Your kids need to hear you talk about rape… now

The recent case of a Stanford University athlete charged with sexual assault has parents divided. Even after former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was sentenced to jail for six months last week for sexual assault, his father made a controversial statement defending his son’s actions.

The rape occurred in 2015, when Turner, 20, was found on top of an unconscious woman outside the Kappa Alpha fraternity by two graduate students. In response to what many perceive to be a lenient sentence for such a public and violent attack, his victim released the powerful letter she’d read to Turner in court to BuzzFeed News. Dan Turner, Brock’s father, however, felt differently and defended his son in his own letter, saying that he shouldn’t have to go to prison for “20 minutes of action.” Dan Turner also blamed the “campus drinking culture” instead of his son.

Turner’s heading to jail, but that doesn’t erase what happened to his victim — or the judgments people have made for and against his crime. And while the Stanford rape case will soon disappear from headlines, incidents like this are unfortunately seeming more like the norm than the exception.

Which raises the question: How can we as parents help prevent them?

We currently live in a cultural climate where incidents like what happened at Stanford or in Steubenville, Ohio, seem much more frequent. With easy access to social media, we have more of a window into the behavior of teens, and frankly, it can be terrifying. In both these situations, none of the boys involved thought they were really doing anything wrong.

This is important to understand, because it makes this whole thing even more terrifying. These teenage boys sexually assaulted young girls (and in the Steubenville case, they filmed it) and didn’t think they were doing anything wrong. This is a huge consequence of rape culture — where rape is normalized and pervasive due to sexism, objectification and an overall patriarchal attitude regarding sex and gender.

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As parents, how do we talk to our kids about these situations and ways to avoid them? SheKnows spoke with Angela Rose, executive director of Promoting Awareness Victim Empowerment, to learn more. Rose, who has been working in the area of rape culture since she was 17, says that while there aren’t necessarily more incidents of rape at the teen level, it’s being reported more. According to Rose, when she was a teen, there was no education on consent or rape culture.

That needs to change. Rose says that starting young is very important. “There are age-appropriate ways to teach this,” she tells SheKnows. For young kids, it can be as simple as allowing them to have ownership over their own bodies so they can understand why it’s so important to allow others ownership over their own. It’s never too young to teach consent, whether it’s about hugs, tickling or other bodily contact. Then, when it comes to talking about sexual consent, your kids will already have a base from which to pull.

It’s also important to move away from the “stranger-danger” mentality, Rose says. She says that most often it is someone we know and trust who commits sexual assault crimes. One need only look as far as Josh Duggar to see how that can play out.

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So what can we actually do to help prevent our kids from finding themselves in similar situations? Rose shared three tips for talking to your children with SheKnows:

talking to kids about consent
Image: Design via Terese Condella/SheKnows; Image via Getty Images

1. Teach children to respect their bodies, their boundaries and to honor others’ bodies and boundaries. Even as simple as not forcing your child to hug someone they don’t want to at a family gathering — allow them to have personal autonomy.

2. Teach five essentials of consent: verbal, sober, enthusiastic, freely given and consistent.

3. Know how to support: Studies show that if the first person a survivor opens up to reacts well, their response can greatly impact the victim’s healing process:

  • Believe anyone who discloses sexual abuse to you.
  • Avoid language that blames the victim.
  • Encourage professional counseling.
  • Let the victim know they are not alone and that healing is possible.
  • Reassure them that it was not their fault.

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For older kids, Rose suggests watching news stories together and talking about them, especially if what happens results in real-life consequences. Rose really drives it home when she shares that “the topic of sexual assault is not easy to discuss, but if we continue to ignore it, we continue to fail our children!”

Originally published Aug. 2015. Updated June 2016.