Two years ago, I delivered an address at a university about sex-positive parenting. I told the story of how a multiple-rape survivor became an advocate for sex positivity, how I overcame guilt and shame and became determined not to impart my own fears and baggage and flaws to my children. When the Q&A came, a man stood up and said, “You’ve spoken about helping children overcome and avoid trauma — but how do we stop them from growing up to become abusers?”
It’s hard sometimes, I say. But mostly it’s simple.
1. Start at the beginning.
2. As they learn to communicate and name their parts, give them a vocabulary to understand them.
“These are your toes,” you’ll coo. “These are your fingers!” But also, “This is your penis!” or “This is your vulva!”
3. When they explore their bodies, tell them there are times it’s OK to be naked and times it’s not.
Tell them nobody is allowed to force them to be naked, and nobody should take their clothes off around them, either.
4. At 2 years old, you are protecting them from predators, teaching them to use language to define bodies and what happens to them.
5. When your child becomes social, don’t shrug off violent behavior, saying, “Boys will be boys.”
When another child hits them, teach them this phrase: “I’m in charge of my body!”
6. At 4 years old, you are helping your child define their own autonomy over their body and teaching them everyone has the same control over themselves.
You are teaching them they’re responsible for their bodies, their actions, the things their bodies do to other bodies. You are teaching them self-control. You are teaching them consent.
7. When your child becomes curious about where they came from, tell them the truth about sex.
Tell them there are many ways to make and be a family. Your child might be gay. Your child might be trans. Your child might be different from you, and now is the time when you decide if this difference is a rift between you or another thing to learn and love. Tell your child how babies are made, that babies are loved and that you love them. Always tell them you love them.
8. At 6 years old, your child will be confident that whoever they are, for the rest of their lives, they will always be yours.
9. When your child hits puberty, talk about sex again.
Don’t stop at procreation. Tell them porn is not like sex — that while porn sex is positioned for cameras and lights, real sex is intimate. It involves closeness. It involves vulnerability. And it involves enthusiastic participation from everyone involved well before the clothes come off. Tell them people have hair on their bodies. They have fat, pimples and stretch marks. Tell them before they do anything with a partner, be certain they want it done. Tell them to remember who’s in charge of their body.
10. But also tell them the world is about to become more confusing.
Tell them that when adults shout at children from moving cars or holler at them on the sidewalk or try to touch them as they walk by, it is not OK. Tell them sex is a nice thing between consenting adults, but there is another side to these actions. Tell them that just as high-fiving somebody who doesn’t want you to is a slap, touching somebody’s genitals who does not want you to is rape. Tell them 1 in 4 women experiences it. Tell them 1 in 7 men experiences it. Tell them it is usually someone known to the victim, that both men and women can do this — that they must never ignore the words “no” or “stop,” that they must look in their partner’s eyes to determine whether they see joy or fear. Tell them it stays with a survivor for a lifetime.
11. Tell them they should believe someone who says they’ve been assaulted.
Tell them it is never a victim’s fault. Tell them they can tell you, and you will move the earth to ensure they find justice, and do everything in your power to help them heal. Tell your sons as well as your daughters — tell them your heart will break for their pain, but you will love them. Tell them you will always love them.
12. At 12 years old, your child will not believe people are objects to conquer.
They will not believe they are entitled to sex. Your child will understand the difference between sex and violence.
13. When your child begins to go on dates, talk about sex again.
Tell them the risks of sex. Tell them they can become grievously sick, but can avoid STIs as well. Talk about birth control, and that while you may or may not think it is an evil thing, abortions are safe and legal. Tell them that no matter what they do, you will love them. Offer to buy them a vibrator or non-exploitative pornography. Let them know they’re allowed to explore their bodies, that they don’t need another person to enjoy their sexuality, that they can be safe and sexual. Let them know they never have to say “yes.”
14. Tell your child they’ll hear friends make jokes disparaging the opposite sex.
Tell them if a friend says something that makes them uncomfortable, say something. Tell them they make themselves and their friends safer by calling it out.
15. At 16, your child will be protected from most abusive relationships. Your child will be ready to navigate this most adult of worlds with confidence that they can talk to you.
16. Love them.
Love them as much as you did the first time they laughed when you cooed, “These are your toes!”
17. Start at the beginning.