Talking to teenagers about consent and pleasure

Education and Wellbeing Specialist, Lota Bantić, explains why teaching young people about consent and pleasure is an essential component of Relationships and Sex Education, and gives some tips for if you’re approaching these topics for the first time.

“Miss, is this actually your job?!” A fifteen-year-old girl asked me recently, sceptical after I answered a classmate’s question about pleasure. You can’t blame her for her disbelief. Adults balk when I tell them what I do- it’s made for very awkward discussions with strangers at parties. Others are quick to call me brave, proclaiming they could never stand in front of a classroom of teenagers and talk about consent and pleasure. Still, others laugh; “The kids know it all these days, I bet they know more than you!”

They don’t. Young people may be exposed to more information and sexualised content than generations that have come before them, but they don’t know it all. They’re saturated with information, but also with misinformation. They always have numerous questions. In particular, they have a lot of questions about consent and pleasure. I’ve worked with young people who don’t know what a clitoris is, who don’t know that ‘stealthing’ is rape, that sending sexual images of yourself is illegal under the age of 18, that ‘sex’ isn’t just penetration of the vagina with a penis.

Aside from the uncomfortable giggling at times, young people are engaged when we talk to them about pleasure, because often we are the first people to do it. 

Educating young people about sex and relationships terrifies us as a society. The ever-evolving technological landscape that young people seamlessly incorporate into their everyday lives are often perceived as landmines to adults. We worry about intimate image abuse, online bullying or grooming, and the impact of pornography on the way young people view sex and intimate relationships. We want to safeguard and mitigate risk- all fair and sensible things to aim for. When it comes to educating young people on these issues, however, pleasure, is often the first victim. For some reason, it’s easier to talk to our young people about all the things that can go wrong than it is to talk to them about *whispers* pleasure.  As if mentioning that sex should, in fact, be enjoyed is tantamount to encouraging them to go and have it right that very minute. We know from various research that the opposite is true.  

Talking about pleasure shouldn’t be secondary: it should be at the forefront of sex education.

Consent and pleasure may not sound linked, but they come hand in hand. If young people know that they are an equal partner in a sexual exchange, with as much right as the other person(s) to enjoy themselves, they are more likely to be assertive with what they want, and less likely to engage in sexual acts that they don’t want to partake in. Consent is not limited to ‘yes means yes’ and ‘no means no’. Knowing that they have a right to pleasure means young people are better equipped to negotiate consent: I want to have sex, with a condom. I want to have oral sex but I don’t want to have any penetrative sex. I don’t want to have sex right now, but that could change later for me. Equally, in learning about pleasure and consent, young people are better equipped to look out for nonverbal cues in their partners. Even with a verbalised ‘yes’, there are things to consider: Are they kissing me back? Are they touching me back? Do they look/sound like they’re having a good time?   

With all this in mind, how can parents/carers talk to their young people about pleasure and consent? 

  1. Firstly, take a deep breath and don’t panic!
  2. Do some reading and research beforehand (hint hint: the Brook website but also other resources such as those published by the NHS and the Family Planning Association).
  3. Be as confident if you can. Even if you’re dying of embarrassment inside, being as open and factual as you can will make the whole conversation run smoother, and also further demonstrate the message that asking for pleasure in sexual situations is not shameful. They’ll probably be embarrassed enough for the both of you.  
  4. Be willing to learn from your young person: this should be a conversation, not a lecture. 
  5. Admit when you don’t know. It’s better to research something together and make sure they’re informed than to spread misinformation. 
  6. Keep the conversation going: one conversation about ‘the birds and the bees’ isn’t enough. Keeping a dialogue open means young people can come to you with questions as and when they arise, which can keep them safer and ensure they get pleasure from their sex life. 

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