Understanding Consent with Dr. Scott Ronis, Clinical Psychologist

Ronis, Dr. Scott.headshot

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Oct 1, 2022

The ongoing and increasingly louder societal conversation on consent has given Dr. Scott Ronis cause for pause.

“There’s lots out there,” says the Associate Dean in the Faculty of Arts at the University of New Brunswick. “And yet, we still tend to see a divide in what actually happens in practice among youth, in the communication between parents and youth, and that’s really concerning.”

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Ronis’ research examines the contributing factors to youth emotional and behavioural issues, the relationships and interactions between young people and the broader world, and youth development as it relates specifically to adolescent sexual experiences.

Parents, he says, must play a critical role.

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Brunswick. Dr. Scott Ronis has a PhD in Clinical Psychology. The thrust of His research focuses on contributing factors to youth emotional and behavioral issues, and the various relationships and interactions between young people and the broader world. Dr. RONIS also studies youth development as it relates specifically to adolescent sexual experiences. He joins us today from Fredericton, New Brunswick, thank you so much for being here. Thank you. So when it comes to adolescent sexual relationships, I wonder what concerns you the most about what we’re seeing and hearing in the media and in the headlines with respect to Canadian youth in North American youth for that matter, from somebody who researches this topic.

So over the years, it’s not for lack of trying, we’ve seen a lot of really good curricula, a lot of good bridging between the research side and what is presented in the schools and even on the media and within books. So there’s lots out there. And yet, we still tend to see a divide in what actually happens in practice among youth, in the communication between parents and youth. And, and that’s really concerning, because it isn’t for a lack of trying, amongst researchers, and amongst people in schools, and even parents, who are really trying to access the latest information, and are really willing, and kids are also willing to engage in conversations. But we see time and time again, sexual assaults haven’t decreased, we see notions of consent, being misunderstood in multiple ways. And it’s also challenging because there are changing technologies. There’s ways that people communicate and of course, with communication, which is great. There’s also misunderstandings and misinterpretations that occur within these new technologies. And, and we’re always trying to catch up with these newer technologies. So that’s a concern that I have. And of course, it keeps me at work. And there’s always room for trying to stay ahead or at least catch up to the various changes that occur.
So let’s peel back some of the layers that you just articulated there. First of all, what should be happening? In your estimation, you talk about, you know, for not not for lack of effort. So what should be happening?
Well, so one thing, we have to think about it as a process. So in terms of sexual education, it is not a one and done thing. We know this in theory, but in practice, I think it’s, we think that there’s these certain snapshots that occur. And so for example, beginning at home, from a very early age, being comfortable, around terms regarding gender, and sexuality are incredibly important, more so than having the conversations and what is discussed, it’s really making an open, comfortable environment. And that’s continuous looking for opportunities, looking for ways to bring up discussions, and not to think about when something happens later on, but to really begin having those conversations, because that’s, you’re really laying the groundwork there, both in terms of sexuality and gender, but also just generally becoming comfortable, and being emotionally connected between parents and kids is is important. Same thing with the schools schools have curricula that are built upon set, places where they go through with kids to discuss things and that’s not the way kids react, the kids are developing at different paces. They have different peer groups. And so it is very hard when there’s like a fourth grade curriculum, a seventh grade curriculum, and so on, to not match up to where kids might be at. Again, it’s not for lack of trying, but it doesn’t really hit upon On the needs there, kids have it at any one moment, and they’re fleeting. And so the idea is to try and meet the kids where they’re at, and, and make sure that discussions are happening at various paces. And to the extent that is needed, it’s not always a semester long conversation or discussion over a topic. It could be at one point in time, a three minute conversation that happens regarding the definitions of consent and desire, and, and willingness. And so those are the things I think that are important to think about for the schools for, for kids, I also tend to think that we try and target for, and this hasn’t really changed that much, but we tend to target potential victims and or and or survivors, rather than thinking about the people who might perpetrate. You know, or try initiate, you know, sexual activity with with someone, I think we need to do a better job of, of taking a broader look, in those conversations, rather than trying to get people who may be victimized or become survivors to do something different. And I think that’s something that hasn’t changed to the extent that it probably should.

So what I hear you saying is that we need to adopt a more of a proactive approach. And if that’s the case, what age ideally this is neat to start up those conversations at home.

Yeah, so that’s, yeah, that’s what I was saying is that the age at which we begin, is from the time that a child can speak or that a parent is engaging with the child, we tend to subtly you know, shut down conversation or move a conversation in very uncomfortable ways. For example, just in the naming of body parts, you know, we talk about a PP and we can kind of make this sort of this thing, that’s fun. But we never get away from that. And so it’s really using the language early on, that is appropriate, and not making it something that’s uncomfortable, or when we see a young child touching themselves, because it’s pleasurable, that’s a very normative thing, that we don’t shame them into that. So there’s a very subtle kind of communications that we give off as parents. That’s not the sex talk. But it’s something that’s really incredibly important from the beginning ages on. There’s a natural development that that happens for a lot of kids and certain curiosity that takes place, the beginning of school age three to five and six, where they begin touching themselves, they begin exploring themselves, and that has should be discussed, and parents should look for cues that say, Oh, this is an opportunity to talk about something, this is a touchstone moment, where our teachable moment that we have about, you know, safe touch and and, you know, touch that a child would want and, and to have those conversations and to engage in them. It’s also conversations that no one can have about initiating touch, what is good and what is positive, versus something that isn’t acceptable within today’s society.

Let’s talk about consent. Specifically, you brought that up, it has been the stuff of headlines for a number of years now. You know, university campus protests, you know, minor sports, professional sports, etc. How do you define consent? How should consent be defined?

Yeah, so consent is a really complex term, there’s the sort of legal definitions. And then there, there is the it used to be that we combined consent with willingness or desire, and those things need to be pulled apart. So I’ll answer your question, but the desire, somebody might have a certain desire, and that’s sort of on a continuum, that they want to in some ways, engage in activity for a variety of reasons. But consent is where the person affirms their willingness to engage in sexual activity. Consent itself in terms of displaying willingness can be both internal and external. And so somebody might be they might have desire or not have desire, they might be willing or or not feel willing to engage in activity and then there’s an answer An expression of that willingness, and that can be both verbal in the very strict way of, I want to engage in this activity in a very affirmative way, or it could be nonverbal. And we see this all the time, certain cues, getting closer with an intimate partner, giving off subtle cues, and it gets quite tricky. And it’s particularly tricky for an adolescent who is learning those cues. It may be less tricky, if someone has been married 30 years, and knows their partner and their partner has expressed to them what those subtle cues are. But it’s very, very tricky for adolescents who are really learning about communication, really learning about what somebody else would want, and, and those cues that they think are cues may not be so so I think those are the points where schools and parents and other peers can actually engage in those conversations about, you know, what is appropriate, what to look for. And to define consent, both internally, and externally.

Let’s unpack that a little bit more, because you talk about cues, but really, we’re talking about communication, whether it’s verbal or nonverbal. So what in your estimation? Should consent look like? Give us an example? If you can?

Yeah. So over the years, we’ve moved from a No means no. Kind of consent to an affirmative type of consent? Where Yes, we do yes, and everything else is, is no. And so we really try and get kids to and adults as well, to engage in more affirmative consent. And to actually think about that as a process and not as a one and done thing. So, you know, using in terms of engaging in intimate behavior, asking a partner about whether they can move forward, whether this is something that they both want and are willing to engage in, and then you know, kind of move interactions based on that affirmation, that process so, you know, getting closer holding hands is okay, if I hold your hand, and, and, you know, going with a more affirmative process that actually can be in terms of relationship intimately positive. And so trying to get kids to use affirmative consent is incredibly important. It doesn’t have to be in the, I’ve seen sort of comically, like setting up a contract, it doesn’t have to be a contract, it could actually be a positive thing, to engage in that conversation in an affirmative way.

In the same vein, I think it’s also important, perhaps, to define what consent is not? Could you provide examples of that.

So consent, is, is not pushing until one goes along with, I think there’s a certain gendered script that we’ve tried to get rid of, but is still tremendously there. That one partner, usually a male partner, pushes until they get the answer that they want. And that is, that’s, that’s not to blame any one, you know, sex or gender than another. But it’s it’s in society, across societies. Something that’s that’s been pushed, so it’s come consent has to be voluntary, it has to be willing and there has to be capacity and capacity can be difficult, but generally, we think about ages, that somebody at a certain age, most likely does not have the capacity to voluntarily understand and, and verbally or non verbally, consent to behavior. So consent is not just the communication is also thinking about whether there’s capacity, involvement of drugs or or alcohol is an important factor that we oftentimes see with sexual assaults, that when someone is engaging, or has is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, that there’s a lack of capacity. And so that’s an important piece where consent is not voluntarily given. And that’s an important piece that we see even looking back when we Interview people from, you know, the early 20s and young adulthood, that they thought something was consensual at a certain age when they when they engaged in that behavior early on. But looking back on it, they realized that it wasn’t. So consent is where there is a certain capacity that the person has voluntarily come to a decision and is willing to move forward. And so those are the things I know I’ve kind of answered both what consent is, but but I hope you see that where words what is not?

Absolutely. Now, I alluded to the headlines earlier in terms of different aspects of society as it relates to consent, whether we’re talking about social on university campuses, residences, etc, athletics settings, what do you believe? Is the missing message here, among these stories? Is there a common thread that you can pull through these stories that you think is missing?

Well, that everybody is responsible. And you see it, there’s a sort of a social norming that goes on, particularly in groups. So it’s very subtle, nobody, or most groups, from the coaches to the players, when you give them a certain scenario, most people would say, it’s not okay, to engage in a sexual behavior against someone’s will. However, we see these things play out. And so everybody has responsibility for making sure that the messaging is clear, from the coaches, to bystanders, to people engaging in sexual behavior, whether it’s initiation, or somebody who has been part of being initiated, that those conversations happen, that everybody has some level of responsibility. And we see this time and time again. And it’s to put blame on a single person doesn’t deal with the situations that there are things that we as a society need to think about. And even bigger than the teams or fraternities or, or social groups, it starts at home and starts in societies. And so we need to think about how do we take responsibility in society to make those changes both subtle, and, and quite? Formative changes?

Certainly, the internet and social media have added multiple layers of complexity, you know, amplification, potential danger to this topic as it relates to bullying, peer pressure, etc. When we’re talking about consent, how can parents support their child’s son or daughter, when it comes to consent against this backdrop?

this is where one of the trickier things because there’s certain peer pressure, my child who just entered Middle School has pushed me time and time again for a cell phone. And I’ve worked with families and clients where they have cell phones and and once the proverbial horse gets out of the barn, it’s very hard to put the horse back in the barn. And with that there are new technologies, there’s new platforms that are used. And so a part of it is considering whether a particular child can make decisions. And what are the parameters around those decisions and not letting you know, free rein, so for example, with cell phones, making sure that it starts off slow, making sure that the parameters which we’re all not very good, most of us carry our cell phones in our pockets, and our technologies are very close to us. It shouldn’t be surprised that kids have very difficult time knowing where those boundaries lie. And so for parents, thinking about how to slowly open up those boundaries, making sure that there’s a certain leverage when you begin to allow a child and young adolescent to engage in in social media, that there’s a they give permission for their parents to check out their web browser that there’s conversations that occur those are those teachable moments that parents can look for, to Who to have that rather than just sort of moving in? So and then, you know, instead of punishing when a mistake happens, again, that becomes a teachable moment. So if you know a child has posted something on social media, looking at it from a lens of what would this look like, in society, what would this look like five years from now, with this child appreciate having this information out there, that can become a teachable moment between a parent and child to say, this is probably not something that you would really want to have out there, we talked about the most extreme examples of sexting. But it could be in more subtle ways in the communications with an intimate partner, who can, and that could be a teachable moment, where a conversation happens between a parent child and says to them, you were expressing this communication, but this becomes something that is, is permanent. And so let’s have this conversation. And the same thing is true. On another side, where if someone’s requesting images, or they’re putting out and requesting information from their partner at a young age, that that’s not an appropriate thing, and that they should engage in more appropriate communication, whether it’s relationship communication, or more specifically, sexual communication.

When we’re talking about tweens, teens, young adults, and the topic of consent, you know, formative years developmental years that are key in that in that child’s life, what would you suggest to a parent who, let’s say, has not had the benefit of having those teachable moments along the way, as you suggest? What would you say in terms of the language that they could consider starting to use with that teen tween or young adult as it relates to consent?

So it’s hard when when you haven’t set up the groundwork, and that doesn’t have to be about sexuality or gender. But it’s, it’s having that connection, that emotional connection. And so that’s the first thing is making sure that there’s a certain emotional connection. And even if you as a parent, say, you know, I haven’t established the emotional connection, I would have liked, I didn’t really know how to even bringing that up to a teenager can be a really good conversation to have and say, you know, I think we haven’t really connected and I’d like to connect more with you. If a parent is uncomfortable, perhaps because they weren’t raised or modeled, with a certain way of discussing or they’re not so familiar with things, that’s okay. You come to the table with what you have, I think, to be honest with the child and say, you know, I want to engage in these conversations with you, but I don’t know how, let’s work on this together, I think can be an important jumping off point. So I think those are kind of the key things, if you need help, there’s actually a lot of help out there, from, you know, videos that one can engage with, between parent and child to start off those conversations. To more, you know, back and forth, perhaps with a therapist, to say, you know, I’d like to engage in conversation, but I don’t know how therapists can mediate some of that conversation between a parent and child and just allow for that openness. The parent doesn’t have to have all the answers. I think that’s the mistake that that parents run that they have to have all the answers to then begin to have those conversations. And I think it’s okay for parents to say to a child, I wasn’t raised like this, but I want to do something honest with you, I think is an important step. I think sometimes parents will run the risk of putting in humor, and making jokes and light of things, you know, kind of teasing their kids as a way to engage in those conversations, and there’s room for that. But I think sometimes what that sends is a signal to the child that there’s discomfort and the kid learns that fairly quickly and doesn’t engage in that back and forth conversation with the child so I think being careful with your covering up things with humor or or you know, kind of engaging in a certain level that a kid isn’t ready for you can start small and be honest in where you’re at with the child. And I think that just is just room for for the next conversation to happen. So start slow.

Dr. Ronis, given everything that we see in society today, you know, social media, the headlines that we talked about a whole bunch of other things as well. Are we at a critical turning point, in your estimation as it relates to consent, and how we talk about it in the world today?

Well, I’ll give a kind of a cliche response. So yes, we are at a critical point. But I think we’ve always been at a critical point. So there, if you go back generations, parents have always complained about kids and kids have always complained about parents. And we’ve often kind of move forward with a lack of, of information and a lack of understanding a lack of healthy sexuality and healthy relationships. So that’s continued. The fire didn’t start here. And yet, it gets trickier because there’s a lot more competing messaging that parents and families and kids have to deal with. And so we are at a critical moment in that sense, that it’s just more difficult because of the messaging that’s, that’s out there. So I think it’s just starting small and just beginning to have those conversations and, and thinking about how to use the resources and technology and, and the messaging in a healthy way, and not worrying so much about all the things out there that are negative because it can be overwhelming if you do focus on on that. And so it’s really just countering some of that with positive resources. And there are lots out there.

Dr. Scott RONIS, thank you so much for your time today. He is a Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Psychology at the University of New Brunswick, we really appreciate your perspective


“For example, beginning at home, from a very early age, being comfortable, around terms regarding gender, and sexuality are incredibly important, more so than having the conversations and what is discussed, it’s really making an open, comfortable environment,” says the father of two young daughters. “And that’s continuous. Looking for opportunities, looking for ways to bring up discussions, and not to think about when something happens later on, but to really begin having those conversations, because that’s when you’re really laying the groundwork.”

The “Metoo” movement in recent years, followed by more recent allegations of sexual violence on some Canadian university campuses, as well as similar findings in minor and professional sports has triggered more conversation about consent — what it means and what it does not mean.

“It used to be that we combined consent with willingness or desire, and those things need to be pulled apart,” he says. “Consent is where the person affirms their willingness to engage in sexual activity. Consent itself in terms of displaying willingness can be both internal and external.”

During his interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Ronis also discusses:

  • the definition of consent
  • what consent is not
  • what is missing from the public discourse on consent currently

Related links:

Listen to the radio interview from Where Parents Talk on 105.9 The Region

Dr. Scott Ronis.com


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