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24 May 2019 19:35
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  •   Home > News > International

    Speak author Laurie Halse Anderson talks to teens about sex and consent. This is what they ask her

    Author and rape survivor Laurie Halse Anderson talks to high school students about sexual assault. They keep asking the same things — and that reveals a lot about adults, too.

    For 20 years, Laurie Halse Anderson has talked to high school students about the effects of sexual assault.

    It's a topic close to home.

    Anderson is the author of Speak, a 1999 bestseller which tells the story of a teenage girl who is struggling in the wake of a sexual assault.

    Anderson is also a rape survivor, an experience she discusses in her more recent memoir, Shout.

    Anderson says some questions teenagers ask her haven't changed in decades — and those questions reveal a lot about adults, too.

    "We're really good at putting sexualised things and objectification of bodies on our television screens, movie screens, our phones," she says.

    "But boy, we are terrible at having healthy conversations with our kids about consent and about healthy sexuality."

    For parents who "die of agony" in the face of such topics, Anderson has clear advice on how to get talking — and why it's so important.

    And she says you've probably already started the conversation with your kids, without even knowing it.

    'A basic rule of human dignity'

    There's one question in particular teenagers ask Anderson that she says "has not changed for 20 years".

    It's about consent, and it's a question that she both loves and is "horrified" by.

    "Teenage boys are so delightful and wonderful, and they ask the best honest questions," Anderson says.

    "They're always confused about why an act — the sex act of intercourse, which only took a few minutes — could traumatise the girl who wasn't willing to have sex with the boy; traumatise her so much that months later she's still feeling the after-effects.

    "It points to how ignorant our boys are, and we adults have to take responsibility for their level of ignorance."

    When she speaks with boys about the facts around consent, Anderson says "there's a wonderful change in their eyes".

    "They start to nod their heads and they're like, 'Oh, I didn't understand that before'," the US author says.

    She explains to both teenage boys and girls that responsible people have sex after "having conversations with each other".

    "If we're going to have sexual relations with somebody you must have consent from that person — sober, ongoing, informed consent," she tells them.

    "[It's] a sort of a basic rule of human dignity as well as law."

    But it's a message that can diverge sharply from what students have observed on screens — as one student's recent comment demonstrated.

    "Miss, in porn nobody ever has conversations about what they're going to do; it just kind of flows," a teenage boy said to Anderson.

    She pointed out to the student, and his class, that he was referencing a scripted, directed movie, which is different from real life.

    "For adults to have sexual encounters with a partner safely, respectfully, honourably, you ask before you change your position; you ask before you go to the next level in terms of the intensity of the encounter," Anderson explains.

    "And I tell the kids, if the thought of having that conversation with your potential partner ties your stomach in knots and you just would feel so awkward, your body is giving you a terrific message: you're just not ready to have sex with this person yet — and you should listen.

    "You know, it's not a big deal. You're going to have sex for another 80 years."

    You've probably already started the consent conversation

    Not only do adults need to get better at discussing sex, says Anderson, they need to start the conversation earlier.

    She says most boys in the US begin watching pornography somewhere between 11 and 12 years old, which is long before most parents think to start talking to them about sex.

    And if that sounds scary, Anderson says it needn't — you've probably already started talking about consent.

    "We start teaching consent when our children are toddlers," she says.

    "Everybody teaches their toddlers, 'No, don't touch that kid without that kid wanting', 'No, she doesn't want to hug', 'No, don't put his face in the sandbox'.

    "We teach our kids, 'you don't touch somebody without their permission' and, equally as important, 'they don't get to touch you without your permission'."

    That lays the foundation for conversations later on, as kids approach puberty.

    Anderson says that's a good time to start talking with kids about their bodies, using the right names for their body parts, and talking about sex — "whatever that is within the family system".

    Whether you want your children to try to be abstinent, or to enjoy sex but in a responsible way, the message, says Anderson, is the same: "You get consent from your partner."

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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