I recently listened to an interview by host Kevin McDonald that really spoke to me. The guest was a woman whose teenage daughter had been sexually assaulted while volunteering at a church’s soup kitchen – assaulted while there were 50 attendees, 24 students and 4 supervising teachers. She wasn’t alone in some dark alley at night. And instead of insisting her daughter stop volunteering, which would be many parents’ reaction, Amy Carpenter helped her daughter press charges, deal with the immediate emotional aftermath, and didn’t stop there. She educated herself on blind spots she as a parent had, blind spots the supervising teachers had, and blind spots the students had, and created a sexual safety education program that includes two books she wrote.
After listening to the interview (the first hour of Martha Norwalk’s Animal World radio show on 6/27/21, hosted this show by Kevin McDonald), my biggest takeaways were a few things.
First and foremost, the definition of sexual assault is: uncomfortable touch. It’s simple and is also subjective. What’s comfortable one night may not feel comfortable the next night or day. And conversely, what’s not comfortable one day may become comfortable later on as a relationship develops. And my next takeaway was that we need to give our children and teens scripts to use when they find themselves in uncomfortable situations such as being attracted to another person and wanting to get closer but not sure what to say to make sure it’s ok, or when they need to put up a personal boundary and say no to unwanted sexual attention. (I’ve actually given Little Man a few phrases to use in situations in the past, but not to do with sexual safety).
And the most important take away of all is to have those uncomfortable conversations. And if you can’t directly talk to your teen because they’re at a stage of life where they’ll only listen to their friends, if they’ll read it, slide them a copy of Amy’s book, Be Strong, Be Wise.
Ideally conversations about sexuality and sexual safety could begin when our kids are very little, telling them things like safe touch is outside of where their bathing suit (or underwear) covers. And expanding the conversation as the child grows and becomes more curious. I remember talking with Little Man about things like the differences between his body and daddy’s, that he would grow hair on his arms and legs like daddy, and when Little Man was older having conversations about facial hair and hair other places such as under the arms and between the legs. And one little chat about masturbation when he was around fifteen that was mortifying for both of us.
Because Little Man’s life has had him at home quite a bit for the past few years and his contact with girls has mostly been online via a headset, hearing the voice but having visuals only via character avatars, we haven’t talked much about becoming intimate, giving and getting consent, and about sexual safety in general. But there’s been a running commentary for years between us about listening to your gut and honoring the body’s messages when it comes to whether a person feels safe or not.
Having grown up in an environment that wasn’t always safe, I learned to blow off my gut instincts. I learned to ignore my body’s wisdom and didn’t learn how to have appropriate personal boundaries. And having done quite a bit of healing around personal boundaries I want to teach my son, both through actions and having little chats with him, not only that it’s important to develop personal boundaries, but how to do so.
Not only is talking about sexual safety often an uncomfortable topic, but talking to your kid about sexual intimacy is probably one of the most dreaded conversations. That said, your child can sit through a health education class or watch a film to learn about how bodies mature and how babies are made, but it’s something else to educate them on when during a relationship it’s right or appropriate to be sexually active and to what extent. And to know about using contraception. Who would be using it, when, and what kind.
You might not like the thought of your precious baby having a one night stand, and while this may never be a thing for them, it absolutely happens. And if they don’t want to take a chance of catching a sexually transmitted disease that’s incurable, like herpes or AIDS, there better be a condom involved, be it male or female. And normalizing conversations around birth control, making sure your kiddo knows that every time they have sex without it, they could become a parent. Mother Nature doesn’t care if they are thirteen, twenty-three or fifty-three and still fertile (yup, one of my classmates in college was the product of a mother who thought she was no longer fertile in her early fifties).
The point is, as a parent it’s so very important to have all sorts of conversations with our kids. Not only the fun ones like helping them figure out what outfit to wear to the prom, but the uncomfortable ones that could keep them from becoming a parent before they’re ready, getting a sexually transmitted disease that could stay with them for life, or could prevent them from becoming a victim of sexual assault. And the more we model being brave around talking about uncomfortable things, the more brave our kids will be. Some cycles are worth perpetuating.