Sex & Relationships

"Make Sure They Know They’re in Control:" Millennial Men on How Their Dads Taught Them Consent

Society's understanding of consent is changing—but what are we teaching our sons?

A still from film Call Me by Your Name

(Photo: Luca Campri/courtesy Sony Pictures Classics)

The conversations we are having around consent are changing. In an age where #MeToo and Time’s Up are not only hashtags but a movement, society is being forced to challenge its long-held views about sex. We’ve seen plenty of men fall from esteemed jobs due to sexual assault allegations in the last year, and in light of the recent Aziz Ansari story and The New Yorker essay “Cat Person,” there’s been endless debate about the difference between sexual coercion and bad sex.

While it’s great that we are having these conversations now and *finally* starting to listen to women, it’s important to ask, What are young men being taught about consent? FLARE asked five millennial guys what their dads taught them growing up and how it’s shaped their understanding of what’s OK and what isn’t. Here’s what they said.

Matt, 25

“My father never spoke to me about consent and he never talked to me about sex.

But my mom and I were having a tickle fight when I was a little boy and she was winning and I wanted to tap out so I playfully yelled ‘STOP!’ She did so immediately. I said, ‘Wow that’s all I had to say?’ And she said, ‘Yes. When you’re playing, if the other person says stop, you have to stop right away.’ That always stuck with me and in an indirect way it was a lesson about consent.

As a gay man, the dynamic around courtship and sex is different than it is in the hetero world. Speaking generally, in most cases both parties are eager to have sex and with things like Grindr it’s easy for gay men to be completely transparent about what they want and how they want it. That said, the rules of consent don’t change. Even if someone seems willing at first, if things change and consent is no longer enthusiastic, you have to stop. No matter what your gender or sexual preference, I think it’s important to communicate during sex. If they say no, stop.

Everyone has a place in this conversation but some voices need to be louder than others. Anyone can be a victim of sexual assault, but women are disproportionately affected by this issue and so they should be leading the conversation. Men need to realize that they have benefitted from a system that has told them they are worth more, and that their wants and needs supersede the women around them. How could such a system not create an imbalance in the way men and women interact with each other?”

Greg, 29

“After my parents split up, I had a weekend with my dad in his apartment when I was about 13. He was back on the dating scene and seemed to be enjoying it. He taught my brother and I how to make an elaborate Thai chicken dish and cosmopolitan martinis, which he had prepared for several of his dates. After dinner and a few martinis, he said, ‘If you make sure they’re comfortable, and make sure they know they’re in control of the situation, you’ll have a great time.’ I thought that was great advice—and still do. Although he didn’t use the word ‘consent,’ he put an emphasis on comfort and control, which is at the core of the issue of consent.

The only formal lesson on consent he gave us was on Father’s Day when I was 20. He explained to my brother and I that when you’re with a woman, her pleasure is equally as important as yours, and that making sure she leaves the situation happy that it happened is the ultimate goal and the foundation of a stable relationship. He then gave us each an envelope containing a receipt for a cunnilingus class. It was a very unusual approach to parenting, which made it so funny, but it wasn’t a frivolous move on his part; he wanted to give my brother and I the tools to keep happy, healthy, sustainable relationships with women.

As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I’ve gotten better at addressing consent. I remember being young, in the middle of an escalating makeout sesh, and having the girl break away suddenly to ask if she had my consent. I’d say, ‘Yeah,’ and make sure I’d have hers, and we’d carry on. But consent to what, exactly? Details were rarely, if ever, discussed. These days, I’m a lot more verbal. Keeping a running line of chatter back and forth is a great way to make sure they’re comfortable and having a good time. Also, I know that if I’m not getting a positive response—or any response, for that matter—I need to check in.

I think cultural attitudes towards consent are changing permanently, and the result of all this, hopefully, will be that women feel more comfortable, and men feel more accountable. This topic has prompted every guy with an internet connection (myself included) to reflect on their behaviour and attitudes towards women. I think a lot of us have found some things we wish we hadn’t. My hope is that men are revising their model of consent so that, if they ever have sons, they won’t fail them in delivering this valuable lesson.”

Don, 26

“Growing up, I didn’t have an explicit conversation about obtaining verbal consent, which I think should be more clearly communicated to every young man today. However, I had several conversations about respecting women, and feel that the importance of consent was always naturally embedded in those conversations. The ‘sex’ talk that I did receive was fairly straightforward: Don’t rush to have sex young, don’t feel pressured and don’t pressure anybody, always (with the emphasis on always) use protection, be safe, smart, and respectful of other people.

As a straight male, my sexuality has led me to realize that I am less likely to be marginalized in situations where my lack of consent could be ignored. Until I was closer to adulthood, I didn’t fully understand the extent of the trauma those situations can have for people who experience them. I’ve had romantic relationships with only a handful of people, and fortunately, all of my relationships have been consensual. That said, I don’t think my lack of non-consensual relations disqualifies me from understanding and respecting the importance of consent.

Today we are finally starting to have the conversations that we’ve needed for so long. Bill Cosby happened, Jian Ghomeshi happened, and it was a disappointing because those women were still not getting justice. I think at some point people decided to have these conversation more properly, and it’s led to people like Kevin Spacey and Louis C.K. getting dropped [from work] completely. I’m glad that as a society we are starting to make it much more clear what is consensual and what is not, and that people who engage in non-consensual actions are getting fired, sued and put on public trial.

I think many men need to grow up and realize that this conversation isn’t always about them. Why some men get so defensive while discussing the importance of women’s rights, the pay gap, consent, sexual harassment etc. is baffling to me. Some men say idiotic things like, ‘not all men.’ Sure, that’s statistically true, but it’s also true that it’s mostly men that are committing acts of sexual misconduct—be it mild, medium, or downright disgusting. Wouldn’t it make more sense for men to open up their minds and stand with the people who have been oppressed?”

Mark, 29

“My father taught me absolutely nothing about consent. That being said, my father was a kind, considerate and giving man. He just wasn’t very present during my childhood. The only thing close to a conversation around any of that was him making a very lousy joke: ‘Always use condoms! And if not: Deny, deny, deny.’ If push came to shove, I know my father would be the first one to force me to take accountability and support a child I’d had by accident, but that joke still stands out to me. Maybe because it was so out of character for him to say? But I guess if he never gave me a conversation about consent, I imagine his father likely never gave him or his five brothers one either. It’s a broken and dangerous cycle.

In school, we were taught the basics, not a whole hell of a lot more, and ZERO mention of homosexuality whatsoever. I do, however, have this really vivid memory of the D.A.R.E program where a cop came in to teach us about the dangers of drugs. She told us a story about a young woman who had been slipped a drug and date raped while unconscious. One of the more obnoxious boys in the class shouted out, ‘Ya, but that’s only if you’re a girl!’ and the cop gently informed us that boys too could be raped. (This was also the one and only time homosexual sex was ever loosely referenced, which is hugely problematic and damaging to what young boys think of gay men.) I can tell you now that not a single boy in that room thought that was even the slightest possibility. We all knew girls could be raped, though.

When I was straight in high school, I would see this all the time: guys pushing their luck, girls thinking they were obliged, and then the mess that followed when guys would brag and girls would be desperate for privacy. It’s sad to look back on how many girls I knew that didn’t get their wishes respected because we were raised to prioritize the desires of boys over girls.

Once I came out, I experienced a lot of different things. Within the first six months of being out, I was raped in the disgusting bathroom of a bar and pressured into some very uncomfortable sexual encounters. Once again someone—and this time it was me—was adhering to that idea of ‘the desires of men and boys are priority.’ Even being a man didn’t protect me from that sense of obligation. It only changed years later when I met an older guy who taught me about simply saying ‘no’ and that sexual encounters should be positive and consensual.”

Chris, 27

“My dad started openly talking about sex once I turned 13 and started bringing girlfriends home. The closest thing to a consent talk he had with me was when he told me to confirm any girl I slept with was on the pill so I wouldn’t get them pregnant. He also randomly bought me condoms one night when my girlfriend was over (we were 15). I didn’t ask him to do it, there was no indication from my girlfriend that we were having sex (we hadn’t yet). He just kind of threw the condom box at me and it was really awkward.

I look back at that situation and it must have been a really shitty experience for the girl. I remember her being uncomfortable and she didn’t really want to make out after that. It must have felt like such a pressure tactic to her. Like a dumb teenaged boy I kept trying to kiss her, but I didn’t dare go beyond that.

From my experience, women respect a man who respects them. If a girlfriend said no, I stopped. We’d do something else. Of course I still wanted in her pants, because I really liked her and she was hot, but I’d let her make the first move. If she didn’t, well she didn’t. End of story.

I wish we’d had this [recent consent] conversation decades, if not centuries ago. It’s stupid how entitled guys think they are to a woman’s body. A lot of my guy friends feel like it’s going too far, but I disagree. Men don’t have to dominate every public debate. Step back. Listen. Reflect on your own actions, and how they might play into what’s happening. I know I’ve done some soul-searching.”


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