Book Review

Guest Review: What Does Consent Really Mean by Pete Wallis & Thalia Wallis

NB: Today, we have an incredible guest review on a sex ed book! This review come from Jennifer:

Jennifer Prokop has been reading romance ever since she found a bag of remaindered paperbacks in her grandmother’s basement when she was a teenager. She writes romance reviews for The Book Queen and you can find her on Twitter @JenReadsRomance.

(CW: discussion of rape of background character)

I’ll talk about sex in romance novels all day long, I’ve taught Sex Ed to fifth and sixth graders, and I still think talking to my own kid about sex and consent is really hard. Believe it or not, some of the most rewarding classroom experiences I’ve ever had were teaching Sex Ed. For one thing, I certainly didn’t have to fight to get their attention because the kids were hanging on my every word. But more than that, kids will ask questions in a classroom that they might not ever want to ask their parents. It felt like a vitally important opportunity to provide information that was both factually correct and free of judgment. Maybe that’s why talking about sex when you’re a parent is more difficult: we can’t be judgment-free. As parents, we have a responsibility to talk about feelings and emotions, not just the mechanics of intercourse and why flavored condoms exist.

As my son has grown older, I was curious about how other parents are handling these conversations. Other parents gave me advice about sleep-therapy, potty training, and homework battles, so doesn’t it seem like we should all be putting our heads together about this big topic, too? I’ve been dismayed at how many other parents I meet are taking a “crossing my fingers and hoping for the best” approach—not only do they not talk to their kids about sex, but they also don’t know how their child’s school teaches Sex Ed.

Maybe you’re in this boat and looking for help, or maybe you’re pretty comfortable talking to your kids about sex but are looking for new resources. I highly recommend the graphic novel What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis and Thalia Wallis, with illustrations by Joseph Wilkins. It is a straightforward, thorough, and real look at consent and sexual relationships for teenagers.

The book starts with four girls leaving their high school one afternoon. Amira receives a text that’s a rumor about the new girl at their school. It says that the new girl has transferred to their school because she was raped at her old school. Their response to the text and the girl’s situation launches them into a discussion about how they have grappled with consent in their own sexual relationships.

The greatest strength of this book is that it delivers all of the information through the conversations and stories of kids. The teenagers are diverse and multiracial, with differing levels of sexual experience. Rather than a dry recounting of facts, the book introduces teenagers who talk to each other about their own feelings, worries, and fears. It’s a lot of dialogue, and it’s not really the way teenagers talk, but it successfully personalizes important information for young readers.

The conversations start off feeling familiar. I remember how my friends and I talked about sex when we were teenagers: who did it, who didn’t, and would we ever do it? However, the book quickly reveals the amplifying impact of social media and the internet, which make sexual relationships far more complicated. The girls discuss slut-shaming, sexting, porn, whether you can consent when you’re drunk, how difficult it is to say no if you’ve previously said yes, and how to deal with emotional manipulation.

Eventually, the girls puzzle through most of their thorny issues, and then they meet up with a group of boys from school. The boys join the conversation and share their own misconceptions, fears, and concerns. I worried it was too heteronormative, but one of the boys is gay, and the group briefly talks about consent in gay and lesbian relationships. The characters draw strong conclusions that readers can remember: “Consent is not the absence of no, it is an enthusiastic yes!” and “You should be with someone who actually cares that you’re having a good time!”

A woman describes how just "no" isn't an answer for her partner. Some times she has to push him away, other times she'll turn away from him and be in a bad mood, and other times she mentions she'll just go along with it to avoid an argument.

I’m not going to lie to you, it was hard to read the frank conversations between these teenagers. I guarantee that every adult reader will have an “Oh shit” moment. For me, it was when Tia tells her friends that her boyfriend wants to “watch porn, then keeps going on about copying what we’re watching. I try to tell him it isn’t funny. He won’t take no for an answer [and] says, ‘I know you like it.’” When her friends are shocked and ask if she does like it, Tia says, “God no. Most of it is really gross and makes me feel dirty. Like one bit where the man was holding the woman down and she was screaming and swearing, and it looked like he was really hurting her. One time Ryan told me if I didn’t, you know, he’d spread that I’m frigid to everyone.”

This passage completely ruined me. I had to put the book down for a while because I was overwhelmed with feelings, both as a woman and as a mother. What do we have to do to make sure our sons don’t act this way towards their partners? How can we protect young women from feeling trapped into sexual behavior that makes them uncomfortable? And, do I really have to talk to my son about this?

But then I remember something I tell the parents of my students: If you don’t teach your kids what you want them to know, someone else will do it for you. We have to do better at helping our kids navigate these conversations, and books like this open the door, provide useful language for these issues, and build a bridge for parents who don’t know how to start from scratch.

Let’s talk about when you should use What Does Consent Really Mean? I think the best window for introducing this book is when your child is in 7th or 8th grade. I’ve taught middle school for many years, and you can just trust me that 7th graders know about porn and some middle schoolers start experimenting with sex. Even if you think that’s not your kid, I would argue that it’s better to talk about consent early and often. Worst case scenario is that you give the book to your child and make sure they read it, but the truth is, we should be talking to our kids about the issues in this book.

Using the characters as a springboard is the best idea. Opening with, “What did you think of what Connor and Ryan said about porn?” is going to yield a better discussion than starting with, “You know that real sex isn’t like porn, right?” If you have an older teenager and you’ve never talked about these issues, I think this book might still be useful. Hand it over to your child and say, “I don’t know how else to start this conversation with you, but it’s really important and I think this might help.”

The book ends with several pages of discussion questions on a variety of topics, along with facts and links to internet resources. I’d like to add two resources I think are just terrific. Scarleteen is a sex education site that is designed for teenagers. It’s sex-positive and almost dazzlingly comprehensive. Finally, you might need more support for talking about how to build healthy emotional relationships, and this book is mostly about sex and consent. The Making Caring Common Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has a wonderful resource called The Talk. The executive summary at the beginning has an excellent overview for what adults should be teaching kids about healthy romantic relationships.

I’m not saying any of this is easy, but we all know it’s necessary. You don’t have to do this alone. What Does Consent Really Mean? is an amazing resource that can help both parents and kids talk and learn together.

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What Does Consent Really Mean? by Pete Wallis

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  1. Katty says:

    This sounds like a really valuable resource. Now, how do I find an equivalent resource in my native language? 🙁

  2. Darbi says:

    I have not-so-little-anymore teenage cousins, and I’m freaking out about them navigating this stuff, I cant even imagine what it’s like as a parent! I’m definitely going to keep this in mind for when the time comes. Great review!

  3. Amanda says:

    I really want to share this with my sisters for my niece and nephews! One of my nephews, who just turned 12, is already getting into trouble at school because of girls, and my sister has been concerned about how to broach The Talk with him.

  4. Pippa from SF says:

    What a thoughtful, informed review! Thank you for the time and effort it took to write. My husband & I will be headed into The Talk with our oldest in just a few years from now and it is nice to know there are resources available that really could make a difference.

  5. LauraL says:

    Back in the Dark Ages we had my friend Chrissie and her older sister’s Health book, complete with illustrations of a couple doing something under a blanket. The amount of resources, both good and bad, available to today’s kids is mind-boggling. This book looks like a great resource and I appreciate your sharing, Jennifer. I am glad to see that Scarleteen is still around. When one of my goddaughters was a teenager it helped with questions she didn’t want to ask her mama and she probably went on to do more research on her own. 😉

  6. Hazel says:

    Thanks very much for this review. I’m going to pass it on to my sister.

    I would feel very daunted if I had to initiate these conversations.

  7. Erin Spock says:

    I’m a parent of girls and have always been very blunt about our bodies, etc… I was a teen before texting and easy access to the internet – so my own experiences came on slower than they do for kids now. I’m a middle school teacher and I hear what the boys are talking about, porn is so accessible and helping set their norms. 50 Shades of Gray is also so prevalent in pop culture and being lauded as super hot, but when a young woman sees this behavior as a standard for what is sexy, this colors their understanding of consent and sexual expectation. To think I can use my own experiences as a baseline for understanding what they’re dealing with is foolish of me.
    I think this book sounds GREAT and, though I like to think my kids are open and honest with me, I will totally make it available to them. I’d rather they suffer from too much information and find themselves in a situation they are unable to cope with.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Rebecca says:

    Parents seem to have a head in sand opinion of sex, and if I remember back to when I was a teen, I would rather die talking to my mom about sex, but would have countless discussions with friends. I discovered my oldest son watching porn on his iPod as young as ten. I wish I had a resource like this back then, he’s now 19. Great review!!

  9. Briana says:

    Please DON’T think of it as “The Talk” with your kids. Make it lots of talks, little talks, a series of continuing conversations that happens over years. We build this up in our own minds and that makes it even more difficult.

    I teach high school (science). I’ve had frank sex talks with my students when it’s been warranted by them asking questions or sharing false/dangerous information. I’ve also had “talks” with my nephews (6 & 8) and kids of my friends (14 yr old girl, 18 yr old boy through their lives) – with their parents’ knowledge, etc.

    With my nephews it’s been just basics about bodies and babies and that kind of thing. And respectful touching – if we’re playing and they say stop, I stop. If I ask them to stop something and they don’t, I’ll quit the game. When they ask why, I explain to them. With the older kids, it’s been more about their actual relationships, etc.

    But it’s not one conversation – and I know that isn’t necessarily what people mean – but keep having lots of talks with your kids, about all the subjects.

  10. Prerna says:

    I grew up in a country where sex education is not a norm, so I truly understand it’s value. A lot of us didn’t grown out of the awkwardness to talk about it. I think a book would be a great tool, if classes are not available. This is a very good initiative by the writers.

  11. greennily says:

    Thanks so much for that review! This is seriously amazing! It would be fantastic to see more reviews about stuff like that here!

  12. Chris Alexander says:

    I’m very open to sexual education and sharing what I know. I’ve been very straight-forward with my daughter. We’ve had unexpected conversations about very things of a sexual nature in our Girl Scout troop. I’ve always let the girls know that I’m there to answer questions or help them out if they don’t think they can go to their parents. I’m tempted to buy a copy and have my daughter share it amongst her friends, but I think she either won’t because of the embarrassment or she doesn’t want to lose the book as any book hoarder does. I will be sharing this far and wide. Many of my friends are reaching or at this transition period with their kids.

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