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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' 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.


Ilina said…
I am the mother of 2 sons. It is my duty as a parent to talk openly with my sons (when they are older than 9 and 7, granted) about rape, power, violence, and respect. The onus is on the violator, not the victim.
Tanis Miller said…
I've been having an ongoing discussion with my kids (boy and girl) about rape, respect, social media and mob mentality. Thank you for this post. More parents need to have this frank discussion with their kids.
Andrea said…
Great post. I have two sons, and though they are very young, we already talk about treating others how you want to be treated, respect, boundaries etc. We will continue to discuss these things in an age-appropriate manner as they grow up. I think you are right, it comes down to humanity and taking responsibility for actions. The fact the rapists are getting more sympathy on TV news than the victim just makes me feel ill.
Tamzyn said…
Excellent post! A great resource for parents on how to talk to kids/teens about sexual ethics is Ten Talks Parents Must Have With Their Children About Sex and Character, by Pepper Schwartz, PhD. I've been a parent educator and family counselor for a long time, and this is one of my favorite references. Thanks for putting the spotlight in the right place!
Laura in Little Rock said…
I love your list and plan to use it when my pre-teen is old enough to consider that sexuality can be both a weapon and a weakness.

As a 35yo, I'm impressed how much it was stressed in my "first-year" orientation at college, that ANYONE intoxicated was not capable of legal consent. The kicker... I attended a WOMAN's college. There were no males on campus to hear the spiel. However, years later, the concept resonates. I'm raising 3 kiddos, none quite yet old enough for this conversation, but I'm clearly aware that both my daughters and my son need to hear it. I also know I'll be referring to the in/sensitive coverage of these events for what _all_ can go wrong.
Julie Pippert said…
Tamzyn, yes thank you!

Andrea, i heartily agree you can start with the seeds for the very young. I have too.

Thanks so much Laura!

Ilina and Tanis, thanks for sharing and caring!
Jim said…
This is a really good post.
StarTraci said…
Well said, as always, Julie! As disgusting as the rape was, the collective of response repulsed me even more. The number of teens who virtually cheered the actions of the boys makes me want to vomit even now. It is much the same lesson as bullying. If you stand by, if you don't help, if (worse) you continue the vile act by supporting the perpetrators, you are guilty, as well! I teach my children this with bullies and I hope they are hearing me. I hope that they will do better than these kids. And as they grow and get older, I will continue these lessons with sexual acts. I pray that they will be the children I want them to be in these moments.
Julie Pippert said…
Thanks Jim and Traci!

For those with young kids, here is how I have had this conversation with them from earliest years:

I started some form of this kind of discussion with them from birth.

When they were little, I never forced body contact (relatives had to respect the kids' wishes as far as proximity and contact went). I emphasized the importance of respecting other people's bodies and wishes (if someone says don't touch me then stop, read and respect others' wishes wrt contact).

It's gotten more complex as they've gotten older. I've kept it up though. I've found some resources but I've also discovered that tweens and teens have a remarkable ability not to apply lessons to themselves. So as helpful as the resources -- books, articles, and videos -- are for naming things, i have to keep up conversations about their lives and what's happening and draw parallels.

One day recently we watched a show about the dangers of stupid stunts, how kids are doing them and being inspired by YouTube, and why they keep doing them even when they've been hurt or seen a friend killed. We talked very openly and my daughter was very aware of how stupid those stunts were and why it was bad to do them or get peer pressured into dares.

And yet! Shortly after that she attended a party, came home, told me a story about some boys doing stupid and dangerous stunts. She told it humorously, as in how cool and funny it was. Our conversation had fled her mind. And so...I said how is that different than the stupid stunts we just talked about? What could have happened? What should have happened?

All of the sudden she got it: it was easy to judge the kids in the news story (strangers) and easy to get sucked in with the kids at the party (friends). Laughing egged them on and was wrong. When one wanted to stop and the kids egged him on to keep going was wrong.

So it's an ongoing process from beginning on to talk about these things, name them and apply lessons to the kids' own real lives. You just keep upping the discussions as they get older.
All excellent points... and echoes much of my feelings as well. The shift in our Rape Culture will happen through our sons not our daughters. As a feminist and survivor, I know why I gave birth to boys.
PS - shared this on Reddit.
Sean said…
Excellent article! The victim is just that A VICTIM!

As a person, I have focused the last few years of my life helping women learn self defense techniques to defend themselves against rape, sexual assault, and abuse. It has been great for my soul!
As a father of two young boys (6 and 11), I drill into their heads that women MUST be respected and loved not thought of as objects and abused. I make sure they see how I treat their mom (my wife) with honor, respect, and love. Lead by example!
S said…
You are so good at synthesizing information, Julie.
Kimos said…
For parents of pre-teens, please do not think it is too early to start having these talks. In our local school(wealthy suburban) district, I know of a 5th grader who became pregnant. And lots of middle school girls are being pressured to have oral sex - boys assure them that it isn't Really sex at all.

Girls and boys need discussions about sex, coercion, and respect long before you expect them to be interested in sex. Sad that it is so.
Julie Pippert said…
Jenni, thanks so much for sharing it out on reddit!

Sean you definitely lead your kids and hopefully others too with that!

Sarah, thanks!

Kimos, I could not agree more. Excellent point. I concur in a way it's sad we have to teach this for protection, but at heart it's always a good lesson to learn to respect your self and your body and also others, too.
Stimey said…
Every single damn thing in this post: YES.
Jennifer Fink said…
Thanks for linking to my blog post. I really appreciate it. Steubenville was awful, but I really hope that it's a turning point.
Magpie said…
thank you for this. i stuck it in evernote for future reference...

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