Raising Boys: An Interview with Dr. Kelley Johnson on Consent & Toxic Masculinity
And I tell the man I'm with
about the other life I lived
And I say now you're top gun,
I have lost and you have won
And he says, “Oh no, no, can't you see
When I was a girl,
my mom and I we always talked
And I picked flowers everywhere that I walked.
And I could always cry,
now even when I'm alone I seldom do
And I have lost some kindness
But I was a girl too.
And you were just like me,
and I was just like you.”
--Dar Williams, “When I Was a Boy”
A breastfeeding toddler bites his mother; a grandparent demands a goodnight kiss; siblings wrestle on the floor; a child pulls a toy from another’s grip; a teen shares a pic of his naked girlfriend; an inebriated freshman is led upstairs by a guy at a party; a man on a crowded metro train gropes the woman in front of him--each snapshot highlights the importance of consent. Let’s begin, then, with a basic definition, because consent is not simply about sexual intercourse. Consent is seeking and receiving permission in a context of trust, respect, and open communication (note: this is not a legal definition). Context matters. Coercion lurks within power dynamics, and grows like a cancer in intimidating relationships. Permission given only because it was forced, strings were attached, or consequences were made clear does not constitute consent. Consent can only occur in the context of trust, respect, and open communication.
What’s more--according to sexologist Dr. Kelley Johnson, PhD--we have the opportunity to teach consent from the time our children are born. When a toddler bites his mother breastfeeding, it’s an opportunity to halt, look at the child, and say firmly, “No. That hurts me.” When a distant grandparent wants a goodnight kiss and you sense your child’s discomfort, it’s an opportunity to step in and offer choices: “Would you like to give Grandma a kiss, a hug, a high five, or a fist bump?” If your child clearly says no, we teach consent by honoring their no. After writing an essay last week on how to talk to daughters and LGBTQ+ t(w)eens about sexual harassment and assault, I knew it was crucial to address how we talk to our boys about consent. As the mother of two sons, the oldest of whom is entering his tween years, I want to ensure I’m intentionally talking to my kids about these issues in factually correct, age-appropriate ways. So I called Dr. Johnson, Clinical Sexologist, who regularly offers classes for t(w)eens on this very topic. “Historically, we’ve talked to girls about how not to get groped, assaulted, and harassed, and we’ve not done nearly enough talking to boys,” Dr. Johnson said. “And yet we live in a society that promotes toxic masculinity, reinforcing power and control over others.” The good news, I learned in the course of our interview, is that Dr. Johnson’s experience in educating t(w)eens has offered somewhat surprising results--boys, she says, are relieved when we give them permission to opt out of toxic masculinity.
You see, our brilliant bodies are designed to provide us with a sensory experience of the world. Our bodies will often signal if a situation is unsafe, strange, or toxic. Boys typically understand intuitively, even if they don’t have the words to express it, that the masculinity conflated with power over another is toxic for them and those they love. This cocky version of masculinity that doubles down on bullying, name-calling, taking what you want rather than seeking consent--this version of masculinity atrophies the spirit and stunts ethical formation of our boys.
Perhaps we avoid conversations of consent with our boys, because it hurts too much to imagine they could ever become a perpetrator or predator. Our minds simply can’t conceive. And so we chalk that kind of behavior up to “bad boys” and go on about our business, failing to realize that in so doing, we increase their chances of buying into the toxic masculinity sold every day in media messaging and peer culture. Failure to talk to our sons about consent weakens their moral compass to serve not just as males who practice consent every day, in any situation involving bodies (non-sexual and sexual), but as bystanders who interrupt sexism, heterosexism, bullying, harassment, and rape.
On the first episode of her blog Sex Positive Nation, Dr. Johnson tells a poignant story about teaching her child to be an interrupter. She was out with her daughter when she noticed an elder, likely in her eighties, lying on the ground. She said to her daughter, “It seems like that woman needs help, don’t you think?” They turned the car around and pulled in the woman’s drive. Dr. Johnson introduced herself as a neighbor and said, “It looks like you’re stuck down there. Do you need some help?” In her embarrassment, the elderly woman tried to play it off like she was just doing yard work. Dr. Johnson encouraged her to allow them to help her, and the elder agreed. They got her to her feet, then to her front porch, righted her trash can, which had been knocked down, and enjoyed a short chat. Dr. Johnson named this incident as an important moment to teach her daughter: when we see people who need help, it’s our responsibility to help them. “How does this translate into sexuality later on?” she asks, “I think it’s a great example of looking at what happens when there’s the classic drunk girl at a party--either passed out or unaware of what’s going on--and people begin to be inappropriate, taking pictures of her, making fun, possibly removing some of her clothes. I want my kids to know what to do in a situation like that.”
So how do we cover the basics of teaching consent throughout the lives of our boys? First, clearly define it. Consent is seeking and receiving permission in a context of trust, respect, and open communication. Ask the boy or young man in your life: what do trusting relationships look like? When have you felt respected and what made you feel that way? (Ask the inverse as well). How do we effectively communicate with our words? With our facial expressions? With our body language? Our kids’ generation enjoys far fewer face-to-face interactions, and far more screen time plus communication through devices than any generation before them. It’s more important now than ever to teach them to recognize and interpret facial expressions and body language. This begins at the earliest age.
Many kids on the spectrum of autism cannot easily decipher facial expressions and body language. It is imperative that we teach all of our kids that these ways of communicating must be supplemented with words. Say what you mean. Say it clearly and firmly. Listen for what others are saying. Reflect it back to them. For example, “It looks like you’re feeling upset. Is that right?” Increase your son’s capacity to receive rejection without resentment. For example, “You look frustrated. I know you want to play this board game now, but I said no. Take a deep breath, you can handle this. Consider your choices.” Practice these aspects of teaching open communication and emotional intelligence in your family’s daily life.
Second, talk about the tactics of toxic masculinity: bullying, sexism, heterosexism, sexual harassment, stalking, and rape. Define those terms and use them in the context of current events. Ask their opinions. Give them permission to reject toxic masculinity--and it’s devious half-sibling white supremacy--at every turn. We do this by teaching them positive masculinity. This may sound utterly old-fashioned and binary. Nevertheless, our children grapple with gender identity and expression every day. It guides what they choose to wear, the toys they select, how they hold their bodies, who they befriend. We cannot pretend to live in a post-binary culture any more than we can a post-racial culture. We can, however, name binary thinking, push back against it, and introduce spectrum paradigms. Teaching positive masculinity in a non-binary way might include exploring and affirming elements of both the masculine and the feminine that exist in all of us. Positive masculinity is not performative (i.e. a display for others). It does not require that we make others feel small in order to ourselves feel tall. It affirms the inherent, sacred worth in all human beings and actively seeks to help each one be their best self. It is decent, honest, and compassionate. Find examples among people your son admires (athletes can offer both great and dire examples), and discuss them. Use toxic masculinity as an entry point to discuss white supremacy or vice versa (if your child already has a clear grasp of white supremacy, it can be an entry point to toxic masculinity).
Third, instruct your boy to be an interrupter, not a passive bystander. Let them know, in no uncertain terms, that they are responsible to step in and help. If a situation feels wrong, if someone seems uncomfortable or hurt, if you’re being asked to laugh at the expense of another, you must step in and interrupt the situation. Sometimes their confidence will falter. After all, it often requires standing up to someone intimidating. When our boys confess a situation they didn’t know how to handle, we should thank them for trusting us enough to tell us. We should ask them to brainstorm what all of their choices might have been in that moment, and to imagine how they might respond to a similar situation in the future. We can ask them how we can support them in following up. Dear parent, it cannot be overstated: Our kids look to us to offer examples. Are you interrupting bullying or violence? Are you turning your car around in the midst of a busy day to help someone who needs it? Are you translating these experiences into teachable moments? The good news is that we don’t have to always get it right. It’s okay for our boys to see that we too sometimes struggle to intervene. There’s a discomfort we must override to step in, and the more we exercise this moral muscle, the more we strengthen it.
Fourth, invite your boy to walk a mile in a girl’s shoes. One exercise Dr. Johnson offers in her class “Dating Girls: Everything She Wishes You Knew” for older teen boys involves hashtags. She hands out a list of #needto tags written by women and invites the boys to read them one by one. The hashtags say things like, “I need to have a buddy when I go out at night” or “I need to find the safest route home” or “I need to have my mace” or “I need a plan if I get followed by a creepy dude.” When the young men read these hashtags, the effect can be sobering. Some have never been asked to imagine such situations. Older teen boys may not feel afraid to walk down the street at night. If, as a black, immigrant, gay, disabled, or Muslim youth they do understand that fear, it’s an opportunity for empathy. To connect the fear they have experienced to that of young women. Talk to younger boys about girls prohibited from education, child marriage, the pay gap, or other measurable differences between their lives and those of their female counterparts around the world.
Fifth, talk to your boy about porn. Today’s pornography, according to Dr. Johnson, is not your grandfather’s porn. “We know that kids ages 7-14 are viewing 320 pornographic images/videos per second.” Allow that to sink in. “Today’s porn is often comprised of sex acts on a loop,” she continued, “and sensitization to soft porn can lead to hard-core porn--images which cannot be unseen and which can become traumatic.” Today’s porn desensitizes our kids to violence against women. It often portrays an edited or surgically modified body image as the ideal for women. It has profound neurological and biological effects on young and adolescent boys. Today’s porn, viewed over time, can change our boys’ brains so that they become unable to experience an erection with a flesh-and-blood human being, as only digital loops of hard-core porn can arouse them. Time Magazine offered an expose on this phenomenon just last year.
Dear parent, we are tempted to believe that our child would never view porn, especially at their tender age. Do not fall prey to this temptation. Establish rules for screen time and employ parental controls to keep your child safe. Do not allow your child to use devices that belong to others. Talk to your child about porn. It’s difficult to broach, but by the age of 7-9, you must gird up your loins and define the word pornography. Tell them that no one should take pictures of them naked or show them pictures of someone else naked or partially naked. Tell them if their gut tells them they’ve viewed something yucky, they should come and tell you or another trusted adult. Explain that these images or videos can harm their brains. For older teens, remind them that porn can lead to the malfunctioning of their penis (Dr. Johnson assures us they will take this seriously). If you are too uncomfortable to do it, sign your teen up for a class or give them an article. “In previous generations, porn was considered taboo,” Dr. Johnson notes, “We cannot afford to consider porn taboo with this generation.”
Finally, have that straightforward conversation with them about consent as it relates to sexual activity. Communicate clearly that all people respect being asked first--before we lean in for the kiss, before we remove an article of clothing. Remind them to check-in, to read facial expression and body language, yes, but also to ask: How does this feel for you? Are you okay with this? Dear parent, we wish we could simply chalk up sexual activity to one of those personal arenas of our teen’s life that we never had to touch, even with a ten-foot pole. But to end the epidemic of sexual predation, we must do nothing less than push our discomfort to the side and dive into such conversations. We make the way by walking it. Dr. Johnson recalls a time when she sat her son down to discuss puberty. He opened the window and stuck his head out, saying, “I’m not talking with you about this, Mom.” Dr. Johnson opened the window next to his, stuck her head out, and continued the conversation. It is the developmental task of our youth to resist these conversations. It is our task as parents to circle back and insist on spaces for such talk, because it is life-saving. Our diligence sends the message: we value you, and we value all kids.
Even Clinical Sexologists have not perfected the art of talking to boys about consent, because our generation typically didn’t discuss it with our parents, our peers, or in the institutions where sexual harassment and assault happen regularly. Dr. Johnson mused it’s possible we will miss the forest for the trees, becoming so hyper-focused on micromanaging each moment for consent that we miss the larger themes of respect, connection, trust, and open communication. And yet we still must press toward consent, trusting that if we raise our kids with the values of respect, trust, and open communication, they will explore the function of consent within each relationship in ways that honor the other.
If you have questions, concerns, or a persistent failure of nerve, don’t hesitate to connect with Dr. Kelley Johnson (she offers skype sessions as well as in-office visits) or a local sexologist. Find one on AASECT’s (American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists) website. Talk with friends to gather a group of boys for a class (skype or in person) with Dr. Johnson. It’s okay to admit to your son, she advises, “I’ve not done a good job talking about sexuality and the importance of consent, but now that you’re a teenager it’s an important part of your life from here on out and these are discussions we need to have.” Seek whatever assistance and support you need as a parent tasked with being your child’s primary sexuality educator (as we all are, even if we avoid the responsibility). But do not remain silent. The time for passively letting our boys scoot through adolescence and into young adulthood without having these clear, life-saving conversations has passed. So get busy, dear parent, we have not one generation to waste.
Postscript: My hope is that this essay opens up conversation and taps into the wisdom of the hive mind. Please feel free to affirm what resonates with you, push back on parts with which you disagree, ask clarifying questions, and tell your own truth. If this essay is helpful to you, please share widely.