Let’s face it, the “bad boys,” like bad news, get all the press. The media thrives on tragedy. Stories of goodness tend to get buried. Hollywood tells us that the bad boys get the girls. The classic movie plot has the good guy on the sidelines, being “friend zoned.”
Dating today may be more challenging than ever before. There are no clear rules. Many celebrities and politicians seem devoid of what, in prior generations, was known as basic moral character.
Despite the headlines, there are a lot of good men out there. Unfortunately, these role models are not often front and center. This illuminates the difficult yet important task facing all parents: to talk to their children about relationships. Today, the word “consent” needs to be part of the sex talk, which means we have to also talk about how society looks at sexual acts and what is acceptable behavior.
The depiction of sex in the media has changed since I was in my 20s, as it had from the time my parents were that age. Today, sex seems to be everywhere, yet there is just as much confusion about the topic as ever. The perception is that everyone does it, that it has no meaning and is just an act. There is much more to sex than that, of course, and our kids need to hear the truth from us.
Though my kids weren’t exactly happy about it, before they left for college, I talked to them about sex. Even though sex had been discussed as they were growing up, we had more conversations in the days leading up to their departure.
I have three girls and a boy. The conversations with my son were similar to those I had with my daughters, but also very different. There were, of course, different gender realities as well as differences in societal expectations.
The conversations with my son were sometimes more awkward, but he needed to hear my thoughts and concerns, as a woman, as his mom. I know I didn’t say everything I wanted to and may have missed some points, but think I covered what was most important....
Sex is not something that “just happens.” Whether we want to admit it or not, it is something we make a conscious decision about. I explained to my kids that if you can’t talk about it, you shouldn’t do it. If talking about it feels wrong, if it embarrasses you, then that should tell you something.
In many cases, sex comes with expectations. When these expectations are not met or when they conflict, problems ensue. The only way to ensure both partners have the same expectations is to talk about expectations first. When they don’t match, someone gets hurt.
I told each of my children that I want them to wait – if not for marriage, at least until they are in a committed relationship based on love, respect, and trust. I know this is not my choice to make. They are adults, and adults need to make their own adult decisions. That being said, the decision to have or not to have sex cannot be made alone. It requires a partner, one with equal say.
I told them sex should be something positive. It can be special, it can be fun, but it must be consensual, and consent is a two-way street. You never, under any circumstances, force attention on someone who does not want it. You also need to respect your own body and emotions. If uncomfortable in a situation, it is your responsibility to say so.
Sometimes the moment is not right, if one or both of you have been drinking too much, for example, or are otherwise in a vulnerable place. Even if you very much want to have sex, if it is not right for both of you, at that time, it is wrong.
Have sex for the right reasons. Sadness, anger, loneliness, and revenge are not good reasons. If you say no (to an appropriately-toned request), say it kindly. And if you hear no, accept it without argument.
I have talked to my daughters many times about how they can keep themselves safe. Although I acknowledge the unfairness of it, I have warned them about drinking too much alcohol, about being aware of their surroundings, about having their words and actions misconstrued, about staying in a group. I would never imply that a woman could encourage or deserve a violation of her body, but there are steps one can take to try to minimize the risk. I wish this wasn’t part of the conversation, but in today’s world, it is the reality.
I have told my son that I expect him to behave in a respectful manner toward everyone, that some will apply pressure and encourage him to act and speak disparagingly toward women. But that is not who he is. Some will talk about “getting some action” and talk about women as if they are objects. He knows better. He knows how men should behave. He has excellent role models, who show him how “real men” treat others. He knows to help someone if it is within his power and has demonstrated his willingness to do so, even when it is inconvenient.
I think we all need to watch out for each other more. Pay attention to what is going on around you. If you notice someone has made poor choices and is at risk either of endangering him or herself or another person, step in. Speak up when you see someone behaving badly. If someone has had too much to drink, suggest they go home and help them get there. Don’t wait until an issue has escalated to the point where things get out of control – where intervening could put you in danger as well.
I wish this conversation didn’t have to happen. I wish that all people would show respect, that everyone would consider others’ rights while asserting their own. But if we do this hard work now, maybe one day, our kids and grandkids won’t need to worry so much.
Until then, we need to have the talk.