He took his girlfriend to the bedroom and shut the door. She is 14

Teenagers must be taught about sex in a frank and honest way.
Teenagers must be taught about sex in a frank and honest way.  Photo: Rodger Cummins

My friend’s son is 15, and his new girlfriend is 14.

In three short weeks, his world has changed; Fortnite is out, and last Saturday the two of them spent three hours in his room, with the door closed.

My friend doesn’t know whether to talk to his son, or both of them, about sex. Should his wife call his new girlfriend’s mother?

At the heart of his concern is consent, and what it means, and the fear that his son might later be accused of encouraging his new girlfriend to have sex earlier than she might otherwise. He doesn’t say that, but that’s what he means.

This father is not alone.

Ask the parent of a 16-year-old boy, and so many of them will raise the same question.

What do they tell their son, ahead of the 17th birthday party he’s attending tomorrow night? Or as he dashes off to schoolies, ready to embrace every new opportunity that swings his way? Or even ahead of his school formal; the celebration he’s attending with his brand new girlfriend in six weeks’ time?

Nina Funnell, who runs workshops for boys and whose expertise has been sought by companies, football clubs and university colleges, is blunt when asked that question. “If you are waiting to 16, it’s too late,’’ she says.

Her comments come in the wake of Queensland’s decision to play catch-up and review the archaic "mistake of fact" defence which research has shown has been used as an excuse by sex offenders.


That law, which is now being investigated by the Queensland Law Reform Commission, should be changed, principally because of the loophole that doesn’t take into account important factors in consent - like mental capacity, language barriers, the use of alcohol and whether the complainant "froze" in response to unwanted sexual attention.

Dannielle Miller, a teen expert who runs Enlighten Education, says the “freeze’’ response had been overlooked for too long.

“There’s not just flight or fright,’’ she says.

Both Miller and Funnell are strongly supportive of the proposed legal overhaul - but that’s only one part of a much bigger picture.

“You can legislate - and we should legislate - but attitudes and practice take time to catch up to law reform as well,’’ Funnell says.

And that’s a big problem here. So many of our teen boys are lost when it comes to really understanding what “consent’’ now means.

I am not excusing bad behaviour - but where is this being modelled for them?

Consent is not what happens in many of the Hollywood movies, or the porn they’ve seen on their phones. It’s not a decision made on the spur of the moment.

It’s not even something many of their parents really understand.

Miller says this can be difficult for adults because we are “living in times when we are more aware’’.

The “me too’’ movement had shown that many adults - particularly men - had not behaved as they should have, with active consent.

For many, it used to be about “scoring’’, a view endorsed culturally, and they, as fathers, were now trying to teach something they weren’t taught.

Other parents didn’t even want to consider their teens might be sexually active. In the past, our duty of care might have focused on discussing the importance of using condoms. “The bar has raised now. We have to move beyond that and talk about the issue of consent,’’ Miller says.

Police agree. In my own research, they repeatedly raised the pervasive influence of porn, and how it was changing what boys believed girls wanted.

In some cases, boys who were being investigated for sexual assault told police they’d seen girls enjoy the same activities on screen.

Funnell says schools - both boys' and girls’ - need to do more around sex and consent, and students were arriving at university with wildly different knowledge standards.

Author Rebecca Sparrow recommends the "Consent: It's as simple as tea" video by UK police, that has now been viewed millions of times.

The four-part SBS series The Hunting, which airs next month, could also assist parents, she says.

Miller says consent should never be assumed, and needed to be active and enthusiastic and ongoing. That could be tricky for parents, because it often ran counter to how it was viewed when they were teenagers.

You can change a law to protect the victims of sexual assault, and that should happen. But we can no longer ignore a consent imbroglio that is tying teens - and their parents - in knots.

And addressing that - at home, in schools and in workplaces - shouldn’t wait until the outcome of a Queensland Law Reform Commission investigation next year.