Talking to children about rape
I’ve been reading a lot about the devastating rape case in Stuebenville, OH.
I’ve read a lot of brilliant, incisive commentary about how screwed up the media’s reaction was, centering the rapists rather than the victim. I’ve read a lot of fantastic stuff about how this reflects rape culture. I’ve read this just amazing letter to Moxie’s boys.
I don’t write this now because I think I have something unique and special to add but rather because I feel the need to write something. Because it sickens me to think of that girl who was so brutalized, whose life will never be the same. It sickens me even more, though, to think of the thousands of other girls just like her. To think of them all together boggles the mind.
I’ve been teaching comprehensive sex ed for about six years. This reminds me; parents who are invested in this kind of work, get yourself to a UU church and sign up for OWL. its an amazing program that has a genuine impact and we usually take kids from outside of the church.
Anyway. In that time, I’ve done a lot of reading, a lot of research, a lot of soul-searching, about the things that we tell our children about sex and sexuality and consent and rape. I’ve had a number of tough conversations.
And I want to tell you what I’ve learned.
In my humble opinion, there are some things that every child ought to be taught. Not math, silly. Math is pointless. I’m talking about things like this, things that are much much harder to teach:
–your body is your own.
–nobody is allowed to touch your body unless it is ok with you. this is why it’s a good idea to teach even babies and toddlers that they are allowed to refuse to hug grandma.
–some parts on your body are private. i worked with a family that called this the “bathing suit rule;” no touching someone’s body where their bathing suit would cover. That’s horrid syntax, but you get the idea.
–these parts are private not because there is something wrong with them but because they are used in special ways when you are a grown-up and those ways are private.
–no one is allowed to touch those parts except a trusted adult helping you wash and the doctor, if she or he needs to, and if your parent is there too.
–it is totally ok for you to touch these parts, but only in private.
–it is always ok to ask even a trusted adult to stop touching you.
–nobody is ever, ever allowed to do something with your body that makes you scared or uncomfortable. the only exception is an emergency like a fire where an adult might tell you to do something scary like jump.
–it’s always, always, ALWAYS ok to tell a grown-up to stop touching you if it makes you feel weird. It is ok even if the grown-up tells you it will make them sad, or angry, or disappointed.
–if a grown-up or another kid does something that makes you scared or uncomfortable, tell a grown-up you trust about it.
–this is why it is important to learn the proper names of body parts. calling your vulva your hooha or your penis a weewee might be cute but it is dangerous not to know the real names of all of your body parts, from your elbow to your vagina.
–sex is a wonderful, magical, fun thing for most people, IF two people who really want to have sex are exploring it together.
–having that kind of sex takes practice.
–having that kind of sex is a big commitment. there are lots and lots of things to think about when deciding whether to do it. (obviously you’ll want to talk about this in greater detail).
–sometimes, people don’t know or don’t care that other people are not allowed to touch your private parts or to do something to your body that you do not want them to do. it’s important to remember that not all kids know that rule. if a kid does something to your body that makes you scared or uncomfortable, just like if a grown-up does, you are allowed to tell them to stop.
–a lot of times when we talk about sex, we talk about consent. lots of people think that consent just means the person doesn’t say no. but real consent means that the other person says YES.
–it is so, so important to make sure that the person you are engaging in sexual activity is saying YES. remember how sex can be magical and fun and amazing? this is only true if everyone is saying YES.
–especially if you are a boy, people might expect you to not wait for someone to say YES. your friends might assume that it doesn’t matter. if you remember nothing else, remember this: it matters a lot. always, always, always wait for YES.
–sometimes people can’t consent. if someone is asleep, drunk, high, a child, an animal or has a certain kind of cognitive disability, they cannot say YES and you cannot engage in sexual activity with them.
–you might, one day, see someone engaging in this activity with someone who did not say YES. maybe this person is asleep or drunk. maybe she is saying no. maybe she is fighting back. maybe she isn’t saying no but she looks miserable. the best thing you can do, the most helpful thing you can do, is to step in. tell the boy “that isn’t cool.” say “stop that.” say “she didn’t say yes.”
–if it is not safe for you to step in, call the police. tell them you need to report a rape. even if you somewhere you weren’t supposed to be, doing something you weren’t supposed to do, your parents will be OK with you stopping this. it is important.
–a lot of the reason that people get away with rape is because other people accept it. that is why it is important that you be brave enough to step in.
–even if you never see someone being raped you will hear and see many, many things that are related. you will hears boys talking about girls in ways that are nasty and threatening and related just to their physical appearance. you may hear girls do the same thing. you will hear jokes about rape. you will notice that rapists are often given a pass. you will notice that women are given lots and lots and lots of tips on “preventing rape” but that men are not given tips on how to prevent being a rapist.
–that is why one of the most important things you can do on this earth is to call out that behavior. it all exists on a spectrum. Every single time you refuse to laugh at a rape joke, every single time you tell someone to stop catcalling a girl, every single time you step in, you are helping to stop rape. Every single time. What a gift you have to give.
–it will be hard, sometimes. some people will make fun of you. some people will be assholes about it. that’s ok. we are not here to make everyone like us. we are here to have whatever impact we can have, and you are in charge of making sure that impact is positive.
–it’s a big world. there are lots and lots of people in this big world who are wonderful, funny, smart, generous and big hearted. you will find them. unfortunately you will also find people who want to use their power and their impact to hurt others. one of the jobs of being human is to decide which side of the line you’d like to fall on. choose the side that works actively to help the world be a safer place. choose to step in, to stand up, to say: enough.