We have a tendency to look at teenagers as young adults due to their bodies. Most adolescent boys bodies and girls bodies tend to look like and function like grown adults. Most boys and girls by age 17 are fully grown and they are capable of having children. However, their brains do not function like a grown adult brain. The frontal lobes of the brain, which are responsible for reasoning, making decisions, are not fully developed until teenagers are 25 years old. Therefore, a 16 year old may look like an adult but the frontal lobe of the brain is functioning like a fifth grader’s brain. In other words, while they look like adults their brains cannot reason and understand abstract concepts like adults are able to do. This has a major impact on how teenagers act and what they understand.
One concept they do not fully understand is the concept of consent. It is very important that teenagers understand the meaning of and how consent works in the world. For example, a physician typically needs parental consent before examining a teenager. Furthermore, a medical doctor cannot treat anyone without their consent or parental consent. Teenagers may not be aware of how important consent is in life because they rely on their parents to provide consent for them. Since they are under 18 in most situations they need parental consent. They need parental consent because the law recognizes the fact that their brains are not capable of understanding and reasoning as adults yet. Therefore, it is not an issue they deal with and it is not something that they think about on a daily basis.
There are some situations where teenagers need to be aware of consent and think about consent. One major area of life where they need to be aware of consent is dating. Consent starts with both the boy and girl agreeing that they want to go on a date with each other. If a relationship begins to develop and one or both of them want to make the relationship a sexual relationship then both the girl and the boy must agree and consent to a sexual relationship. They both need to consent to the sexual activity they are going to engage in. This may seem fairly basic but many boys are not aware of consent in all these situations.
Another major issue related to sexual relationships that teenagers are not usually aware of is that no means stop. If a girl says no at anytime while they are having sex, the boy must stop immediately. If the boy doesn’t stop as soon as the girl says no, he has committed rape. This is a fact that many teenage boys are not aware of regarding sex and consent. It is a fact they have a difficult time understanding. In their minds, she said yes in the beginning so the yes applies the entire time in their minds. It is something we need to educate teenage boys about when they receive sexual education.
There is a new consent issue that teenage boys need to be educated about when they receive sex education. California has a new consent law referred to as “stealthing.” Governor Newsom signed a new law in 2022 making stealthing illegal without proper consent. You may be wondering what is stealthing? Stealthing is when a male opens a condom wrapper before the other person, female or male, has consented to sex. Therefore, if a teenage boy opens a condom anticipating that he is going to have sex, he can be charged with sexual assault if the girl has not consented to having sex yet.
Currently the law doesn’t state that the boy would go to juvenile hall, but the law states they can be sued in civil court. I would advise patients who have teenagers to look up this new law and review all of the details. How do we know if someone consented to having sex before or after the condom is opened. There are not going to be a lot of witnesses when the condom is opened (hopefully, not). Do teenage boys need to record their sexual experiences to prove they had consent?
I understand that the intent of the law is so no one is pressured into doing anything sexually that they don’t want to do, but I think this law is too difficult and confusing to determine when or if it was violated. In my professional opinion, we need to provide teenagers more education about sex and consent. They also need education about responsibility and sex too. Besides focusing on the fact that sex is physically enjoyable, we need to discuss when you have sex are you prepared to be parent? No contraception device is 100% effective. Therefore, every time you have sex you could become a parent.
Now that the Supreme Court has made abortion illegal in the United States, boys need to be more aware. The girl has to deal with the biological consequences and social consequences of being pregnant as a teenager. However, she did not get pregnant by herself. Therefore, boys need to be prepared to step forward and take their share of the responsibility for the pregnancy. We cannot allow boys to hide behind the fact that they can say the girl is lying and they are not the father. The law is holding teenage mothers responsible for their pregnancy and it needs to hold teenage boys responsible for their part in the pregnancy too. It is the only fair thing to do.
Something else we need to consider are teenagers prepared to handle their emotions and the other person’s emotions associated with having sex with each other and possibly a pregnancy? Finally, are they mature enough to tell their physicians that they are sexually active so if they contract a sexually transmitted disease, they can tell their partner or partners so they all can receive the appropriate treatment.
Consent is important. However, there is much more involved with sex than the physical act and getting proper consent. If this is all we focus on, we are not doing our teenagers any favors. There is much more involved regarding being sexually intimate with a person. We need to focus on these issues and educate teenagers about these issues too.
Dr. Michael Rubino is a psychotherapist with over 25 years experience treating children, teenagers and trauma victims. For more information about his work visit his website at www.RubinoCounseling.com or his Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/Drrubino3 or his podcasts on Spotify or Apple.