Understanding the Age of Sexual Consent
It can be terrifying to think about children being old enough to consent to having sex. Whether they are your own kids, family members, or if you work with them, it may seem like sexual development or behavior is getting younger and younger. Sex can mean anything penetrative including penis in vagina intercourse, oral, and anal sex.
Those who are the parents, may not have felt ready to have your own children when you found out you’d be having a baby, now there is a reality that your child is almost old enough to biologically have their own kids as you either are preparing for or already have seen their bodies change and emotions roar. Just because they physically can have sex, does it mean they are emotionally able to consent to sex? Discussing sexual consent comes with a trigger warning if you have experienced anything nonconsensual.
As much as children pretend to not want to have the awkward conversation about sex with adults, the research shows children would prefer to get their information about sex from their parents or other trusted adults. You may never get the reward or recognition for what this difficult conversation deserves, but you may be lucky enough to see the benefits of these early conversations later on in the development of healthier, more satisfying relationships into their adulthood.
A few considerations to help you debunk your aversion to youth sexuality in Western culture.
History of Sexual Consent
In the 1800s, the age of sexual consent for sexual intercourse depended on the financial ability to pay the dowry for marrying daughters off into families they deemed appropriate for their child. Many societies had laws permitting sexual activity to consummate marriage even when girls didn’t have their first period yet. It was believed to be healthier to get pregnant earlier because of a higher risk of anemia for women who had their periods for longer amounts of time when there was less access to the farming of protein as we have now to help their diets.
- Closer to the 1890’s the sexual consent laws were in place to protect the purity of girls so they would remain innocent enough to be chosen for marriage. Some experts in intersectionality critique the Western systems at the time for protecting only white girls’ virginity excluding other racial and ethnicity backgrounds, gender identities, sexual orientations, and lower social classes. This perpetuated stereotypes by gender and race that have been internalized and upheld the social order of white supremacist
- Help teens access the best information and teach them
The social rules in the US started to change as women began needing to work while men were at war which also increased the expectations for children receiving education longer, delaying their entry into the workforce over time, and holding off on making their own family.
Many people believe we perpetuate the message that teenage pregnancy is bad solely due to health concerns. However, when considering social class and access to healthcare resources, the health of a teenage mother and her baby, the risks are not any greater than childbearing women in their twenties. The issue of teenage pregnancy is really a socioeconomic issue where the disadvantages of being young parents come from the interruption of education and access to better paying jobs than of a direct consequence of younger age itself.
Currently, the age of sexual consent in America varies state by state along with a differentiated amount of age difference that is allowed between peers for sexual contact. The laws around sexual consent are in place to prevent incest, abuse, children participating in sexual activity without understanding the possible benefits and consequences of their actions.
Nowadays with the large access to any sexual material online, emerging new apps every day, communicating with teens about what they are up to on AND offline is essential to help them make the best decisions for themselves.
- Learn your state laws about sexual consent with the age of consent website to help educate your child on what is legal and why
- Give teens access to websites with accurate sexuality information
- Teach teens where to access accurate information differentiating from the websites anyone can post anything on
- Bring teens to Sex, etc. a website by teens for teens on accurate sexual health information
- Talk to teens about the pornography they may find online along with the benefits and risks of learning about sex through porn
- Teach teens and other parents about sexual consent
- Anything other than an enthusiastic, clear, coherent yes is a no
- Teach the complexity of sexual activity after the use of alcohol or drugs as a gray area of sexual assault helping both boys and girls understand consent should be made before any substance consumption to protect themselves from being on either side of a legal issue
- If a teen tells you its uncomfortable to talk whether or not their partner wants to be having sex with them or not, the teaching moment becomes the maturity and emotions that are essential for having good sex requires good communication
- Point out how unwanted or coerced sexual contact is wrong even in the face of media messages within the rape culture
- Tell teens you want them to come to you if anything negative ever happened or list a few secondary authority sources you would trust them to go to about sex if they feel awkward talking with you
- Acknowledge that it would be very upsetting to hear about them going through a negative sexual experience, but that you would believe them, not judge them, and help support them any way you could
- Technology and sexual consent
- Sexting is being incorporated into many state’s laws as it relates to child pornography and people’s safety
- Teens often act impulsively due to their frontal lobe not being fully developed
- Help teens think 5 or 10 years ahead of now to see how they would feel if the things they say or do online would be brought up in a job or college interview
- Teens may be told this by teachers or have an idea of it, but if you have access to what they have done online, bring it up and explore this with them now
- Help teens think of potential benefits and risks for their future to help them become better decision makers for themselves
- Make sure teens understand the ways to protect oneself from online predators and the limited information they should be willing to give out to online friends
Sexual Consent is essential in teaching the sexual rights of every individual. Without sexual consent first established, you cannot have sexual health. Some people limit consent to the extremes of consent or no consent when the reality of human sexual interactions are grayer. If you are helping a teen navigate sexual decision making, have ongoing conversations with them about what they might do in different situations and help advise them to think their decisions beyond just that night with a person they really want to like them. For more of the emotional, messages, and behavioral concerns about youth sexuality* check out more of our tips. If you are a survivor of a nonconsensual sexual encounter and this tip brought up issues for you, contact our experts to help you heal from sexual trauma.