Monday, March 18, 2013

What you really need to tell teens about sexual assault

The Steubenville Ohio rape case highlighted a huge ugly disturbing gap in our society about rape. Internet outrage erupted about the "drunk girl" and "getting what was deserved." There was a lot of nasty commentary about all the things women and girls need to do to not get raped (as if rape and rapists are completely fair and only go after the deserving). People commented in typical "blame the victim" ways, shamefully and appallingly. It made me fear for humanity.

Maybe, possibly, worst of all, major news network CNN reported the case from a distressingly sympathetic view for...the convicted rapists. Reporters Poppy Harlow and Candy Crowley evinced grief about the convicted rapists' lost bright futures.

As the brilliant Gawker piece by Mallory Ortberg said:
People who commit acts of sexual violence (rape, for example) and are convicted in a court of law are required to register with the national sex offender public registry, so that future employers and neighbors might do things like check said registry.
For readers interested in learning more about how not to be labeled as registered sex offenders, a good first step is not to rape unconscious women, no matter how good your grades are. 
Yes, yes that's very smart: if you do not want to tank your bright, promising future, do not commit illegal acts, especially ones that are sexual assaults on young girls. Also, do not further assault her by videotaping, photographing and distributing that material online because that's breaking another law. Or two. Then, do not threaten and harass her in person and via texts, because that's breaking another law.

If you do feel compelled to sexually assault an unconscious teen girl, do not tell yourself it's okay because she's "drunk" or "asking for it." Instead, call a trusted voice of reason and say "hey I am feeling that psychopathic urge to harm another human being again...remind me why it's wrong."

Rape is pretty simple: it's when you force a sexual act (and these boys learned how very broad that phrase "sexual act" is during their trial) on an unwilling person. There is no reason or excuse for rape. Therefore, it is not incumbent on the victim not to be be raped. It is incumbent on other humans not to rape, under any condition or situation. It is further incumbent on other humans to contact police if a felony such as rape is being committed.

But let's also not forget it is incumbent on humans to be good friends to one another and good stewards of humanity. I'm sure none of us want to have any of our kids learn that through a tragedy like this.

So to that end, here's a list of things I thought of that parents should talk to kids about to prevent sexual assault (hint: it's not a job for parents of daughters to teach their girls how not to be raped, and there will be no tip about modest dress in this list) AND things men and women should discuss to clear up any gray areas.

In no particular order -- with the understanding that no, it's not 100% complete (comment additions welcome) and none of it is easy but neither is going to prison and having a record, and, worse, harming another human being on purpose:
  1. If you see someone doing something bad or harmful, speak up or go get someone who will.
  2. If your friends want you to join in something bad, such as a sexual assault, simply say, "No way, jackass, I don't want to end up like those Steubenville dudes and also, way uncool." Try to convince them to stop and if they won't, go get help (you can call 911 to report a felony, such as rape, in progress).
  3. If your friends try to pressure you into doing something bad for you, they aren't friends. They are what is called bad influences. Say adios and find a new group.
  4. If your friends do bad things to other people, they aren't good kids. They are bad kids. Say adios and find a new group.
  5. Be a good friend. Don't abandon or desert friends in need, or during or after a harmful situation. If you're afraid, that's understandable. Find a trusted adult who can help you. And hey, adults, a lot of kids don't have good support in their lives. Be that person if you can be.
  6. If you are there, you are a part of it. Let's look at the legal consequences of accessory.
  7. If you intend to try to have sex with a person, be open about that, "I'm really attracted to you and would like to make love tonight." If you aren't mature enough to have that open and honest conversation -- which would include contraception and disease prevention and total and utter respect of the other person's answer, even if it is no -- then you are not mature enough for sex. Even if you are 50 years old. Oh, does it ruin the romance for you? Well huh. It seems to be pretty widely regarded as romantic and sexy for someone to want you and be attracted to you, and to be confident enough to say so? *fans self*
  8. Number 7 doesn't mean you get to hoot and holler and say, "I wanna sex you up" to anyone you find attractive. That's not okay. Number 7 means talking with someone you've gotten to know, are becoming involved with, and have a mutual attraction. It's not okay to make someone feel unsafe by yelling out to them in public what you'd like to do to their body -- a lot of people find that a threat, actually, and abusive.
  9. If you prefer a charm and seduction scenario, see #7. Avoid gray areas. Make sure, before there is a Moment, that everyone is crystal clear about Yes and okay with proceeding. It's not rape, but I know way too many women who had Unwelcome Sex because they felt pressured or past a point of being able to say no. Make sure your partner is definitely willing and open the door for a change of mind or heart. That's being a good lover. 100% true.
  10. Never, even threaten or manipulate a person into having sex with you. That makes you a bad person and barely a step above rapist. Don't tell a person you'll break up or your needs are more important or whatever pressure you try to exert to force someone into sex. If a relationship isn't working, end it with dignity and respect. Do not try to harm another person's psyche. That is abuse.
  11. If you harm another person, they didn't ruin your life, you did. You harmed that person. Take responsibility.
  12. If you are a teen and get in over your head, get to a trusted person, preferably an adult, and get help. Parents, you should have a teen safe word/get out of jail free card. I am a true believer in natural and logical consequences, but there are times when rewarding good judgment ("I'm in over my head and need help") is more important.
  13. Get in there and get to know your kids' friends...as a grown-up and parent, not as a buddy. I'm amazed what teens are willing to talk to interested adults about on life topics.
  14. Tell your kids if they do something wrong, it's on them. Hopefully you've told them this since day 1, but be consistent on it. Don't make excuses. I mean it: Do Not Make Excuses. Hold kids accountable and keep firm on that line. Trust me, I know how tough this is. Even when I think a situation is unfair, I use it as a learning tool: life is unfair, it's up to you to respond well.
  15. Watch how you talk. If you denigrate or dehumanize any group of people, your kids will too. And if they act on it, they'll probably break the law. If they do, they were the bad person who did the bad thing. Nobody ever does anything that asks another person to harm them. Let's be crystal clear: if you harm another person, that is because of a problem in YOU, not because of the other person.
  16. You never have an excuse for using your technology to harass another person, either by taking bad photos, sending harassing messages, bullying, etc. or perpetuating it by passing it along. If you do this, you -- by which I mean YOU -- are the problem.
  17. The measure of you as a person has nothing to do with how much sex you do or do not have. Sex does not make you a good person, a cool person, a stud, a slut, a bad person, a grown-up, or anything at all other than a person who is or is not having sex. People will always be curious about the sex you are or are not having. Mainly because as humans we need to connect with others and weigh ourselves against a norm. It's nobody's actual business, though, except yours. If you share your sexual information without your partner's consent, you have breached trust and done a bad thing. In general, best to respect privacy and not kiss and tell.
  18. Rape is not sex. It is assault, and it is about a dysfunctional psyche and power over another person. People who rape are messed up individuals doing a messed up thing. Anyone who lauds it is also a messed up individual doing a messed up thing. Don't be a hot mess.
  19. Make sure kids understand the following about any kind of sexual act:
  • no means no
  • drunk means no
  • unconscious means no
  • even if you are a minor, if you create pornography you are breaking the law and can be jailed
  • it doesn't matter how a woman is dressed, it doesn't permit rape
  • it doesn't matter what date number it is, your date does not owe you sex
  • another person never owes you sex
  • you never owe another person sex
  • adults may not ask kids for sex
  • sex between adults and kids is actually illegal and called rape
  • even if a person invites you back home, it doesn't mean you get sex
  • nobody ever asks for "it" ("it" being sexually assaulted or harassed)
  • it's not up to a person to be "invulnerable" to protect from assault
  • it's up to you NOT to assault another person


It's hard enough to talk to teens about sex. I'm with you on the challenges. I'm still with you on talking to teens about the harder stuff like sexual assault, but truth: ignorance is not bliss; it's complicit. Forewarned is forearmed and if you prepare your teens, they do not have to figure it out in the complicated and pressure-laden moment. They can pull out their pre-prepared decision and statement  as well as action.

No guarantees but I'd rather feel as if I did all I could or should whatever comes.

Some more resources:

I wasn't really able to quickly or easily find great resources about how to teach your teens to not be a part of sexual assault. I found a lot targeting women taking "steps" to "prevent rape." If you do have any good resources, please share in comments.

Rape Needs No Redefinition by Ilina Ewen: "There is no rape continuum that defines one type of rape as worse than another. To fathom that there is a kind of rape that is more forcible than another is ludicrous at best, callous at worst. Rape is, by definition, forcible. Macmillain dictionary defines rape as "the crime of forcing someone to have sex by using violence." Rape is a forcible assault and violation that has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power.  Rape is a raw, crude act of violence that leaves its victims wretching and writhing with a lifetime of pain."

Talk to a Teen to Prevent Sexual Violence -- Tips from Cleveland Rape Crisis Center

Resisting Peer Pressure -- a site aimed at teens but useful for parents (how to talk about these things and what to talk about), chock full of great resources and information.

Sexual Abuse and Harassment -- a site full of facts and resources, information about law and how it affects you and your actions as a teen, definitions and explanations of terms kids hear such as sexual assault and consent, and more.

Talking about the tough stuff with our kids -- a great personal story and advice from Colleen Pence: "I was once a 17-year-old drunk girl, saved twice by the grace of God (and dear friends) from would-be, teenage (possibly first-time) rapists who, under any other circumstances, were considered to be “good” boys. They were friends of mine."

Your Body is Never the Problem -- a fantastic article suggested by Heidi Massey that brilliantly discusses why modest dress doesn't solve the problem because how women dress is not the problem.

A Letter To My Sons About Stopping Rape -- suggested by Kate Woodman, this letter rocks it and shows how brilliantly so many mothers of sons are raising their boys.

Lesson From Steubenville Rape Trial: How Jock Culture Morphs Into Rape Culture - Forbes -- suggested by Amanda Quraishi, a really good exploration of how rape culture forms opportunity and overcomes moral lessons.

Steubenville, Candy Crowley And The Social License To Operate: An Open Letter -- suggested by Bob Le Drew, this article is more of a resource than the title suggests. It really is full of perspective and talking points.

Boys & Rape -- suggested by Becky Gjendem, this article tells parents you have to set the right model for kids, because an example is worth a million words.

Fathers Must Teach Their Sons That Rape is Unacceptable -- last but not at all least is this great essay from my friend Fred Goodall, which demonstrates why I think he is such a fantastic guy, and really nails the importance of how fathers must teach sons that women are people, not sexual objects.