Changing the culture around alcohol and sexual assault by talking about consent

| January 23, 2018

The issue of consent is not an easy area to deal with from a parenting perspective. Expert in drug and alcohol education Paul Dillon shares his advice on ways parents can clearly explain to their teenagers what constitutes consent.


In recent years there have been an increasing number of campaigns aimed at raising awareness of what consent means. An often used definition is as follows: “Consent is informed, and is freely and actively given. Consent is communicated through mutually understood words which indicate willingness by all of the involved parties to engage in sexual activity.” One American college campaign uses four distinct headings to describe the term:

  • clear – consent is active – silence is not consent
  • coherent – people impaired by drugs or alcohol or are asleep or unconscious cannot consent
  • consistent – consent is never given under pressure
  • ongoing – consent must be granted every time

On top of all of this, of course, is the legal age of consent. Depending on where you live in Australia, you must be either 16 or 17 years of age (SA and Queensland being the two states where you must be a year older) before you can legally give permission to have sex. Until they reach that age, even though they may agree to have sex with someone, that person can still be charged with sexual assault.

Negotiating consensual sexual activity can be difficult for sober adults in long-term relationships! It’s a potential minefield for drunk teens at a party – when you mix ‘raging hormones’, alcohol and an adolescent brain, it’s a recipe for disaster so it’s important to arm our teens with as much information as possible … This is not going to be an easy conversation to have but it boils down to three simple points that all young people need to understand:

  • ‘no means no’
  • if  someone is drunk they are unable to give consent, and
  • sex or sexual contact without consent is a crime and needs to be reported 

In recent years, we have seen a real shift in the messages that are disseminated around alcohol-related sexual assault. Where once the message targeted potential victims, i.e., ‘Don’t get drunk’, ‘Don’t lose control’ – we are now far more likely to target the potential perpetrator, shifting the onus away from the person avoiding assault or turning down an advance, to promoting the idea of ‘enthusiastic consent’. As one female academic wrote in an article I recently read – “When kids are little, we don’t teach them how not to get hit, we teach them not to hit.” When it comes to sexual assault, we shouldn’t have to teach young women how to avoid being assaulted, instead, let’s make sure we have a society where it is not acceptable for men to commit that crime …

With that in mind, in addition to beginning a positive dialogue about consent with their teen, I believe parents should also consider the following to help ensure their child has positive and healthy attitudes and values in this area:

Parents of young men
  • as well as being taught that it is not acceptable to have sex or sexual contact with someone who is too drunk to consent, they also need to be empowered to not sit back and ignore other young men who commit the crime or even joke about such behaviour. That could be their sister, their girlfriend or someone else they care about that is being assaulted or spoken about
  • ensure they have positive male role models, particularly around drinking and attitudes towards women. Research shows that young men who are brought up in homes where traditional gender beliefs are present and hostility towards women is regarded as acceptable are more likely to commit this crime
  • watch what you say – off-the-cuff comments (e.g., “Look what she’s wearing?”“What does she expect when she’s drunk”) reinforce negative attitudes towards women and a victim blaming culture
  • provide advice on how to protect themselves – as already discussed, talk through how consent can be negotiated, but very importantly, alert them to the risks of being alone with a drunk girl and the possibility of them being accused of inappropriate behaviour
Parents of young women
  • it is vital that young women look after and support each other. ‘Victim blaming’ and so-called ‘slut-shaming’ is not acceptable and is a form of bullying that is extremely damaging
  • as with the young men, watch what you say – be wary of reinforcing shaming culture
  • make others aware when they say ‘the wrong thing’. Don’t just let this behaviour slip by unaddressed – make it clear that it’s not okay to say those things
  • discuss simple safety strategies for young women when they are socializing, these could include the following: looking after your mates – stick together and don’t let friends go off on their own or leave them behind; adapt the ‘designated driver’ model driver for situations when no-one is driving, simply making sure there is at least one sober person in the group at all times, just in case’; and encourage young women to discuss expectations of friends – i.e., when should a friend step in and help and when is it inappropriate
This is not an easy area to deal with from a parenting perspective. We are currently in the midst of a cultural change in regards to what is regarded as acceptable behaviour and what is not – but we have an awfully long way to go yet … We must make sure that we are raising young men who know that it is unacceptable (and illegal) to have sex with someone who is too drunk to consent and empower them to stand up to those who think that behaviour is okay. At the same time, however, it is vital that we ensure our young women look after and support each other. Victim blaming is one of the most destructive forms of bullying and, in my experience, is rife in our schools. Sadly, this is often supported by parents and the only way we’re going to ever really achieve change is if we take a long hard look at our own behaviour and what we say and do …
The original article can be found in Paul’s blogpost here and has been shared on this site with the kind permission of the author.
Paul Dillon
Paul Dillon has been working in the area of drug education for the past 25 years. Through his own business, Drug and Alcohol Research and Training Australia (DARTA) he has been contracted by many organisations to give regular updates on current drug trends. He has also worked with many school communities to ensure that they have access to good quality information and best practice drug education. His book 'Teenagers, Alcohol and Drugs' was released nationally in February 2009.

One Comment

  1. Alan Stevenson

    Alan Stevenson

    February 7, 2018 at 2:47 pm

    Like many people of my age, I was brought up in a safe family household and sent to same sex schools. In Form 1 we had compulsory biology for one term. However, no-one told the teacher the reasoning for this and consequently we were taught a lot about dinosaurs (the school was near Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast where fossils were regularly found). Consequently, my sex education came from casual conversations and toilet walls and when I joined the Navy I had no knowledge or understanding of women. Feedback over the years has informed me that some women have considered me cold or uncaring because of this. I have been told (by my sister, mother and later, wife) that someone has made obvious advances which I have not recognised on many occasions.
    The fact is, men and women do not think alike. For this reason, we have sent our children to mixed schools and made sure they have mixed company much of their free time. Both have grown up as good, active members of their communities. However, even now I have problems understanding the body language of women – my wife recently told me indignantly the two of the women we had just met had been having a fight which I had accepted as normal conversation. Whether this is the result of my education or an inherent fault in my psychology I don’t know, but what I am trying to explain is that men are not always at fault and that messages do get mixed up. Obviously one does not take advantage of a woman who is drunk or who says no and looks like she means it, but some women are so polite it might not be so obvious that she does mean it.

Leave a Comment