Resources to Guide Discussions About Consent, Sexual Harassment and Misconduct

More than 80% of women between the ages of 18 and 25 report experiencing some kind of sexual harassment, according to a 2017 report from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. But just under 80% of all survey respondents in the same age group also say they never had a conversation with their parents about how to avoid sexually harassing others.

In order to promote safety, adults should guide appropriate conversations with adolescents and teens about preventing and reporting sexual harassment and assault. But many feel uncomfortable or don’t know how to begin the conversation. To help adults navigate these important discussions, has collected resources that can guide adults through the process.

Statistics About Sexual Misconduct and Reporting in the United States

Without seeing the numbers, it’s easy for parents—and their children—to assume a child might never encounter sexual misconduct in their life. In reality, it’s likely that a person will experience sexual misconduct before they reach adulthood. As pointed out in the Harvard report, insults with sexualized language, catcalling and inappropriate advances are common experiences for young women. However, sexual assault is also more common than many people think.

According to these statistics from National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC):

1 in 3

women will experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.

1 in 6

men will experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.

1 in 5

women will be raped in their lifetime.

1 in 71

men will be raped in their lifetime.

Half of female survivors

were raped by an intimate partner.

Half of male survivors

were raped by an acquaintance.

The NSVRC also notes that an alarming number of these incidents will go unreported.

More than two-thirds of sexual assaults are not reported to police.

Nearly 90% of child sexual abuse occurrences are not reported.

More than 90% of sexual assault survivors on college campuses do not report.

Understanding the context of these statistics is important for adolescents and teens, who may not be taught about these subjects in school as a result of their state’s legislation about sex education. Adults can be sources of trusted information about these topics and should speak openly with children and teens at an age-appropriate level.

The findings from the Harvard report indicate that many adolescents and teens are not learning about consent from their parents. More than half of respondents had never spoken to a parent about pressuring others to have sex with them or having sex with someone too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision.

Go to the bottom of the page for tabular data about how many kids have talked to their parents about particular topics relating to consent.

Defining Consent

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), “consent is an agreement between participants to engage in sexual activity.”  

Advice may often include that a verbal “yes” is the most obvious form of consent and is a valid way to ensure that partners are comfortable with each other, but that doesn’t consider circumstances when one or more parties feels coerced or pressured into giving a verbal “yes” or when they change their mind. 

RAINN says that consent should be reestablished at multiple stages of intimacy instead of being interpreted as a blanket statement. The organization points out that it’s OK for a person to change their mind at any time. 

Definitions of consent may vary because people communicate in a variety of ways, which can include body language, verbal language and tone of voice. Each of those forms of communication may be misinterpreted by the other person or ignored entirely. Verbal consent can also be motivated by coercion, bribery, blackmail or other forms of threatening behavior. 

Whether parents or teachers are broaching the topic, understanding consent can begin with education about learning to share with others and can be gradually introduced in more mature topics, like sex education.

Resources for Talking About Consent With Adolescents

  • Teaching Consent at Every Age — Healthline: list of conversation starters, vocabulary choices and approachable tips for parents of children at three ages, toddlers and early elementary school; late elementary and middle school; high school and young adults.
  • Consent for Kids — Blue Seat Studio: video for kids about what it means to be in control of one’s own body, belongings and choices.
  • This Is How You Teach Kids About Consent — Huffington Post/The Good Men Project: specific recommendations for starting conversations about sexual activity, organized by age group for people ages 1 through 21.
  • How to Talk to Kids About Consent — Child Mind Institute: advice about conversations regarding consent and substance use, verbal and non-verbal consent and the pressure to be sexually active. 
  • Healthy Communications With Kids (PDF, 282 KB) — NSVRC: downloadable flyer for parents and other adults who want to share advice for conversations about consent.
  • How to Teach Consent Early (PDF, 1.6 MB) — NSVRC: downloadable one-pager for parents about self-reflection and the behaviors they model for their children.
  • Consent at Every Age — Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education: suggestions for parents of kids in elementary and middle school, including book recommendations and videos for additional learning.

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Discussing Sexual Assault and Harassment

Talking about sexual assault and harassment can be stressful for adults if they’re worried about exposing children to graphic information or introducing mature subjects before they’re ready. But waiting until the end of adolescence to have these discussions may be too late to prevent incidents of sexual misconduct. 

Defining Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment can include a variety of behaviors, such as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature,” according to the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC).

RAINN notes that harassment can take place at school, at work, at home or out in public; the location of the occurrence doesn’t change the validity of the claim.

Defining Sexual Assault

According to RAINN, sexual assault includes any activity of “sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.” Behavior that qualifies as assault includes rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching and forcing or coercing another person to perform sexual acts.

Coercion can include the use of physical force or emotional manipulation, neither of which are appropriate forms of consent.

Both sexual harassment and sexual assault are unlawful and can result in detrimental outcomes for survivors of these activities. Adults should explain the seriousness and severity of these behaviors in age-appropriate discussions.

Explaining sexual assault and harassment can begin with defining the terms and providing examples of what healthy relationships should look like.

Resources for Talking About Sexual Assault and Harassment

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Identifying and Reporting Sexual Harassment and Assault

Though new media outlets are covering more stories about sexual misconduct, that doesn’t guarantee teens and young adults are more aware of how to access to safe and anonymous reporting.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, common reasons that teens do not report a sexual assault incident (PDF, 772 KB) include “not wanting family or other people to know, being unable to prove the incident occurred, fear that police will not take it seriously, or fear of police hostility.”

Adults can build trust with teens and adolescents by listening to and validating their feelings and desires to report and by making sure not to blame them for an experience where they felt victimized or unsafe.

Talking to teens about reporting misconduct can ensure that they have a meaningful, actionable understanding of what to do if their consent or bodily autonomy is violated and they’re in need of help. 

Resources for and About Reporting Sexual Misconduct

If you or somebody you know has experienced sexual assault, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE(4673). This 24/7 phone line is for users to speak with a trained professional about seeking help or reporting an assault. The phone line is not recorded, and they will not ask for caller’s names.

Are you interested in supporting survivors of traumatic events? Learn more about how to become a licensed clinical social worker and read more about the opportunities that online clinical social work programs offer.

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The following table contains tabular data from the graphic in this post.

How Many Young Adults Have Not Spoken to a Parent About Consent?

A 2017 report about misogyny and sexual harassment among 18- to 25-year-olds from the Harvard Graduate School of Education indicates that many young adults had never spoken to their parents about a variety of topics related to consent.

TopicPercentage of respondents who had never spoken to a parent about the topic
The importance of not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no.
Being sure your partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before having sex.
The importance of being a caring and respectful sexual partner.
The importance of not having sex with someone who is too intoxicated or impaired to make a decision about sex.
The importance of not pressuring someone to have sex with you.
Assuring your own comfort before engaging in sex.

Source: Weissbourd, R., Anderson, T. R., Cashin, A., & McIntyre, J. (2017). The talk: How adults can promote young people’s healthy relationships and prevent misogyny and sexual harassment (PDF, 12.2 MB). Boston, MA: Making Caring Common project, Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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