Monday, April 10, 2017

The Meaning of No

If we can't teach our sons, from a very young age, that no means no, do we really expect some half-naked sixteen-year-old girl, hormones raging, to explain it better in the backseat of a car?

My friend, D., mother of an eleven-year-old, posed this question at a recent book club meeting. Everyone fell quiet for a moment as we shared one of those rare moments of true epiphany.

All of us admitted, that at least sometimes, we have let our children use our "no" as a starting point for negotiations.

We have told ourselves it's okay; they're developing reasoning and debate skills.

Meanwhile, our kids have learned that "no" can sometimes mean "maybe," and that their repeated, pleading requests stand at least even odds of wearing us down.

The flip side, of course, is that we often say give the kiddos an offhand no, when the stakes around whatever they're requesting don't matter much. Then we backpedal, when we said have said maybe, or I haven't decided yet, in the first place.

None of this is okay.

It's not okay for any kid. We all pride ourselves on being egalitarian, and we teach children of both sexes that privates are private.

However, the realities of relative physical size and strength in male and female humans (after puberty) mean it's especially not okay for parents of boys to fail to teach the meaning of NO.

Cosmopolitan published an essay in its most recent issue: How I Talked to My Son About Sexual Consent. I read this the moment I saw it last week.  So did countless other moms, because the editors blasted it out, using the creepy tagline "Every Rapist Is Someone's Son" as click bait.

I found it encouraging that at least some of us have begun, in the span of one generation, to move the conversation from, "If you love me, you will" to, "Are you sure you want to do this?"

The type of frank and honest discussion the writer recounts having with her teenager doesn't materialize from nowhere. She clearly laid the groundwork for that awkward interaction over many  years.

Which means we should start young. Like elementary school young. Maybe earlier.

There was a great British public service video making the rounds, several months ago, that explained sexual consent in the most civilized, G-rated terms possible.

The video not only explains affirmative consent and the importance of no, it also illustrates the importance of recognizing when a person is too impaired to give consent: "Unconscious people don't want tea."

Every one of us women around the table that night was once a teenage girl, who at one point or another, told some teenage boy, "no," only to be met with "please, pretty please," or "come on, don't be a tease," or the slightly more dated, "if you love me you will,"  or a pseudo-progressive variant, "but I brought a condom, so it will be fine."

To borrow from the British PSA, we didn't want tea, or perhaps we wanted more time to consider the tea.

From where the boys were sitting, they stood at least even odds of wearing us down.

Those teenage girls said, "no," and the boys interpreted "no" as a starting point for more discussion.

They heard "maybe."