they know well, and people they don’t.
This is especially important for people who have little or no sexual experience, and few opportunities to discuss the complex and emotional sides of sex without fear of judgement. Clearly, navigating sexual intimacy is more complicated than mainstream media and educational messages would suggest. Especially when many people (women in particular) aren’t well practised at saying “no” – even in situations that aren’t sexual.
The difficulties with saying ‘no’
It’s well evidenced that – particularly in middle class British society – it’s rare for people to say an outright “no” to anything. From a young age, people are encouraged to be polite, avoid making situations awkward or embarrassing and to please people in more powerful positions.
If we do say “no”, we are encouraged to say “no, thank you”, smile sweetly and more often than not to provide a reason for the “no” so that the person doesn’t feel upset or rejected. And it’s clear that people fear rejection in romantic and sexual situations.
It’s all very well to encourage people to “just ask” someone if they want to do something sexual. But the realities of doing this are complicated and go against the societal and cultural norms that make talking about sex awkward – if it’s even discussed at all.
One young person, Becs, said: “You do want consent, but you’re too scared to ask for it.” There were comments about “ruining the moment” and seeming like you “don’t know what you’re doing”. Jamie noted:
It’s really hard for someone to actually upfront ask someone if they want to do specific things with them … it might be a really massive impact on your self-esteem.
I don’t for one moment think that anyone should go along with sex they do not want for fear of hurting someone else’s feelings. Yet it is understandable that people who are earlier on in their sex lives might worry about getting it wrong, or avoid a situation where they invite rejection. These worries are a problem when they stifle open communication between sexual partners, such that it becomes difficult to express readiness and desires, and to establish the readiness and desires of a partner.
Discuss and demystify
The young people I worked with related genuine and understandable arguments about why it was not socially safe or acceptable to explicitly seek or express consent to sex. But they all expressed the importance and value of what we might term “mutual consent” – even if they did not use that specific phrase themselves.
While everyone needs to be taught about consent, it needs to be done in a way that focuses on how more communication – although awkward to begin with – is likely to enable more pleasurable experiences in the longer run, rather than simply teaching that consent is important so that you don’t get in trouble with the law.
Talking and teaching about the grey areas may seem a difficult task, but this research shows that by engaging with young people’s uncertainty and awkwardness about wanting, being ready or being open to sex, society will be helping them build the skills they need to be able to be clear and to communicate their choices.
It’s crucial for young people to discuss, learn about and demystify the actions, emotions and experience that might fall into the grey area. And the discussions need to focus less on whether these experiences should be considered legal or illegal, and more on how they can be navigated in an ethical and communicative way, resulting in positive pleasurable experiences, or positive decisions to change or not pursue sexual interaction in that moment.
It’s quite right that we, as a society, seek to improve the way that young people learn about sex and relationships, and to have more open conversations about consent and sexual negotiation. But campaigns and sex education might have more meaningful impact if they address the awkwardness of sex and intimacy, rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.
The wrenching testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, who is accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of a sexual assault years ago, raises questions about the long-term emotional and physical toll this kind of trauma takes on survivors and how our society responds to those who come forward long after the assault.
Emily R. Dworkin, a senior fellow at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle, studies how the social interactions of trauma survivors can affect their recovery. She was also the lead author of a paper published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review in 2017 that looked through more than 100,000 studies conducted in the last 50 years and found nearly 200 relevant ones on the relationship between sexual assault and mental health to analyze.
What she found, Dworkin says, is strong evidence that sexual assault is associated with an increased risk for multiple forms of psychological harm “across most populations, assault types and methodological differences in studies.” Too many survivors still face stigma and internalize that blame, and that can make it harder to seek help. And while some types of therapy have been shown to be helpful, she says, more information on evidence-based treatments for survivors “is critically needed.”
Dworkin talked with NPR about her research findings and offered her perspective on where society and science need to go next to prevent assaults and help survivors heal. Our interview was edited for length and clarity.
You looked at a lot of studies about the mental health impact of sexual assault, but it’s not an area as well-studied as say, heart disease. So what do we know?
Sexual assault [any type of sexual activity or contact that happens without the consent of both people] began getting research attention in the ’70s as society as a whole was going through a feminist awakening, and it kind of developed at the same time as PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which was then known as “combat trauma.” Many things can lead to depression or anxiety. People with PTSD relive the trauma in the form of intrusive memories, nightmares, or even flashbacks. They avoid things that remind them of the trauma.
The symptoms that people were showing when they were coming home from war were the same as victims of rape trauma — recurring memories and a wish to avoid triggering them.
These days, lots of people are doing research, but there’s still a lot left to understand. What we do know is that sexual assault is associated with a higher risk for a lot of different mental health problems, including PTSD [and depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidality] … especially PTSD.
What do we know about how ethnicity and education affects the mental health of survivors of sexual assault?
We need to know more. Some of my past research on queer women shows that ongoing forms of stress can compound stress. And we know that people from marginalized groups are just at greater risk for sexual assault [and a number of other health problems]. So it’s likely that these groups experience more trauma — but I don’t think we can completely say for sure.
How does sexual assault compare with other forms of trauma, in terms of effects on mental health?
We never want to have the Olympics of trauma. But compared to other types of life-threatening trauma, survivors of sexual assault do seem to be more likely to get PTSD. In my preliminary look at the data from 39 studies on this topic, it seems like 36 percent of survivors meet criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD in their lifetime, versus 12 percent of people who don’t have a history of sexual assault.
My thinking is that sexual assault is a unique form of trauma. It is highly stigmatized, and when people go to seek help for it, unlike in a car accident — well, the police are not going to ask you if you’ve really been in a car accident.
Also, people don’t always do the most effective job of supporting sexual assault survivors. Sometimes they do things that can actually compound the trauma. In the ’70s it was known as “the second rape” when you tell the police, undergo a rape kit exam and explain it to family and friends. They don’t always know how to help.
What can survivors who are feeling overwhelmed, depressed and traumatized do to recover, and how can friends and family help?
It’s important for survivors to know that they can regain a sense of power over those triggers, and that the most natural response is to push away the triggers. Self-care isn’t about turning off those bad feelings, but feeling those feelings so that they can subside naturally.
It’s kind of a counterintuitive idea, and it’s not what we usually think to do for our loved ones. When somebody’s in pain, all you want to do is to take that pain away. It’s understandable to try to distract them, take them out for a drink, but it’s better to be a shoulder to cry on. You don’t need to cheer somebody up in the moment. Be there for them as a witness to their pain.
What about the professionals — the police, the lawyers, the therapists — that survivors need to talk to? How can they do a better job?
This all comes back to … dealing with the false beliefs we have around sexual assault — blaming the victim, challenging the victim’s choices. Changing these cultural norms is important.
One of the evidence-based treatments for PTSD is overcoming the trauma by sharing the story. That’s a very different thing than being forced to tell it in public.
I don’t want to imply that it’s the survivor’s fault they have PTSD. And they feel like they don’t want to relive it again, which is totally natural. But our bodies can’t sustain that intense emotional response for long — those feelings come down naturally.
In my clinical work, a woman came to me with her story of sexual assault. The first time she told it, she was crying. By the fourth time, she was almost yawning. Her story is not one that has power over her anymore. She has the control over whether she’s going to have her life altered.
Has the public’s perception of sexual assault changed since the Kavanaugh hearings?
I think about this stuff every day. I’ve been thinking it about every day since I was 18 and beginning my research. It takes me awhile to catch up and realize that everyone else is thinking about it now.
My hope is that we’re changing some of the cultural conversation around this.
It’s important to know that most of the disorders are very treatable conditions. I do feel like if survivors can get connected to evidence-based treatments, they can be helped — even years later.
What are the resources and treatments that work best for survivors who are experiencing PTSD or other mental health symptoms?
First-line options should be things that we know work well. What I recommend is prolonged exposure therapy [helping people gradually approach trauma-related memories and feelings] or cognitive processing therapy [a specific type of cognitive behavioral therapy that helps patients learn how to challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs related to the trauma]. Both have been around since the ’80s and were developed to treat survivors of rape. They have really strong evidence of reducing symptoms or eliminating the diagnosis [of a mental health disorder].
As a society, what should we focus on to help survivors of assault?
Ending some of our stigmatizing beliefs about sexual assault and our mistrust for people that come forward is huge. It’s always up to survivors as to whether they disclose. The fact that we’re having these conversations in the public sphere gives me hope.
In schools, [to prevent unwanted sexual advances and sexual assault in the first place] we can teach respect for others and their autonomy. We’re not comfortable with the idea of hearing about these sorts of assaults. Our cultural norm is to avoid uncomfortable experiences. … But we need to keep talking.
What we can learn from the Dutch: Talking openly about bodies helps keep shame at bay, and may help a child speak up if there is a problem.
By Bonnie J. Rough
As a growing number of #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport stories have put a new focus on childhood sexual abuse, parents may have an urgent sense that they should frame conversations with their children about their bodies as safety lessons.
But doubling down on warnings is the opposite of what children really need. In researching my new book about how gender equality begins with great sex ed, I learned that teaching what’s good about bodies, sex and love is actually what gives children a secure sense of body sovereignty, boundaries and consent.
Here are three essential lessons parents of children under 6 can follow to help kids stay safe, confident and shame-free in their skin.
Begin with body positivity
When my oldest daughter turned 3, a certain worry started to keep me up at night. I sensed that her risk of sexual abuse was increasing with her age, and I needed to teach her more about her body in order to keep her safe. Here’s what I know now that I didn’t see then: My motivation to start the birds-and-bees talks was fear.
But after living in the Netherlands with my family and learning how the Dutch approach to sex education in homes and schools produces some of the world’s best sexual health outcomes and highest levels of gender equality, I discovered the problem with fear as motivation: When children learn that certain body parts are dangerous and invite trouble, they learn sexual shame. And shame, in turn, is the mechanism that perpetrators of sexual violence rely upon to keep victims silent.
According to the Dutch approach (and many American sexuality educators), risks and warnings should not dominate our body conversations with kids. Instead, teaching body positivity — the joy, fun and privilege of living physical human lives — helps keep shame, secrecy and silence at bay.
“Tell your children sexuality is something beautiful and should be enjoyed but only if both people want it in the same way,” says Sanderijn van der Doef, a Dutch psychologist and the author of a series of children’s books on bodies and sexuality popular in the Netherlands. “For young children, you should be clear that sexual intercourse and sexual relations are especially for adults.”
Teaching body positivity means letting babies and toddlers freely explore their own bodies. It means avoiding grossed-out faces and language (try calling a diaper “full” instead of “dirty”) in teaching hygiene. It means talking about reproductive body parts cheerfully, with correct language and affirming tones. And it means helping children discover what they like and don’t like: Is tickling on the arms O.K., but not the feet? At bedtime, does this sleepy preschooler like her back rubbed, scratched or traced over? Does the toddler want to be picked up by Grandpa, but not Auntie? We can help children to recognize the gut feelings that reveal our individual boundaries.
Don’t treat body parts as shameful
Shame about body parts, Ms. Van der Doef says, comes from a child’s environment: they learn from their caregivers when to be squeamish and embarrassed. By normalizing all body parts and speaking of them regularly and straightforwardly with correct language, we send the message that every part of a person’s body is healthy, wholesome and worthy.
As I learned from the Dutch example, normalization goes beyond talk: day-to-day nonsexual nudity — in homes, picture books, mixed-gender school bathrooms, kids’ television programs, and public changing areas and wading pools — reinforces the tenet that bodies are nothing to be ashamed of and nothing we can’t discuss (in words any caregiver, teacher or health provider will recognize) if need be.
As we respond to kids’ natural, healthy curiosity about the human form, we can instill in them the idea that all people are born with wonderful bodies capable of feeling pleasure and pain.
Teach the importance of consent
It can be daunting to explain the emotional and relational aspects of human sexuality. Yet this is our richest opportunity to instill empathy, consent, inclusiveness and egalitarianism.
Preschool is the age to teach children the hallmarks of a healthy, trusting friendship. Children at this age can be made aware of the gender-role stereotypes they’ve absorbed (for example, girls like pink and boys have short hair). A simple role-play with stuffed animals in which a “girl” teddy bear wants to play football and a “boy” animal wants to wear a dress can teach it’s hurtful to limit one anther’s opportunities.
Preschoolers and even toddlers can learn rules for playing contact games with friends such as tickling, chase and “doctor”: everyone must agree happily to the game; no hurting allowed; anyone can say “no” or change their mind. As adults, we can model the importance of consent when children want to climb on us by reminding them to ask first. We can model respect for the importance of consent, too, when a child is reluctant to give a high-five, hug or kiss — especially to an adult, and this does include Grandma — by suggesting a contact-free alternative like a verbal greeting or a wave.
Elsbeth Reitzema, a sex education consultant and curriculum author for the sexual health institute Rutgers in the Netherlands, says it’s impossible to warn children of every scenario and impossible, too, to protect them 100 percent of the time. Specific scenarios such as the lap-patting relative or lollipop-offering stranger can be good to mention, but it’s most important to instill an understanding of consent. This goes for friends, relatives, teachers and even physicians. When children expect to ask, give and deny consent at their own discretion, sexual transgressions stick out as clear violations.
Teaching consent has a protective effect against child sexual abuse by showing children that they can trust their instincts: When a grown-up or anyone else touches them in a way that makes them uncomfortable, they don’t have to cooperate. They have the right to say no.
Even a young child, Ms. Reitzema says, can tell the difference between a safe secret like a sister’s birthday surprise and an unsafe one that must be told to a trusted adult: Bad secrets don’t feel fun or happy.
Adults who promptly respond to a child’s report of abuse by believing, guarding and reassuring them they did nothing wrong help protect young victims from long-term trauma. One of the most supportive messages parents can give to kids, at any age, is: “If anyone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you can always tell me. I’m here to help.”