A mile east from the U.S. Capitol, on the eve of the hearing that would transfix a nation, 17-year-old Hollis Howe sliced his steak as he listened to his mother talk about sexual assault.
Holly Howe, 45, told him about a young patient who recently came into the emergency room where she works as a nurse. The woman had been found outside her apartment door, wearing a dress but no underwear, recalling nothing from the night. Hours later, after sobering up, “she looks at me and she goes, ‘I think something happened,’ ” Howe recalled to her son and husband, Gerred Howe, at the dinner table.
“Do not ever, ever think that because you’re both drinking, and you both think that it’s consensual, that it’s necessarily okay,” Howe told her son.
“Because what if she wakes up and decides that it wasn’t consensual?” replied Hollis, a senior at the all-boys St. Anselm’s Abbey School in Washington. “Exactly,” his mother nodded.
As the son of an emergency room nurse, Hollis has heard these stories time and time again from his parents, perhaps more than the typical high school boy. The Howes have drilled into his brain the importance of consent, which was almost a foreign concept when they were teenagers. They talk openly about sex and teach him to never combine it with alcohol.
In the age of #MeToo, and in the wake of the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings, parents across the country have been wrestling with the anxieties of raising teenage boys to understand consent. How does a parent bring clarity to an issue that is too complex even for the country’s political leaders to navigate? How can a mother or father prevent their teenage son from someday being accused of sexual assault?
Perhaps nowhere are these worries more palpable than in the homes of students in Washington’s all-male private preparatory schools, the backdrop to Christine Blasey Ford’s sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh. Some parents from these schools, particularly Kavanaugh’s alma mater, Georgetown Preparatory School, feel that their sons are being unfairly stereotyped as misogynistic, privileged party boys. They have taken to forcefully defending their sons, who they say are raised in a culture of respect, dignity and brotherhood.
Indeed, sexual assault takes place in schools all over the country, public and private, single-gender and co-ed. Even in the D.C. area, the all-boys prep schools vary widely in size, culture and religious affiliation.
But it is especially important that parents of students from all-boys schools are having these conversations at home, experts in adolescent development say. One 2013 study from Arizona State University found that single-gender schools reinforce and increase gender stereotypes.
“If you are separating the boys and the girls, it is all the less likely that the boys know how to relate to the girls,” said Campbell Leaper, a developmental psychologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
If boys and girls only socialize at parties, and if there is drinking involved, Leaper said, “that’s just a prescription for disaster.”
A new kind of sex education
Teaching consent to teenagers is still a relatively new concept. In previous decades, conversations about the “birds and the bees” focused on abstinence or, at most, using protection.
Today, only 24 states and the District of Columbia require sex education in public schools, and fewer than a dozen states mention the terms “healthy relationships,” “sexual assault” or “consent” in their sex-education programs, according to a report in May by the liberal Center for American Progress.
Maryland passed legislation this year mandating consent education. It is less clear to what extent these lessons are taught in private schools.
Similar gaps persist in conversations about sex between parents and their sons. Many adults do not know how to teach consent, said Andrew Smiler, a licensed psychologist who specializes in masculinity. Talks are often overly simplistic, focusing on “no means no.”
“At the nuts-and-bolts level, what does that mean?” Smiler said.
And the way parents talk about sex often varies depending on whether they are talking to a son or a daughter, said Charlie Kuhn, a co-founder of Cultures of Dignity, which provides training and curriculum on the physical and emotional well-being of young people. Parents are more likely to explain in detail to teenage girls the need to be careful at parties, to avoid walking on dark streets and to stay with close friends.
“Part of the difference comes from, we have bought into this stereotype that boys are inherently promiscuous and are not into relationships,” Smiler said. “Then really the only thing you need to tell them is to be safe. Because what more would they need to know?”
As devout Baptists, Vince and Kathy Mathis teach their two children that the decision to have sex is serious and that it is best to wait until they are married.
“They usually say, ‘Don’t be in such a rush so early,’ ” said their 16-year-old son Ryan, who is dating a girl from Holton-Arms, the high school attended by Ford. “ ‘Be a kid right now and worry about those kinds of things later.’ ”
While they have talked about “no means no,” Vince and Kathy Mathis say they do not feel the need to lay out scenarios or explain how to move from one step to the next. They focus instead on bigger-picture values, including respecting others and “controlling your own destiny,” Vince Mathis said.
In their minds, Ryan’s Catholic education at Georgetown Prep reinforces those values. Despite going to an all-boys school, Ryan has had no shortage of interactions with girls, as a member of a co-ed swim team who attended a co-ed school through eighth grade.
“He has a sister, he knows what that’s like,” Vince Mathis said.
Rosalind Wiseman, a co-founder of Cultures of Dignity, says she has noticed a tendency among some parents to assume their sons are incapable of treating anyone with disrespect, because that is the way they raised them.
“What I hear is, ‘You know that you should be treating these girls like your mother or your sister,’ ” Wiseman said. “And that is not helpful, because those boys don’t see those girls like their mother or their sister.”
Wiseman has sensed a growing fear among parents that a young woman might someday falsely accuse their son of sexual assault or “change her mind” after a sexual encounter that at first seemed consensual. This mentality puts the burden on girls, Wiseman said, because it assumes that if something were to go wrong, it would be the girl’s fault, not the boy’s.
The Kavanaugh hearings seem to have brought that fear — of miscommunication, blurred lines or even false accusations — to the forefront for many families.
“I want every female to be able to say, ‘This is not okay with me,’ ” Holly Howe said. “At the same time I have three sons that I am worried about getting in a pickle because they think they’re having consensual sex with someone and it turns out that later this person thinks that it wasn’t consensual sex.”
At the dinner table, she recounted how, as the designated driver for his fraternity one night, one of her older sons drove home a heavily intoxicated girl from a party.
“I got so angry with him,” Howe said. What he should have done was call an ambulance immediately, she said. “Don’t pick up a drunk, unresponsive girl who later may or may not wake up and say, ‘Oh, the last thing I remember, I was in Harrison’s car. I don’t know what happened to me.’ ”
“Bad idea,” she told her 17-year-old son. “These are the things that could happen to you.”
“Don’t take a girl home because she’s drunk?” Hollis said. “See, that is a good deed that you can no longer do.”
The teenager, who has read at length about the #MeToo movement, worries that there might be an overcorrection happening. One of his older brothers, talking to their father over the phone earlier that day, said that “any interaction with a girl is scary as hell now. But it probably should be.”
Their father, Gerred Howe, agreed — to an extent. To give an example, he turned to his wife, touching her hand, then her elbow and then her shoulder. “How romantic is it if I’m sitting there asking, ‘Is this okay?’ ” he said. “It becomes a little bit ridiculous.”
Smiler, the psychologist, agrees that it is unrealistic to require teenage couples to ask for a yes or no each time they progress a step. “The vast majority of the time, consent is nonverbal,” he said.
Smiler urges teenagers to move slowly. He tells teenage boys: When you’re with a girl, wait three seconds after you place your hand somewhere. See if she reciprocates. If she brushes it off, you stop. If she says no, you stop. If you get no response, or if the girl freezes up, then you need to stop and ask her directly if it’s what she wants.
That sort of detailed guidance is essential to teaching a teenage boy about consent, he said. It is not unlike the definition of consent ingrained in Hollis Howe’s memory from a video he watched about three years ago. Holly Howe sent a link to the viral video to all three of her sons, telling them they had to watch it and talk about it as a family.
Hollis can still summarize it, step by step, years later.
It begins with someone asking for a cup of tea.
“Now that you’ve started the stove, warmed up the water, poured it into the glass and presented it to them, they don’t want tea,” Hollis explained. What do you do? It’s common sense for the 17-year-old.
“Don’t try to pour tea down their mouth!” he said.