A Parent's Responsibility in Fighting Sexual Assault
By Andrea Miller, Executive Director
April 27, 2017
In our final blog for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, CYM's Executive Director, Andrea Miller, discusses the personal responsibility she feels as a parent to discuss issues around consent and sexual violence with her children.
CONTENT WARNING: This blog contains discussions of sexual violence.
As we close the month of April honoring Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I would like to take a moment to reflect on those that have shared their stories. We all have different reasons for being in this work. It could have been one singular event or a range of influences that shaped our lives leading each of us to work for the health and well-being of our youth. We've heard heartfelt personal stories from two Colorado Youth Matter staff members; I want to thank Jessica and Jill for sharing such a personal piece of their lives. We’ve also heard from Ruthie Kolb in her monthly, educator-focused TRUST blog on how educators can talk to young people about sexual assault in the school setting. It’s worth a read (and re-read) as there are plenty of great resources for anyone with youth in their lives.
I came to CYM as a former middle school educator, a supporter of LGBTQ and women’s rights, and a victim of sexual assault as a teen. Above all else, I am a mother. This is my strongest reason for supporting the development of healthy youth. I have a personal stake in the resources and training we provide to our youth-serving professionals. As a parent I feel the heavy sense of responsibility to be mindful of the choices I make and the things I say as a trusted adult for my son and daughter. While my children learn and grow through every stage of their childhood, I want them to feel safe, to respect others and understand their potential in this world. Introducing the concepts of consent and the need to respect themselves and others starts at a very early age. Parents must create a sense of security and trust in the early stages of childhood development to encourage open and honest conversations. A study from The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy states, “Youth whose parents are open, responsive, comfortable, and confident in discussions about sex and related issues participate less often in sexual risk behavior, suggesting that the quality of communication influences the message adolescents receive about sex.”
Teaching consent and respect does not happen in one sit-down talk. It must happen continuously through teachable moments. For example, just the other day, my five year old son was jumping on our trampoline with a boy from our neighborhood. I overheard the boy say, “Let’s take our pants off.” I quickly explained that their pants needed to stay on while jumping. Within a minute after the pants comment, the boy asked my son, “What if a girl kissed your penis?” His tone was not only curious, but a bit mischievous. I asked the boys to stop jumping for a moment so we could talk about his question. I emphasized respect for girls and encouraged him to talk with his parents if he was curious about the topic. Once he had left, I intentionally sat down with my son. This was my first significant teachable moment on the issue of consent and respect. I clarified and explained that girls should be treated with respect. Each person has the right to decide what they want to have happen to their bodies. Girls were not there to exclusively satisfy boys' need for pleasure.
Private conversations between youth can, if unchecked, perpetuate a culture of sexual entitlement. Of course the boy's question had been innocent, but it still pointed toward a troubling thought: even as young as five years old, boys are learning that girls are there to contribute to male experiences and male pleasure. This long-established belief, if left to grow on its own, can eventually lead to the perpetuation of rape culture and sexual assault.
What if I hadn’t been within earshot of the conversation? (Yes, I’m aware that my son wouldn’t have had the capacity to fully articulate what I had said. Not yet, anyway.) For the sake of this conversation, let’s imagine he’s a 12-year old. I would hope that our teachable moments over the years would leave an impression. I imagine my son saying to the neighbor, “You shouldn’t say things like that. Girls deserve respect. They’re not there to do to you whatever you want them to do.” Peer pressure can work in a positive way, but the messages within those conversations have to be developed somewhere. It starts with trusted adults. As a parent, it’s imperative that I continue to have open, honest conversations about consent and sexual assault. We need to create a culture in which adults work together for our youth to define and model healthy consent, use sex-positive language, and articulate expectations on the treatment of women.
Being a parent is tough. Teaching consent is tough too. There’s a lot of worrying and fretting over values and behaviors. There are thousands of choices made with the intention of raising an independent, caring and strong-minded human being. It can be overwhelming at times. I’ve had to tell myself to hold strong to our values as a family, be open and honest with my children, and understand that this journey isn’t perfect. The best that I can do is teach and encourage my children and the youth in my life to respect one another and engage in healthy relationships, and find ways to encourage other adults to do the same. If we all work together toward a future of respect, then maybe one day children could grow up in a world where they don't have to fear sexual assault at all.