Rape, sexual assault, boys, girls. It is on everyone's minds, including the minds of every media outlet available. First there was Steubenville, and then there was our Canadian version in Cole Harbour where Rehtaeh Parsons lived, and died.
We spend a lot of energy talking to girls about how to avoid rape but now, finally, the conversation is turning to talking to boys about respecting and expecting consent. In other words, teaching not to rape.
But it's not an easy conversation to have and it starts very young. We should be teaching all kids about boundaries -- that the words 'stop' and 'no' have weight. Even professionals have a hard time with it. I asked Marnie Goldenberg, a mother of two, a lawyer, a sexual health educator and the person behind Sexplainer.com to write about how she spoke to her 8-year-old about sexual assault and how she was planting the seeds of informed consent at a young age.
Guest Post: The most uncomfortable
conversation with my kid: talking about rape
I was driving my almost nine-year-old son home from March Break
hockey camp. I had been listening to the
news on the way to pick him up. I slowed at the curb and he jumped in.
For days, there had been a lot of reporting on events in the now-infamous Steubenville, Ohio. Despite the
attention given to this particular incident of sexual assault (which is what it
is legally called in Canada, ‘rape’ having been eliminated from the Criminal Code
in 1982), my child had been spared from its ugliness. Until now. The story hit the airwaves and I turned off the radio. And then I sighed heavily.
“Why did you sigh?”
“Oh... sometimes I hate listening to the news when you’re in the
car with me”
“Because so much of the news is about terrible stuff that
happens in the world. And I want to
protect you from hearing such terrible things even though they are a part of
life. It’s my job to teach you about the
world though, even the nasty stuff. Do you know what I mean?”
Silence. Except for
another heavy sigh from me. I got brave:
“I turned off the radio because there was a story about 2 teen
boys who got drunk. Which of course was
a dumb decision. And there was a teenage
girl who was drunk too. So that was dumb
also. She was so drunk that she passed out cold. Which is kind of like being
asleep except no one could wake her because of how drunk she was.”
Now my heart was pounding fast. It felt like it was coming through loudspeakers.
“They were all at a party and the two teenage boys sexually
assaulted the girl.”
“You mean they murdered her?”
“No, she wasn’t killed. Assault basically means physical violence. Because it was a sexual
assault, or rape, it means these boys had a kind of sex with her that was
violent. They didn’t have her permission
or consent. She never said it was ok for the boys to do what they did because
she couldn’t. Remember that she was unconscious. Sex is supposed to be something both people
want to do.
There’s another terrible part to the story. There were a lot of
teenagers at the party. No one stopped
these boys. In fact, some of the other kids took pictures and videos and sent
messages about it on Facebook and stuff.
It seems as though they thought it was funny.”
At this point I felt physically nauseous. But now that the nasty
truth of it had been said, the chance to educate my son was available to me. I
spoke about how:
assault usually happens by boys or men and how most of the time (but not
always) the victim is a girl or woman;
physical contact between people ought to be consensual. Wrestling with his
brother is not ok unless his brother wants to wrestle. The same is true about
kissing someone, or having sex with someone;
who have sex need to be really really really sure that consent is there. Which means respecting the other person and
their body and being sure that anything that you do is something that you want
to do and that they want you to do too;
not enough to say ‘I’m pretty sure it’s ok’ or ‘last time she said yes’. Every physical contact should include
pressure often makes kids feel like they need to do certain things, or follow
along so that they fit in. It can be hard to be your own guy. It’s so important to be your own guy;
one time or another, we all see other people doing stupid, dangerous or harmful
things. Even when we aren’t actively
participating, by doing nothing, we are kind of going along with the stupid,
dangerous or harmful thing;
we witness people hurting other people (emotionally or physically), the right thing
to do is to get involved. Tell friends to stop. Call me. Get help.
We reached our destination, so it was a good time to end our
conversation. I finished by saying that
I’m always available to explain something when stuff is confusing or if he
isn’t sure what to do in any situation.
For days after, I felt unsettled in a way that I’ve never felt
before. I’ve thought about it a lot and realize a couple things:
child is losing his innocence with or without me.
all, he knows the word murder and knows what it means. And murder is not a subject understood by the
sees violence all over the place, whether in cartoons, movies, advertisements or
the school yard.
sees sexual imagery all the time too - some of which has subtle messages that
question consent or at least play up teasing, withholding and taking.
ideas are really starting to assert themselves and he isn’t even nine yet. (Of course
it started way back when baby gifts came from the ‘boy’ section of The Gap but
that’s another story.)
son needs to understand how to read social circumstances and interpret cultural
norms so that he is part of a future that doesn’t include sexual assault.
has been commentary on who the victims of Steubenville are, as news agencies
reported on the ‘ruined lives’ of the convicted young men.
I absolutely stand by the truth that the young woman is the victim of this
assault, I also believe that the young men of Steubenville and many young men
across North America (along with young women) are being short changed. Mass
media is educating them, porn is informing them and not enough trusted people
are reinforcing truths about respect, consent, self-control and other real and
powerful notions of masculinity.
- I can’t fool myself to think that this is behaviour that
only happens elsewhere. As one tragic
story of sexual assault fades in the news, another story takes its place. This time in Canada. Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after
struggling with depression that emerged following a sexual assault when she was
15. Like in Steubenville, a picture was
taken and circulated. Rehtaeh was
humiliated, bullied and shamed. The
perpetrating young men were not even charged. Each story is a tragedy; That we aren’t changing the story is a greater one.
is painful to tell my son about such terrible things, but it is far more painful
to think that he will learn about them elsewhere and it is unbearable to
imagine him learning that sexual assault is anything other than a horrific and
If you missed it Rehtaeh Parson's father wrote a moving blog post about his daughter. He writes: "My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust, her school, and the police."
How will you talk to your kids about this difficult subject?
Marnie Goldenberg trained as a lawyer but always loved her job as a sexual health educator at Planned Parenthood. She is now the sexplainer, showing people how to raise sexually intelligent kids.
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