Communicating With Children About The Realities Of Sexual Assault
Creating safe spaces for dialogue.
Rape is in my family lineage. My maternal grandmother was raped at 15 and her first daughter was born as a result. My mother, who was her third and last born, told me about my grandmother’s experience when I was 12 years old. I just got my first period at soccer practice and my mom wanted me to know how important the moment was — good and bad. After sharing how wonderful the female body is and what the menstrual cycle signifies biologically, she calmly inserted into the conversation, “If you are raped you can get pregnant.”
My period was a rite of passage for understanding the reality that a woman’s sexuality can make her a target for sexual assault. This was the pivotal statement that exposed me to my personal vulnerability as a young woman. Moreover, it became the narrative that I would carry as I joined others to fight against all forms of violence against women and girls.
In the U.S. one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lifetimes. one out of three women in the world will report some form of violence or assault in her lifetime. 91% of all rape victims in the U.S. are women. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old. About one in five (20.8%) students report being bullied. Yet, we do not talk about rape or sexual assault with our children as often as we talk about bullying.
(For more information about the prevalence of rape and other forms of sexual abuse and violence click here for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.)
My grandmother was open with my mom about the sexual assault she experienced, which encouraged my mother to share the reality of sexual violence with me. However, for most of society, stigma gets in the way of conversation. The victim of rape walks around in a stigmatized body that fears shame. Many rape survivors refuse to speak up because of the existence of a rape culture that tends to blame victims of rape and encourages them to remain silent.
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The #MeToo movement has been at the forefront of encouraging conversations about sexual assault and is helping to raise awareness about this issue. Nevertheless, the quest for justice and the stigma surrounding rape remains. (Click here for a relevant Ted Talk by Tarana Burke.) Some studies say for every African-American woman that reports rape, at least 15 do not report being assaulted. We cannot afford to be silent or ambiguous about these attacks if we want to make it clear what consent really means, helping eradicate all forms of violence and abuse.
Communication about sexual violence should be first heard in a safe, intimate space. Parents are the most trusted source for children, but many parents often do not have the necessary information and communication skills to address this issue effectively with their children. However, these conversations about the dangers of sexual assault are so important, especially in an era when we know that children are engaging in sexual behavior at younger and younger ages. These conversations can help prepare children who may be struggling to say “no” or to respect “no” on the school bus or in the bathroom.
There are several resources available to help parents talk to their children about abuse. For instance, RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) gives a great outline of how to start and continue the conversation about abuse: “It’s important to let children know they are allowed to say 'no' to touches that make them uncomfortable.”
Rape and sexual abuse are widespread across the nation, but it will become a myth to our children — leaving them to think that it cannot happen to them — if we do not alert them of the possibilities and vulnerabilities. Soon I plan to discuss what rape means to my sons who are nine and seven years old. Because of male privilege, they are at risk of not understanding what consent truly is and are more likely to keep quiet if they experience abuse or assault themselves. A recent article in TIME magazine found that boys “struggle in the absence of information. They are looking for leadership and models of behavior. They share a desire to learn more [about sexual assault].” I will share with my boys the legacy of surviving rape in our family and what they should do to join the fight against all forms of sexual violence and abuse. As we model behavior for our children, it is essential how my husband, their father and I discuss these issues with each other so that we have consistent messaging as their care-givers.
Parents are mandated to talk to their children about sex, in age-appropriate ways, and we should do the same when it comes to rape and sexual assault. Responsible parents talk to their children about rape and other forms of violence and abuse. It’s a series of conversations that parents should have with their children. Since April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, let us engage our children to discuss their understanding and perceptions about sexual assault in a safe and empowering environment. Here are some starting points that will serve you in discussing these issues throughout their childhood development:
Stay educated and be factual — Stay aware of current information through trusted resources. Teach them about consent. Teach your child so they can inform others.
Defeat stigma and rape culture by clearly stating that violence and abuse are rooted in systemic institutions and pervasive ideology of patriarchy and toxic masculinity. It is not about what you wear or how you look; rape is a crime. It is never the victim’s fault.
Listen to your child — Give your child a chance to tell you what they are feeling and what they understand. Watch their body language. If they are uncomfortable, take a break and continue the conversation later.
Believe your child — If they disclose being violated or being the perpetrator, be there. Get them help. (See here for the national hotline.)
Protect your child — Let them know that their safety and well-being is your ultimate goal. Remind them that you will provide unwavering support.
This is just a start. Through honest and informed dialogue with our children we can break the stigma and end the silencing and shame around violence and abuse. It starts in the home.