February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month. People of all ages are unfortunately subject to dating violence, but February is the time of year dedicated specifically to education and awareness around teen dating violence. Dating violence is using a pattern of aggressive or manipulative behaviors to control someone in the partnership. Dating violence could be physical, but it could also be emotional, psychological, or financial. Statistically, one in 10 teenagers will experience some sort of dating violence from a partner between the ages of 12 and 19. Since teenage years are when many people start with their first romantic and sexual relationships, it’s super important to teach consent from an early age. Although people of all ages experience dating violence, and it, unfortunately, happens all year round, you can use February as an opportunity to attend events or speak with a teen in your life about dating violence.

What is consent?

Consent is agreeing to participate in any activity, sexual or otherwise. Consent is a simple idea in theory – communicating if you do or do not want to participate in something. Oftentimes we get nervous talking about consent, especially in sexual situations. There used to be this idea that consent should be taught with a “No means no!” approach, but in some cases of dating violence, a victim might not literally say “no,” but they still do not consent to what is happening. If you don’t want something to be happening but you don’t say no because you’re scared, in shock, or overwhelmed, that doesn’t mean you consent. Rather than a “no means no,” approach, many sex educators are strong proponents of the “enthusiastic yes!” I’m also a fan of this approach to consent. An enthusiastic yes basically means there is no question about whether or not everyone wants to participate in what’s happening. The consent is incredibly clear and enthusiastic.

Healthy vs. abusive relationships

Consent is all about communication. Consent should be ongoing and can be revoked at any time. Just because you kissed someone once does not mean that you have to kiss them again if you don’t want to. Flirting does not imply consent. Wearing a sexy outfit does not imply consent. If you’ve been with a partner for years and had sex with them many, many times, you’re still allowed to not consent to sex with them if you’re not feeling it. If your partner reacts negatively or makes you feel bad for revoking consent, that is a major red flag. If your partner coerces you into any sexual activity, that is also not consent! If you say no and they keep begging you or try to convince you that you should participate, that is not consent! The National Domestic Violence Hotline has amazing resources for teens and adults, including lists of what a healthy vs. abusive relationship looks like, as well as resources for teens to connect with if they need help. 

Consent can be as simple as allowing someone to hug you, or consenting to being in a relationship in the first place. It obviously comes into play in an extremely important way with sex. You are allowed to say no and revoke consent at any time, and that does not make you a bad person. Young girls are cultured to be agreeable and kind, and oftentimes they can feel like they’re being mean or rude if they turn someone down. Prioritize yourself and your comfort level. 

How to talk about consent

There’s this idea that giving consent isn’t sexy because it “ruins the moment.” Do you know what ruins the moment more? Being forced to do something you don’t want to do. And if your partner is a decent human being with empathy, they should be jazzed to know that everyone involved is 100% excited about what’s happening. Consent is sexy! Simply ask your partner, “Is this okay?” as you slowly start doing something else. Ask them what they like. Have them tell you what they want you to do. Make it flirty and fun and sexy! Make a “Want, Will, Won’t List” – a list of things you want to do, things you will try, and things you absolutely won’t do. Talk about it together. Most importantly, make sure you pay attention to your partner’s answer and respond accordingly. 

Consent doesn’t have to be verbal, but when you are physical with someone for the first few times, it probably would be most comforting to be verbal since you don’t know each other’s body language well yet. After you’ve been in a relationship with someone perhaps you’ll understand their cues better and you can consent with nonverbal reactions. You could also have some fun and make up some sort of code word or code signal to nonverbally consent with your partner. Make consent part of the sexual activity you’re doing. Open communication is key to consenting. 

I once had a friend who told me if you and your partner can’t talk about having sex, then you aren’t ready to have sex with them. I love this advice, however, with dating violence, not everyone is given that choice. That’s why it’s important to teach consent from a young age so teenagers and adults feel comfortable and confident setting their boundaries. 

Talking with your teen about consent and relationships

Additionally, talk with your teenagers about healthy relationships. Literally, every romantic comedy ever exhibits unhealthy relationship patterns and spins them as romantic. Relentlessly asking a girl out when she repeatedly says no thank you? Unhealthy. Showing up in a woman’s yard playing loud music to get her attention when she told you no thanks? Unhealthy. Showing up at a woman’s house or work or school because you want to run into her? Unhealthy. In fact, that is stalking. Calling and texting incessantly because they want to know where you are? Unhealthy. So much television and movies, and even music, romanticize these incredibly unhealthy behaviors so they become so normal that if they happen to us we think it’s okay. 

If you or your teenager want to learn more about unhealthy relationship patterns, The National Domestic Abuse Hotline and RAINN are both excellent resources for education and also for survivors.