Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the seventh in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah’s school has a Valentine school fund raiser that matches her with a boy she likes. He is late for their date. Hannah angrily rejects his aggressive advances to sexually touch her (while his buddies watch from across the room). Clay is less and less interested in school (becoming more and more depressed and anxious). He is losing interest in most things. Boredom and the more indirect aspects of consent are prominent in this episode.
There are a number of bored, apathetic teens in this series. There are also quite a few depressed teens who looked bored and apathetic. So, before you assume you are dealing with a bored teen you need to make sure you aren’t dealing with a depressed, stressed out or anxious teen. (See Resources section below.)
Teens can access an infinite array of readily available, shallow, stimulating online experiences. Most teens don’t provide any meaningful contribution to the maintenance and functioning of the family unit (unlike when they used to milk the cows and till the fields). These meaningless and unfulfilling activities provide a formula for boredom and apathy for kids who are not into school or who are without a passion.
What’s a parent to do?
Structure. Set the parameters for what you expect from your kid about being active and engaged in some kind of productive activity. Be clear and specific. It can be anything (e.g., grades, computer programming, playing a guitar, even skateboarding) but it has to be something that requires them to persist, struggle and employ complex skills to develop competence. Whatever it is, they must devote time and energy to excelling at it. This means setting and working toward goals. The idea is to get them moving, physically or psychologically (often referred to as “lighting a fire under” them). Sometimes that might include arranging an adventure that will shake things up and introduce the idea that you are open to them trying something outside of the boring parent box they thought you were in.
Choice. Since you are meddling in their life, make sure there is as much room as possible for them to personalize the activity or task. Have them do as much of the “selecting” as possible. Keep an eye out for any signs of interest in a topic, task or activity. For a bored, apathetic teen, it matters that they are doing something, not that it be exactly what you would have them do. Expose them to activities they might find interesting. Keep them involved from beginning to end in the process.
Companionship. Stay close and connected so you can infuse interest and enthusiasm until they find their own intrinsic interests (if they ever do). Find ways to encourage your kid (rather than guide, direct and correct; even though they desperately need it). Remember that misery loves company; in this case yours or your kid’s friends. So look for team-, group- or family-based activities. If their friends are involved in something, see what you can do to get your kid involved too.
Resources: You can find more detailed ideas about ways to turn around teenage apathy and boredom in my book Raising Teens in the 21st Century. The introduction to this series provides some quick screens you can use for depression and stress. My website also identifies some websites and books with information on anxiety in teens.
In this episode, a guy tried to pressure Hannah to let him feel her up. He acted as though it should be OK because of her reputation. Respecting personal boundaries and making assumptions that someone is down with what you are doing (or want to do) pervades this whole series. What is missing is understanding, in a word, consent; what it is and how do you know when someone gives it. Consent is permission. Almost all the negative, hurtful events portrayed throughout this series occur, in part, because people are not getting (or asking for) permission to do something to or with another person.
What is it? Consent is about respect. Consent is about consideration. Consent is asking. Consent is about not pressuring, convincing or “talking them into” doing something because you want (or desire) it. Consent is about making sure the other person is equally into what the two of you are doing, whatever it is. Consent is about a person knowing what they are agreeing to (and any risks that come with participation). A person can say “yes” and not realize all a “yes” may involve. It is only consent if both people understand (and are capable of understanding) the risks of the activity.
Consent is, confusingly, not just about someone initially agreeing to something. Consent is not a one and done kind of thing. All participants have to continue to be up for what is happening because consent can be withdrawn at any time, no matter how far things have gone or how into it someone was at first. People can change their mind. People can suddenly become uncomfortable with what they are doing (or what their partner is doing) and decide they want to stop.
This can be difficult to appreciate when you are really into what is happening. It can be difficult when you “know” they will enjoy it and when you “believe” they won’t regret it. It can be difficult when you believe there is no reason for them to have a problem with what you are wanting them to do. Consent requires a recognition that no matter how “right” you are about whether it would be a good experience for someone, they must make up their own mind about whether it is right for them. Consent is about recognizing that you have to allow the other person to be “wrong” when they disagree about how much they would enjoy what you want to do with them. Consent is about putting the wishes and feelings of the other person first, or at least, equal to your own wishes and feelings. Consent means that both people must be OK with and interested in what they are doing (or proposing to do).
Consent is NOT about talking someone into something. It is not about getting them to just say “yes.” Consent is not about tricking, misleading or fooling someone into agreeing. It is not about saying anything it takes to get someone to say “yes.” Consent is not a contest or a competition. It is not about using your influence (or how much they like you) to get them to do something when they don’t feel comfortable.
Consent is also about dealing with disappointment. Consent requires you to be able to handle frustration. Consent is about honoring the wishes and feelings of another person, even when you don’t want to.
Alcohol, drugs and consent. Being under the influence starts to muddy the waters of consent. You can’t trust that someone has consented to do something when their decision making, awareness and/or judgement are influenced by alcohol or drugs. If you are not thinking straight, then you can’t knowingly, willfully and comfortably agree to what is happening. Alcohol and drugs (even marijuana) can lead to you deciding things and taking risks that you would never take when sober. That means that decisions about risks when under the influence are not trustworthy and will not always reflect what the person really thinks, feels or is comfortable with.
It is important for your kid to know that inducing, coercing or forcing someone into sexual acts while they are unconscious or drunk is rape (whether you are a girl or guy doing this). There is no justification. There are no extenuating circumstances. There are lots of ways things can be ambiguous and blurred. However, most people who are under the influence and are in a situation where they can take advantage of another person don’t do it-even though they are drunk or under the influence.
So how do you help your kid understand consent? Teach them two things.
Ask. The way to know if someone gives consent is to ask. “Are you OK with this?” “Do you want to do this?”
If your kid is not sure someone is really ready to do something with them, everything should stop. Their partner will appreciate it. Their partner will respect them. Your kid will be able to respect themselves. They need to let it go. Wait until they find a partner (even this person but at another time) who actually can and does fully and comfortably agree. Consent is not “not saying no.” Consent is someone actually saying “yes.” If someone doesn’t directly say they are OK with what is happening, they have not given consent. You can say “Well, they should have spoken up.” Sexual intimacy is not some game someone should try to win at all costs. It is a personal, intimate experience based in respect. Even casual hook-ups are an intimate interaction.
If your kid is uncomfortable actually asking whether someone is comfortable and is in agreement with doing things, they are not ready for sexual intimacy. If they can’t ask, they are not mature enough to handle sex. Period. Asking what makes someone comfortable, asking if something feels comfortable or feels right does not make sexual intimacy stilted and awkward, it does not reduce spontaneity, romance and passion. It actually increases the sensuality and pleasure involved. You can’t know what someone else is comfortable with or finds pleasurable unless they let you know. Part of the fun is finding out what they like (and making it happen). But if the other person is uncomfortable, if they don’t feel good about the shared experience, what is being shared is an assault.
“No” means no. The other aspect of consent is when someone says “no.” A person can say “no” any time. No matter how far things have progressed, no matter how into it they seemed, they can say “no” at any time. And “no” means stop. So does “wait,” “hold on,” “I don’t know,” “That hurts,” “Let’s not,” “uh uh,” “what are you doing?” and anything else other than “yes” or “I’d like that.” Continuing after the other person says “no” or its variations is assault.
A word about PUA. There is a subculture of guys who refer to themselves as “pick up artists” (PUA). Another reference to this is “the red pill,” a forum on the notorious message board reddit. And, of course, someone produced a reality TV show about it. The focus of PUA is to identify ways you can manipulate, lie and trick girls and women into engaging in “consensual” sex. There was an element of PUA thinking in this episode when comments were made about how one of the guys was late on purpose to get the girl to be more likely to agree to do sexual stuff. Don’t be surprised if your son has researched these techniques. It is very appealing to insecure guys who need to have sex to validate their masculinity (e.g., most teenage guys) and feel relevant. Happily, most guys don’t act on these feelings, grow out of this phase and have actual relationships. Before PUA strategies, these guys had to figure out how to be genuine and sincere to have a relationship. Now, a few of them practice becoming conmen and heartless manipulators. As a parent, you know where this leads so keep an eye out for PUA terms and start asking a lot of questions.
Resources: Most discussions about consent on the internet and in books are conducted within considerations of dating violence and rape. There is a great discussion of consent on the goodmenproject.com website. An excellent book on the challenges teenage girls (and, by virtue of that, teenage guys) face can be found in the book Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Ornstein. Then there is information on consent in discussions of dating violence.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
Friends taking risks and complimenting others are two prominent issues in Episode 7. The next column will give you some ideas about addressing these issues with your teenager.