How to Raise a Boy is a weeklong series centered around this urgent question in the era of Parkland, President Trump, and #MeToo. Here, a mother speaks with her 13-year-old son about consent and porn, followed by a father talking to his 18-year-old son about condoms and college.
When You Want Him to Ask Permission
Mom: Remember that one night when I picked you up from C’s house and we had a long conversation about asking people if it was okay when you kissed them?
Son, 13 years old: I don’t remember what I said. I remember having it though.
Mom: You said to me, “It’s easy to tell when someone is not having fun.”
Mom: And then I got upset with you, in the car. I said you can’t always tell. Remember?
Son: Yeah, and you told me to always ask.
Mom: That was months ago, but then, when we recently talked you had the same answer for me … that it was easy to pick up on when people were having a bad time.
Son: I mean, it depends. If it’s a group of people it’s different than if I don’t know if my brother is having a good time.
Mom. I’m talking about girls.
Son: Girls? Yeah.
Mom: Girls yeah what?
Son: I’ll put that into practice.
Mom: You’ll put what into practice?
Son: Consent. Asking them. Not just being like, “Oh maybe they’re okay with it, you know?”
Mom: Have you ever felt under intense peer pressure to do something with girls?
Son: I don’t think it’s peer pressure in the sense that if I don’t do it I’m gonna get beat up or anything, but I get encouraged to do things.
Mom: By other boys?
Son: And by the girls’ friends.
Mom: Like what?
Son: It’s not really bad but it’s like, “go hug them” or “go sneak up on them!”
Mom: Do you do it?
Son: I mean … it gets a little out of hand, you know? Sometimes when they’re saying it it’s like, “you’re joking around, you don’t actually want me to do it.” But sometimes they’re like “DO IT! She wants it!” And I’m like … does she really want it? Or are you just saying that?
Mom: And then what do you do in that situation?
Son: I don’t usually do it.
Mom: Because you haven’t asked her?
Son: I haven’t asked her, and I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do.
Mom: Do you get the sense that the girls want to be asked? Or not?
Son: I think they’d like to be asked but it’s to the point where it’s a little awkward or weird but you know, they could be okay with it, but you don’t really know.
Mom: What’s the best way to figure that out? In practical terms? You’re at a party and somebody is peer pressuring you to go up to a girl … what do you do? How do you find out if she wants that or not?
Son: Well, I’ll ask her? I don’t really want to go up to a girl and ask her, “Is it okay if I hit on you?”
Mom: So how would you approach her?
Son: I’d start up a conversation with her and if I ask her questions like do you want to go on a date and she says, “No, sorry” then I won’t keep talking to her. I’d have reached a point where it doesn’t seem like she wants to do anything.
Mom: Do your friends ever talk about consent stuff with their parents?
Son: We don’t talk about what we talk to our parents about.
Mom: Is there any fear amongst your male friends about hurting girls or assault or consent?
Son: No. We establish things like, there is some stuff you just don’t do.
Mom: If you saw another boy harassing a girl or if there was a girl who was drunk and passed out, do you think that your friends would stop that person?
Son: Yeah. I do.
Mom: What’s the rule with that stuff?
Son: If you see something bad, you do something. If we’re friends with someone, and the girl doesn’t like what’s happening, I can whisper to one of my friends like, yo, bro, that girls looks like she’s uncomfortable.
Mom: Do you think it’s going to get more complicated as you get older?
Son: Yeah, definitely.
When Porn Comes Up
Mom: So do the boys that you know watch porn?
Son: Some of them do.
Mom: Is it something that everybody talks about?
Son: We don’t talk about that stuff, we keep it to ourselves. If someone does we’re like, “Dude, that’s disgusting.” I mean, we’re like “Bro, we don’t want to hear that.”
Mom: Do you think that the girls watch porn?
Son: I honestly couldn’t tell.
Mom: Maybe you are too young for those conversations.
Son: I mean, I can have that conversation easily, it’s just, no one wants to. People are fine with it, but just, why have that conversation?
Mom: People are fine with what?
Son: I don’t care if my friends watch porn. Why would I have that conversation?
Mom: I’m just wondering if it’s something that people discuss openly. How much do you think it impacts the way people think about sex?
Son: It has some effect, I just don’t know what.
Mom: Do you think it’s how people are learning about sex?
Son: It could be. You’ve told me that it’s not real. That it’s not how it actually goes.
Mom: That they are actors? And that real sex might look kind of different than that sometimes.
Mom: Are you embarrassed?
Son: I’m not.
Mom: I guess what I am asking, is if you think there’s any connection between asking for consent, and porn.
Son: I don’t really see any connection … I guess … since they are actors everybody is okay with it, but that’s not how it goes in real life. You never do that in real life, unless you’re close to the person and you know they’re okay with it.
Mom: Do you think that when you get into a relationship you’ll be comfortable talking about these things with the person you’re with? Without shame?
Son: No. I mean … we just don’t talk about that stuff.
When You Buy Him Condoms
Son, 18 years old: It was my sophomore year in high school, and my then-girlfriend and I had been dating about nine months. I asked my dad for a ride home from the train station and told him I needed some allergy medication. He offered to pick it up for me on the way.
Dad: I’d recently had lunch with one of my daughters and two old friends. My friends asked whether I’d bought my son condoms yet and spent the entire lunch berating me when I told them I hadn’t. I went home and told my wife and she said yeah, we needed to get on that.
When he asked me for a ride and to pick up Flonase, I knew I had the perfect chance.
Son: I got in the car, and there was this brown paper bag. It had my allergy medication in it, and my first box of condoms. We talked a little about them and then, from what I remember, the rest of the car ride was pretty average.
Dad: My memory is a little different from my son’s — what I remember is that I was giving him the bag and I said, “There’s allergy medication, and … ” And before I could answer, he said, “Condoms.” Later, he said he guessed because it was taking me so long to get the words out.
Son: Oh, right. That is what happened.
Dad: Still, it didn’t feel that awkward to me. My wife had already tasked me with talking to my youngest daughter about where babies come from. I can’t really claim to be a touchy-feely dad, but that — that conversation with my daughter was more awkward than this was.
Son: The next time we talked about condoms, my girlfriend had just left my house. My dad was in his office doing some work, and I came in and told him we’d just had sex for the first time, that it went really well and wasn’t awkward at all. We’ve always been pretty open in our family.
My parents provide a comfortable environment where they’ll listen and respect me and help me along the way. I don’t feel like I’ve ever been put at point-blank with a question about sex. That works well, for me — I’m fairly outgoing and tend to advocate for myself in most situations. I could see how this approach might not work for someone who’s more shy.
Dad: With my daughters, I hope we won’t talk to them about sex any differently because they’re girls. With our son, we’ve really liked his girlfriends. What happens if we don’t like our daughters’ boyfriends? (Or girlfriends, who knows what it’ll be.) Which isn’t really fair to them, but could make the subject less comfortable.
When the Rules Were Different for You
Dad: It hasn’t ever really been something we’ve talked about. Especially with our son, I think he gets it, and that shows in how he behaves in all parts of his life. But he’s going to college next year, and in college, you can end up in all sorts of situations.
I don’t quite know the right way to say this, but when I was in college, the consequences of being a meathead of a guy were not as great as they are today. It’s a much trickier situation. And I think he understands that, because it’s the situation he’s grown up in.
Son: You did bring this up the other week, though. You said, “In college, be careful when there’s a lot of alcohol at a party, and think about how you navigate that.” I don’t think this is a topic that’s been completely absent from conversations, but maybe there’s been no formal, “condom moment,” if you will.
Dad: When I was in college, everyone assumed consent. It wasn’t a named thing. If you were in these situations, there was consent — I’m not saying it should have been that way, but that’s how it was. You never thought about it. Our son and his generation are definitely thinking about it, which I think is mostly great. It does take some of the innocence out of sex, and kind of loads it for these kids.
I also think that as a parent, if you mention these things in a whisper, your kid may feel like you’re shouting. They’re gonna remember what you say.