#MyChildKnows: Teaching our sons and daughters about consent

Earlier this week, friend, fellow writer, and awesome mom Colleen Hoover posted this tweet with the hashtag #MyChildKnows. I was hoping others would follow suit. I was hoping it would start trending. So far it hasn’t, and that worries me.

I haven’t really posted anything here or on social media about the horrendous sentence given to the rapist from Stanford or the heart-breaking and eloquent letter from his victim that was made public last weekend. It’s a hard subject for me to write about, though I have read the victim’s letter and I urge you to do so. Please, do so. It’s not easy to read. It shouldn’t be because rape and sexual assaults are not easy things to live with.

I know this because I was molested by a family friend when I was thirteen.

I hate writing that sentence. I hate it, even though it’s something that happened over twenty-five years ago. I hate it. I hate how exposed it makes me feel. I hate how this labels me to some people. I hate hate hate everything about having to write it.

When I was writing Building From Ashes, which dealt with sexual abuse, I felt like I was running naked down the middle of the road and exposing myself. Shame is not logical. Feelings are not truth. Even after all these years, I felt like readers were going to KNOW. Everyone would KNOW. It literally made me sick to my stomach. I still have mixed feelings about that book, and I know part of the reason is my own feelings about what happened to me.

The victim in this case mentioned a sweatshirt the hospital staff had given her as being a touchstone to the horrid reality of that night. Mine was a set of pajamas that sat in the bottom of my drawer as a child. I never threw them away, but I never wore them ever again. Not once. When it came time to cull my clothes to give to charity, I secretly threw them in the trash rather than give them to another little girl.

I want to be clear: What happened to me wasn’t physically violent. I didn’t end up with scratches and bruises and pine needles ground into my hair. It wasn’t long term. It’s something that happened twice and I was the one who put a stop to it.

And I still feel this strongly.

Which should tell you a little bit how much this experience changes people. It should tell you how the act of violating the sanctity of another person’s body changes that person. It should tell you how a “six months in county jail” sentence feels to anyone who has experienced anything like this.

This rapist has to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life? Good. Because I can promise you when his victim is a 39-year-old successful writer/doctor/mother/teacher/whatever, she will still be living with this. It will have unseen consequences over things in her life that she has no idea about yet. And I hate that for her. I hate it, and yet it is the reality of abuse.

It is the reality of a culture that does not respect the autonomy or sacredness of individual bodies, especially those of girls and women. Our bodies are dissected by pop culture and rated for desirability and social currency. We are given number ratings and nicknames. Girls cut their bodies to alter their appearance. They starve themselves and are told “You look great! Have you lost weight?” which equates thinness with beauty, happiness, and worth.

Our culture has made women’s bodies public property through social media and advertising, entertainment both high and low-brow. Is it any wonder that sexual assault is booming on college campuses? That young men think it’s funny to film friends (both male and female) who have drunk too much and put embarrassing videos on YouTube for public consumption?

This young man took an unconscious girl behind a dumpster and violated her.

We need to stop asking why these things happen. Isn’t it obvious? He thought he was entitled to her.

Maybe no one had ever told him no. Maybe his parents gave in to his every whim. Maybe they didn’t. But it seems pretty clear that they never taught him that other people’s bodies are sacred. That sharing touch and intimacy is an inviolable act of trust that should never ever be taken. That consent can never be assumed; it can only be given.

“But my son or daughter would never—”

Are you sure? Because unless you’re giving them clear, direct messages about consent and the sacredness of the individual, our culture is giving them very different messages. Unless you’re teaching your son that his job when faced with an unconscious girl is to get her to a safe place and make sure she’s looked after by people she trusts, his peers may be teaching him different things. Unless you’re teaching your daughter that physical response does not equal emotional desire, she may assume otherwise.

Both girls and boys can be the victims of sexual coercion and assault. If you’re not teaching them about consent, then who is? If you’re not teaching them that trust is not assumed, it is earned, then where will they get that message? Not from the world around them, that’s for sure.

Your children only get the right messages when YOU are the one teaching them about consent.

We teach young children about their bodies so they can have a healthy understanding of them and what sex is. We teach them at age-appropriate levels. We teach them progressively. But are we teaching them about consent? We should be.

Does your child know?

Teaching about consent gives our children and young people a different perspective—the correct one—about their own bodies and how those bodies relate to others. Teaching consent is not about assuming your son or daughter is going to be a rapist, it’s about teaching respect. It’s about teaching him or her how they can be the hero and the protector of themselves and others.

My body is sacred to me. It is mine. No one has the right to touch it or take it without my consent. I do not have the right to anyone else’s body, nor can I assume that right. I choose to say yes or no, just as others choose to say yes or no. I do not have the right to make that decision for another, just as no one has the right to make that decision for me. If I witness anyone stealing that right from another, I have a responsibility to help the one being violated. To not act is to be complicit in theft.

Does your child understand all this? If not, then who is going to teach them? Their peers? Our messed-up, superficial, materialistic culture? Don’t take chances. Don’t assume. Make sure your child knows.

Posted in Writing.

7 Comments

  1. 16 years old, uncle – different facts, same lifelong ramifications – too many of us can and do empathise. And yes, my 13-year-old son does ‘know,’ but that won’t stop me reminding him.

  2. This story I have been posting about on fb and spreading his picture as well. It has struck a chord with me and the injustices of what happened to her and his sentence is just heart wrenching. It seems like men and women were on equal footing and then you hear a story like this and it seems like we are years apart again. This is about rape, gender inequality and the rich man’s privilege and it’s about teaching our kids respect, responsibility and accountability. Educating the people is only the first step unfortunately and its a very long road to get everyone on board. My heart aches for Emily and I sincerely hope she finds a way to rise above this to live a normal life.

  3. Pingback: It's Needling Me. - Reader Eater

  4. POWERFUL ! I’m encouraging everyone I know to Share this ……. WE can make the difference to help others ! All of us thank you so very much, Elizabeth Hunter ! ……. for Standing Up and Giving of yourself to Help ! Your Courage, your Caring ….. AMAZING GRACE, you are !!

  5. Everything about this is hard to read, but thank you for sharing. I hope that open dialogue will encourage more parents to talk to their children about consent and respect. My son heard a very basic explanation this afternoon (and he’s 4, almost 5.), and that’s because your post reminded me that I need to be talking about it with him. Lastly, you said that writing Building From Ashes was like running naked down the street, exposing yourself – reading Building From Ashes was really hard for me, for similar reasons, but in the end, it ended up being my favorite out of all of your books (that I’ve read so far). I think Brigid’s strength and resiliency had something to do with it. So, thanks for the blog post, and thanks for your amazing books. Big supportive hug from a fellow survivor <3

Leave a Reply