Teaching Students How to Say "Yes" to Sex

... may be less problematic than only teaching them to say "no."


The following is an opinion piece, not based in research. Therefore, it has not been medically reviewed. 

I firmly believe that we do young people, both men and women, a disservice by only teaching them how to say no to sex. Even a lot of comprehensive sex education provides contraceptive and safe sex information primarily as a slightly second class alternative to saying no, rather than as unbiased information about skill development.

Part of that is because of the high level of moral panic around the notion that talking to kids about sex may encourage them to have it, a notion that extensive research has conclusively proven to be incorrect. However, I think that our focus on no also reflects greater problems in our society, specifically widespread lack of interest in encouraging personal responsibility and fighting the gender and sex role stereotypes that contribute to rape culture.

Rape Culture refers to the group of cultural attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that promote sexual violence -- in particular, sexual violence against women. One example of this is how American culture both subtly and explicitly encourages young men to feel entitled to sexual access unless they receive a clear, unambiguous no, as is described by the Atheism Expert in his discussion of the Steubenville rape trial. Another is how when a person gets someone they're sexually interested in to loosen their inhibitions by getting them drunk enough to either consent or fail to remember how to say no, we blame the person who has been assaulted for drinking rather than the person who has encouraged the drinking for an assault.

I've spoken about this issue before when writing about how adults should be looking for enthusiastic consent in their sexual encounters. However, I'd also like to encourage parents and educators to think about the potential problems with only teaching young people to say no to sex and never teaching them how and when they might want to say yes.

5 Disadvantages of Only Teaching Young People to Say "No" to Sex

  1. It makes having sex the default option any time two sexually compatible people are alone with motive and opportunity.
  2. It makes young people, young men in particular, believe that it can't be sexual assault if they haven't heard a clear no, rather than believing that they shouldn't have sex unless they get a clear yes.
  3. It risks their assuming you know nothing about their lives, particularly when that no is couched in advice like, "until marriage" or "until you're really in love."
  4. It takes away young people's agency by making them feel like the only way they can control their sexuality is to deny it.
  5. It doesn't encourage young people to look for positive ways of connecting intimately with their partners, just to set up roadblocks to sex.

In contrast, if we were to start teaching young people that it's okay to say yes to sex -- when they're ready and if they've thought about the potential risks and consequences -- then we simultaneously give them the skills to say no. Furthermore, we may even encourage them to do so without implying that saying yes isn't also a valid choice. In other words, teaching young people that there are times when they might want to say yes to sex also gives them the opportunity to explore the many times when they might not.

5 Advantages of Teaching Young People How and When They Might Choose to Say "Yes" to Sex

  1. It teaches them that sex isn't something that "just happens", that instead, it is something that should only occur when both people want to be there and are ready to explore. It also encourages discussion about STD testing and having sex safely.
  2. It allows them to acknowledge that wanting sex isn't wrong. It also teaches them that there can be good reasons to want sex and still decide not to have it... at that moment, with that person, or until they are both sober and are certain they're willing.
  3. It discourages gender essentialist assumptions such as "men always want sex" or "women are just saying no because they've been told to" and allows people of all sexual orientations and gender identities to explore their own levels of need and desire both on their own and in the context of their relationships. It neither shames women for wanting to be sexual nor men for choosing not to be.
  1. It improves young people's agency by telling them that they can decide what they want in their lives, rather than just denying what they don't.
  2. It allows people to acknowledge sexual desire and seek out intimate connection at times and places where specific forms of sexual expression might be inappropriate or unwise.

How this Plays Out in the Adult Realm

In the past, I've talked about a friend who used to say that it would be disrespectful to her husband for her to be alone in the room with a man, because sex might happen -- or someone might assume that it had. When we discussed her beliefs about the matter in more detail, I learned that she felt powerless to keep from having sex with someone she felt attracted to if an opportunity to do so presented itself. She worried she might want to say yes, and even though she knew wouldn't, she also wasn't certain she could say no. In her world, all it took for infidelity to occur was a lack of active resistance. It had never occurred to her that sex shouldn't be happening except at times that she had actively chosen to say yes.

I honestly believe that the world would be a better place if people asked their partners if they wanted to have sex and waited for them to say yes. Think about it this way. Do we really want to continue living in a society where the expectation is that it's okay to do what you want to another person as long as they haven't yet gotten around to saying no?

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