The most uncomfortable conversation with my kid: talking about rape

Until rape, and the structures – sexism, inequality, tradition – that make it possible, are part of our dinner-table conversation with the next generation, it will continue. Is it polite and comfortable to talk about it? No. Must we anyway? Yes.

It seems daunting. But which is more painful: talking sensibly with young people about this issue, the same way we might talk with them about drugs, guns or bullying, or waiting for something terrible to happen so close to home that you have to address it in a time of turmoil?

Children can seem fragile, and adults often have the mistaken notion that telling children about harsh realities will destroy their innocence. But you do not lose innocence when you learn about terrible acts; you lose your innocence when you commit them. An open culture of tolerance, honesty and discussion is the best way to safeguard innocence, not destroy it.

Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief and Sohaila Abdulali

To read the full article, published in the Guardian on April 26th, 2013, click here.

tumblr_lp9gghfXZi1qdxfk3o1_500On April 12, 2013 the following post, which I wrote, appeared on www.embracethechaos.ca.

I was driving my almost nine-year-old son home from March Break hockey camp. I had been listening to the news on the way to pick him up. I slowed at the curb and he jumped in.

For days, there had been a lot of reporting on events in the now-infamous Steubenville, Ohio. Despite the attention given to this particular incident of sexual assault (which is what it is legally called in Canada, ‘rape’ having been eliminated from the Criminal Code in 1982), my child had been spared from its ugliness. Until now. The story hit the airwaves and I turned off the radio. And then I sighed heavily.

“What?”

“What, what?”

“Why did you sigh?”

“Oh… sometimes I hate listening to the news when you’re in the car with me”

“Why?”

“Because so much of the news is about terrible stuff that happens in the world. And I want to protect you from hearing such terrible things even though they are a part of life. It’s my job to teach you about the world though, even the nasty stuff. Do you know what I mean?”

Silence. Except for another heavy sigh from me. I got brave:

“I turned off the radio because there was a story about 2 teen boys who got drunk.  Which of course was a dumb of them since people aren’t always good decision-makers when they are drunk. And there was a teenage girl who was drunk. So that was dumb also. She was so drunk that she passed out cold. Which is kind of like being asleep except no one could wake her because of how drunk she was.”

Now my heart was pounding fast. It felt like it was coming through loudspeakers.

“They were all at a party and the two teenage boys sexually assaulted the girl.”

“You mean they murdered her?”

“No, they didn’t kill her. Assault basically means physical violence. Because it was a sexual assault, or rape, it means these boys had a kind of sex with her that was violent. It was violent because they didn’t have her permission or consent. She never said it was ok for the boys to do what they did because she couldn’t. Remember that she was unconscious. Sex is supposed to be something both people want to do.

There’s another terrible part to the story. There were a lot of teenagers at the party. No one stopped these boys. In fact, some of the other kids took pictures and videos and sent messages about it on Facebook and stuff. It seems as though they thought it was funny.”

At this point I felt physically nauseous. But now that the nasty truth of it had been said, the chance to educate my son was available to me. I spoke about how:

  • Sexual assault usually happens by boys or men and how most of the time (but not always) the victim is a girl or woman;
  • Any physical contact between people ought to be consensual. Wrestling with his brother is not ok unless his brother wants to wrestle. The same is true about kissing someone, or having sex with someone;
  • People who have sex need to be really really really sure that consent is there.  Which means respecting the other person and their body and being sure that anything that you do is something that you want to do and that they want you to do too;
  • It’s not enough to say ‘I’m pretty sure it’s ok’ or ‘last time she said yes’. Every physical contact should include enthusiastic consent;
  • Peer pressure often makes kids feel like they need to do certain things, or follow along so that they fit in. It can be hard to be your own guy. It’s so important to be your own guy;
  • At one time or another, we all see other people doing stupid, dangerous or harmful things. Even when we aren’t actively participating, by doing nothing, we are kind of going along with the stupid, dangerous or harmful thing;
  • When we witness people hurting other people (emotionally or physically), the right thing to do is to get involved. Tell friends to stop. Call me. Get help.

We reached our destination, so it was a good time to end our conversation. I finished by saying that I’m always available to explain something when stuff is confusing or if he isn’t sure what to do in any situation.

For days after, I felt unsettled in a way that I’ve never felt before. I’ve thought about it a lot and realize a couple things:

1)  My child is losing his innocence with or without me.

  • After all, he knows the word murder and knows what it means. And murder is not a subject understood by the innocent.
  • He sees violence all over the place, whether in cartoons, movies, advertisements or the school yard.
  • He sees sexual imagery all the time too – some of which has subtle messages that question consent or at least play up teasing, withholding and taking.
  • Gendered ideas are really starting to assert themselves and he isn’t even nine yet. (Of course it started way back when baby gifts came from the ‘boy’ section of The Gap but that’s another story.)

2)  My son needs to understand how to read social circumstances and interpret cultural norms so that he is part of a future that doesn’t include sexual assault.

  • There has been commentary on who the victims of Steubenville are, as news agencies reported on the ‘ruined lives’ of the convicted young men.
  • While I absolutely stand by the truth that the young woman is the victim of this assault, I also believe that the young men of Steubenville and many young men across North America (along with young women) are being short changed. Mass media is educating them, porn is informing them and not enough trusted people are reinforcing truths about respect, consent, self-control and other real and powerful notions of masculinity.
  • I can’t fool myself to think that this is behaviour that only happens elsewhere.  As one tragic story of sexual assault fades in the news, another story takes its place. This time in Canada. Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide after struggling with depression that emerged following a sexual assault when she was 15. Like in Steubenville, a picture was taken and circulated. Rehtaeh was humiliated, bullied and shamed. The perpetrating young men were not even charged. Each story is a tragedy; That we aren’t changing the story is a greater one.

3) It is painful to tell my son about such terrible things, but it is far more painful to think that he will learn about them elsewhere and it is unbearable to imagine him learning that sexual assault is anything other than a horrific and preventable act.

Like Desmond Tutu, Jacob Lief and Sohaila Abdulali ask: ‘Is it polite and comfortable to talk about it? No. Must we anyway? Yes.’

When will you talk about it?

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