Speaking up: What I plan to teach my sons and daughter about rape

In a few short weeks, I will meet my daughter for the first time. I’ve spent the past three months trying to wrap my head around what it’s going to be like to parent a girl, seeing as how I’ve been raising three boys up until this point.

I was worried about things like braiding her hair and when to let her get her ears pierced until the story of the Stanford rape case took over my Facebook newsfeed. Brock Turner, a Stanford University swimmer, received a six-month sentence for raping a woman in January 2015 after a campus party. The sentence could have been up to 14 years, but the judge decided that a long, harsh sentence would have “a severe impact” on him.
I took the time to read the victim’s statement. It is one of the most harrowing things I have ever read. Her words and the vivid pictures they form haunt me.
She could be my daughter. He could be one of my sons.
What, if anything, can I do to prevent my children from finding themselves on either end of a situation like this? What should I tell my sons? What should I tell my daughter?
I read what some of my friends were saying on Facebook. Many of my friends are teachers, writers and parents, like myself, but scrolling down my news feed is like looking through a kaleidoscope of opinions from the left, the right, and everywhere in between. I decided to take a risk and bring them all together on my page and asked “What should I be teaching my sons about respecting women and their bodies? What should I be teaching my daughter about protecting herself? Where does our role begin and end here?”
I was overwhelmed by the intelligent and prudent responses from my friends, some of whom include a school psychologist, a military sexual-assault prevention-and-response coordinator, a foster parent and a sex abuse survivor. Though their perspectives varied, all responded with the same message: What happened in Stanford is NOT okay. We all have to prepare our children for life in a time and place where “rape culture” exists. We all want to change that. We all know that it starts with us. The only issue is that we all disagree on what to teach our kids about rape prevention.
There was no consensus when it comes to the notion of consent. A friend pointed out that he and his wife have taught their daughter that if she doesn’t want to hug someone, she doesn’t have to (even if it’s “Great Aunt Marge.”) Some people disagree and think that withholding acts of affection will cause a child to become insensitive and cold. Several friends shared this tongue-in-cheek British video using “making tea” for someone as an analogy for sexual consent.
The discussion of revealing clothing and excessive alcohol consumption turned up with staunch supporters on each camp. Some believed that dressing and drinking conservatively are crucial shields women can use to deter rapists. Others said that we shouldn’t have to teach girls to protect themselves; rather, it’s the boys who needed to be taught to respect women.
I’ve come to the conclusion that we shouldn’t be just educating our daughters or just educating our sons. They both need to hear messages catered to their genders’ needs as well as universal messages that apply to all people of all ages. The key is delivery.
My school psychologist friend said that we need to be careful about talking with kids at their current level. Allowing little ones like my own to “choose” to give and receive hugs while telling them they should never feel uncomfortable when touching another person, is a good place to start.
A fellow teacher said she encourages her middle school students to think about whether they’re “helping” someone or “hurting” someone in every encounter.
A high school librarian said she believes more attention needs to be paid to “developing a clear understanding of what sexual assault is, particularly for boys and the consequences.” She offered two book titles for me to read (and I will!) about raising boys to be responsible men who treat women properly, “Season of Life” by Joe Ehrmann (a former Baltimore Colt) and Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari. Her students are at the prime time for that conversation, perhaps through the Green Dot program that is being used to educate students about sexual assault in high schools.
Here’s what I decided to tell my kids while they’re under my watch:
  • Our family is Catholic. Not every family is like ours, and that’s okay. But we will share our values with you.
  • We believe that our bodies are a gift from God. It’s up to us to take good care of them with healthy food, exercise, and safe contact with other bodies. (That also means stop hitting each other!)
  • Our faith teaches us that the best thing to do is to wait until we’re married to have sex. It keeps us healthy, saves us from a lot of heartache, adds depth to our marriages, can make parenting easier, and makes God happy.
  • Since we’re all born sinners, that doesn’t always happen. When it comes to sex, we have the choice to obey God or to do as we will. But, sometimes someone else makes that decision for us by forcing their body on ours. This is called rape and it is NOT YOUR FAULT. It makes you feel bad about yourself, but you did nothing wrong. And because of that, this is something that you would never do to someone else.
  • You are more than just your body. You are your mind and your spirit. Your relationships with others should reflect all of those things.
  • You are biologically more vulnerable than your male counterparts. You’re smaller than most men. You probably have less muscle tone. Your private parts go in, not out.
  • Sometimes clothing matters. You don’t wear jeans to a job interview because your prospective employer will think you don’t take them (or yourself) seriously, no matter how nice or smart you are. In a similar fashion, the more skin you show, the more attention you’ll receive. Whether you intend it to be or not, some men see this as an invitation to touch your body. Be prepared to respond accordingly.
  • Male sexual predators do exist and it seems like certain situations make them more likely to attack, like if they see you alone in an isolated area. Stay as safe and in control as you can everywhere you go. If you start to feel uncomfortable, GET OUT. Make an excuse. Call someone. Walk away. Run if you have to.
  • Rape can’t always be avoided or prevented. Sometimes it’s not about alcohol or short skirts or walking alone or flirting. The Stanford victim wore a beige cardigan to the party where she was raped. Even if those are factors, they are NEVER excuses for a man to force himself upon a woman.
  • You should NEVER be blamed if your body is violated against your will.
  • Not all men are bad. In fact, most of them are good, like your brothers, father, uncles, and grandfathers. Sure there are “bad guys,” but the entire male population isn’t out to get you.
  • Sexual assault can happen to you, too. If someone touches you anywhere, and it makes you feel uncomfortable, you need to tell someone.
  • If a woman is wearing revealing clothing, it does not automatically mean she is making herself available to you.
  • Women are not objects. The sex industry wants you to believe that, but it’s not true. Women are people with feelings, not just bodies to be used for your pleasure.
  • Many women are also sisters, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers like your own. Think of how much you love us when you see them. Chances are someone loves them, too.
  • Treat people and all living things with respect and dignity.
  • Don’t touch anyone without their permission. Likewise, no one should touch you without your permission. (Including rude people in the grocery store who poked you when you were in my belly.)
  • Socialize responsibly. Surround yourself with friends. Never take an eye off your drink. Know when you’ve had enough. Know when someone else has had enough. Call if you need us to come get you. No questions asked.
  • “No means no” at any point of a conversation. If you hear the word “no,” that means your plans must change at that moment. Remove yourself from the situation if at all possible.
  • If someone violates you after you have told them “no,” it’s not your fault; it’s theirs.
  • If something happens to you that makes you feel violated, tell someone. A friend, a guidance counselor, the police, anyone who can help. But, we’d hope you would come to us first. It is NOT YOUR FAULT. Let us help you.
  • If you violate another human being in any way, you will be punished. If not by the fullest extent of the law (which we would encourage), then by us and by God. We will never stop loving you, but we will not stand up for you. We will not stand beside you. We will not stand by you. We raised you better than that.

As of right now, that’s my road map for getting through the tough conversations I have ahead with my sons and daughter. Some of those seeds need to be planted now when my children still think I’m a celebrity and others are lines that will take me several years to memorize before delivering them to an audience of eye-rolling adolescents who think I’m an embarrassment. (At the very least, they can check my blog archive and pull this up as a reference when they’re away at college.)    

Not all parents raise their children like my friends and I are raising ours. Unfortunately it will take a very long time before every man in the world knows that a woman’s body is hers and not his for the taking, no matter what she’s wearing or what she’s had to drink or what she said earlier that night before she changed her mind. We may never reach that point. But we can try. And it starts by talking to our girls AND our boys, early and often.

Catholic Review

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