This month, April, is Sexual Assault Awareness Month in the United States. It’s sorely needed. Nearly 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have experienced rape, or attempted rape, at some point in their life. Additionally, nearly 1 in 2 women and 1 in 5 men have (or will) experienced some other form of sexual violence or victimization in their life. This is no small issue and it should continue to be a focus of awareness long after April wraps up, so that awareness leads to greater prevention.
Prior to starting GIRLS CAN! CRATE, I spent the better part of the last decade in the nonprofit sector working in education and combating domestic sex trafficking and sexual exploitation of children. A large part of my job focused on prevention education. One of the most common questions I received from parents was, “how can we protect our kids from abuse?” My simple and totally complex answer is, “let’s teach people, kids and grown-ups, not to commit sexual assault; let’s teach them what consent is; let’s teach them to deeply respect other people and their physical boundaries.”
But, parents wanted more immediate steps they could take to protect their children, especially once they learned that nearly 75% of adolescents who experience sexual abuse or sexual violence are victimized by someone they know.
There is no silver bullet to combat the endemic of sexual violence, but there are things we can do as caring adults to help decrease a child’s vulnerability. I believe these same things can also empower kids to grow into adults committed dismantling a culture that is far too tolerant of sexual violence, adults who are actively against victim-blaming, and who help make the world better (and safer) for everyone.
I’m joined in writing by one of my favorite people, and former exploitation prevention program partner, Liz. Liz blogs over at Mommy Just Wants to Save the World and is a Survivor Advocate for survivors of sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking.
1. YOUR BODY, YOUR RULES
Megan: We need to teach children that each person’s body belongs to them, and each person gets to decide who touches them and how. This is what consent is - permission you give about something that is done to your body. We can help foster this by giving very young kids agency over their body – ask if it’s okay that mom helps them wipe in the bathroom, rather than just doing it; ask if they’d like help cleaning their privates in the bath, or if they’d like to do so themselves.
Find as many opportunities as possible, every day, to reinforce that their body is theirs and people need to listen to their words about their body. Be explicit about this. If someone tickle my daughter and she says stop, and they don’t, they will hear a very indignant, “You are NOT listening to my words.” When we’re playing and she says, “Stop,” both my husband and I take our hands off and say, “Oh, got it, I’m listening to your words about your body.” Even if she’s laughing, we stop. Somehow in our culture, it’s become a game to tickle or touch kids past when they say stop. I don’t care if they’re laughing - they’re learning that a super wonky message about consent.
Teach little ones that consent is more than the absence of no, it’s saying yes, and both my children (but especially our son as he grows) will hear this again and again. The playground is a great place to reinforce this – kids often grab each other while playing, hug each other, tackle each other, and we make sure they hear that you can’t touch someone without asking permission and getting a yes…even if you’re buddies, even if you’re having fun, you gotta get a green light.
Liz: You’ll likely need to work with family, friends, and even strangers on this one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say some variation of, “Okay, say goodbye, give me a hug.” I always, always correct this with – “It’s up to you, you can say goodbye from here, you can give a high-five, a thumbs up, or a hug.”
Megan: Yes! Consent can so often be blurred with family members and even parents. Teach kids they NEVER owe physical affection, to anyone, ever. A few months ago, I told my daughter we would do something, but it’d cost her 2 kisses. I immediately cringed – I pictured my little one on a date years down the road feeling she owed someone 2 kisses (or a whole lot more), because they had sprung for a fancy dinner. Maybe a little dramatic, but it’s a slippery slope, my friend, when we teach kids that affection is owed, because again, this takes away their agency. I immediately corrected myself – yes, we can do that and if you’d like, you can give mom a kiss, but no pressure, kiddo. We kiss to show people we love them, when we choose to do so, never in exchange for something. Likewise, my kids don’t have to hug someone goodbye, they can choose to if they’d like to, but they can also just say bye. Their body, their rules (yes, I totally recognize I’m super redundant here).
2. PRIVATES ARE PRIVATE AND THEY HAVE A NAME.
Liz: In our house “privates are private for a reason.” It’s lovely to have them, but no one needs to see them until you’re much older. Also, we have a rule about mommy needing privacy in the bathroom, not because mommy’s ashamed of her body and hiding it, but I deserve privacy and have the right to consent as well. (This leads to all sorts of interesting conversations about balancing body positivity with consent. Fun!)
Megan: When my daughter was little and I was giving her a bath, I would teach her all about her body. “This is your face, these are your cheeks, this is your elbow…” and I found myself skipping her lady bits. I don’t want her to be ashamed of ANY part of her body, and if I skip her vagina, I teach her it’s different, and different things are usually bad. Teach kids the correct name for their private parts (ex. this is a vagina, this is a labia, this is a penis, this is a scrotum…). Don’t use cutesy names – it’s not a who-who or a dinglebopper. Cutesy names make kids more vulnerable to abuse, because it decreases their ability to appropriate disclose abuse when it occurs.
3. TRUST YOUR GUT
Megan: We need to teach children to trust their instincts and their gut. If something just feels uncomfortable or wrong, they should learn to recognize it and tell someone they trust. I was driving my kiddo to a play date and told her to listen to the adults in our house. STOP, I thought, I DO NOT want to teach my kid blind obedience. We listen to adults, to a point, and then we don’t! So, I pulled over and explained that she should listen to people in authority, unless they asked her do something that made her uncomfortable, something that would hurt her, or hurt someone else. Then, we don’t listen. Then, we say no and tell mom or dad.
This goes for parents too – TRUST YOUR GUT and model listening to this intuition. In the movie The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo the serial killer says that every victim invited him into their home – they ignored their better instincts in order to be polite. Don’t worry too much about being polite. If your instincts tell you something isn’t right with how someone is interacting with your child, intervene immediately.
4. NO SECRETS, ONLY SURPRISES
Megan: Often, long before any abuse occurs, abusers will groom their victims. They do this by giving small gifts, extra affection or attention, and sharing small secrets with the child.
Liz: We have the “no secrets” rule in our house. Instead, we use “surprise” because surprises are almost always good.
Megan: Yes! Secrets hurt people, but surprises lead to something good. Teach children that there shouldn’t be ANY secrets within your family – no secrets from mom and dad. Obviously, privacy is something else entirely. They can come to you with anything, nothing is too bad or shameful. If someone asks them to keep a secret, they can say, “I’m sorry, but we don’t keep secrets in our family.”
5. YOUR PARENTS ARE ON YOUR TEAM
Liz: When a child discloses abuse or discomfort, we have a fierce duty as the parent to take their allegations seriously, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us, as this is the reason so much abuse goes unreported.
Megan: Months ago, I was at the gym and when I picked up my daughter, the childcare worker pulled me aside. “Some boy kept touching her [my daughter],” she said, “and she kept telling him to stop.” At this point, the worker rolled her eyes, “I kept telling her to knock it off, he wasn’t hurting her, just touching her arm or back, but she wouldn’t let it go.” Oh my goodness, there was just so, so much wrong with this. I looked at the little boy (old enough to STOP touching someone when they said stop) and looked at my daughter, listening to us talk, and said, “Good. We’ve taught her that she gets to decide who touches her. She used her words to tell him to stop, which was the right thing to do. If she says stop touching her, he needs to listen. No one else gets to decide whether or not he should stop,” I’ve made it super clear to my littles – use your words if you can, but if you can’t, or if someone won’t listen, come to me, and I will ALWAYS have your back. Make it so clear - no matter what someone says or does, mom and/or dad are always on your team, and will always do everything in their power to keep you safe.
While I think it's incredibly important that people know how they can best protect their children from abuse, I also feel this is a bit like holding our finger in the hole in the dam as the water continues to find ways to pour through. We must also commit to the hard work of dismantling a culture that is tolerant of rampant sexual abuse, that blames victims for their abuse, that sexualizes and objectifies women and children. Until we do, we just protect our children from abuse, while others remain vulnerable - and everybody deserves a life free of sexual violence.
One important note - there’s a risk in talking about sexual violence prevention that you can start placing the onus for preventing sexual violence on victims. This is not our intention. Sexual violence, rape, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, etc, all occur because a person abuses or assaults another person. It is never the fault of the victim – regardless of who they are, where they were, what they wore, what they said or didn’t say, and on, and on. We want to hold with tension two difficult things – abuse only occurs because abuser act and there are things we can do as adults to help protect children.