In 2016, it was Stanford University freshman Brock Turner. In 2017, it was movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. In 2018, it was Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Of course, these are only a few of the high-profile allegations of sexual assault to have made the headlines over the last few years — and they’re a mere drop in the ocean when you consider the bigger picture.
It’s impossible to say exactly how many sexual assaults are committed in the U.S. each year, as so many of them go unreported, but a conservative estimate from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, is that an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds.
This is something we need to talk to our kids about — no matter how uncomfortable or difficult that conversation may be.
While stories about the likes of Weinstein and Kavanaugh are hard to miss if you’re a teenager obsessed with social media, these notorious cases don’t quite provide the conversation-starter necessary to talk to younger children about sexual assault and consent. And experts say that’s exactly what we should be doing — from a young age.
The earlier we talk to kids about consent, the better, Chasity Chandler, a licensed mental health counselor and certified sex therapist, tells SheKnows. Chandler specializes in working with children, teens and adults about sexuality and sex-related topics and runs a workshop for parents on how to talk to their kids about sex. “Touching, kissing, etc., should be discussed with a child as early as they have knowledge of the terms,” she tells SheKnows. “Making small kids accept kisses from adults when they are visually uncomfortable or pulling away is a good example of a situation in which consent can be taught.”
Any discussion about rape and consent needs to begin with the establishment of personal space and ownership of one’s own body and space, Dr. Mayra Mendez, a licensed psychotherapist, tells SheKnows. Mendez is also program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, California.
With a young child (under 5 years), Mendez suggests taking advantage of situations that lend themselves to a conversation about boundaries and personal space — for example, when the child is reaching out to grab something from another person or touching someone else’s body. “The parent can respond with gentle redirection and teaching of boundaries, modeling ‘no touch’ situations and affirming the importance and value of sharing thoughts and concerns,” she tells SheKnows.
Basic daily activities like bathing can be used as learning experiences about consent, says Chandler. However, she advises against using nicknames or pet names for genitalia because abusers often use these terminologies to conceal and continue their behavior. “Explaining and using proper terminology equips your child with a tool needed to ask for help and be understood,” she explains.
When children reach school age (6 to 12 years), it’s important to have an open dialogue at home about personal boundaries and consent, says licensed marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind. She suggests using the concept of “the personal bubble,” which is an invisible bubble around you. “If someone is going to come into your bubble, you have the power to say yes or no, i.e., to give or not give consent,” she explains. “Ask your child, ‘Who can safely come into your bubble?’ For example, hugs from parents can feel really good and so can goodnight kisses from siblings. You can also ask your child, ‘When has someone come into your bubble that you didn’t want to come in?'”
Adolescents (13 to 17 years) need honesty from their parents about sexuality and relationships. “Talking about sexual violence is a responsibility that parents must undertake to set their teens on a path of awareness and knowledge,” says Mendez. Parents should talk about compromising behaviors, sexuality and sexual violence, and [it] is most effective and productive when the focus is on building awareness and creating an atmosphere of support and guidance rather than instilling fear or not talking about sexual matters at all.”
The more open parents are about sex, the more likely their kids are to feel comfortable with the topic and ask about things they are curious about. “A lot of the messaging that we receive about sex when we are growing up is that it’s ‘bad,'” says Chandler. “We’re told, ‘Don’t do it or you’ll get pregnant or catch an STD.’ And then there are those who don’t have the ability to discuss sex with our parents or relatives due to their lack of knowledge, belief system around sex or just being too embarrassed or uncomfortable to create a space that was inviting for the conversation.”
It’s also not enough to hand your kids a book and leave them to read about “the birds and the bees.” Conversations need to go beyond sex and include how our bodies are ours and that, no matter what, we have the right to say no and not allow anyone to touch us if it’s unwanted and makes us feel uncomfortable.
“Abstinence is a great practice, but the reality of the situation is most children and teens know more about sex than we think,” says Chandler. “Plus, sex information and imagery is easily accessible on social media, the internet and almost any current TV show. Equipping kids with accurate information goes a long way toward preventing sexual assaults, feelings of shame around sex and sexuality and can possibly decrease #MeToo situations.”
Older kids, who are likely to be active on social media and be aware of news stories, may have questions and views about high-profile sexual assault cases and allegations (like Weinstein and Kavanaugh), or parents could use these as conversation starters.
“Using examples of relevant, recent news stories pertaining to sexual assault or rape cases can be a way of adding generic information to the conversation,” says Mendez. However, she also recommends sharing reliable published data from validated sources, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other evidence-based data-collecting sources. “This generalizes the information, depersonalizes the conversation and legitimizes the topic from a public awareness perspective,” she explains. “At all times, the conversation should focus on empowering rather than instilling fear and vulnerability.”
This can be challenging if there isn’t already a certain level of trust, comfort and open communication established, warns Chandler. “If there is a level of comfort or a desire to create one with your child, having these topical conversations could be a great start,” she says. “It opens the door to discussing things of a sexual nature, and it also lets your children know that they can talk to you about anything.” However, parents must be mindful of how they respond to their child’s responses or views so that it doesn’t close the door to future discussions. “It’s OK to disagree or not see eye-to-eye, but it is not OK to invalidate someone’s view because it differs from yours,” says Chandler.
And if you really are uncomfortable talking to your child about consent, sex and sexual assault, help is out there. A certified sex therapist or sex educator in your area can help you have this essential conversation.