by Dr. Janet Rosenzweig
With everyone talking about teen on teen sex, parents should be too!
Perhaps 20 percent of American homes tuned in, one way or another, to the hearing Thursday in which a woman described being the survivor of sexual abuse 35 years ago to the U.S. Senate, the American people and the man she accused, a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s hard to imagine that most people weren’t exposed to it, and the hearing may have riveted you and your children.
It doesn’t matter whether you believe the accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, or Judge Brett Kavanaugh – this is an excellent time to have a conversation with your teenaged and pre-teen children about how a man should behave, and how a woman should stand up for herself. You should do this at home, and you should check in with the educational and social organizations that serve your children to encourage them to do so as well.
Let’s start at home, where the seeds of sexual health and safety are planted. For parents, this is a teachable moment, building on past conversations about empathy, trust, boundaries and sexuality. If you’ve never had these conversations, start now. Even if you don’t think your child is listening, there is good research to show that parents underestimate the value that their children place on their opinions about sexuality.
- For your sons: Any disrespect toward women diminish a man in that moment and forever. Girls are not objects to be lusted after or sought after as a challenge, and initiating a sexual acts of any kinds sex using either physical force or dishonesty is as disrespectful as can be. It can leave terrible scars that may be totally incomprehensible to a boy, for whom sex may seem game or a challenge.
- For your daughters, this is a moment to make it clear that your love and support are ferocious on her behalf, that you will believe what she tells you and that she must not endure the pain of abuse alone and without pursuing justice. She was at a party? She thinks it was somehow her fault because she felt aroused for a moment?
- Ensure that your child understands that sexual arousal is an autonomic response, and no matter when or where he or she find themselves experiencing arousal, it is nobody’s responsibility but their own. A person can experience arousal and still be a victim.
- All kids need to learn that no person exists to serve his or her needs, sexual or otherwise.
- And to state the obvious, take every step you possibly can to ensure that your child neither hosts nor participates in unsupervised parties, ever.
Even if you’ve never spoken about sex with your children, you can use this moment to start the conversation about sexual health and safety in a non-judgmental way. For instance: “I know a lot of people are reacting to the Senate hearings, listening to a woman describe being abused, and I’d like to know what you think about it.” Listen carefully without interrupting; prompt a recalcitrant child with “What are your friends saying?” or “What have you seen online?” Even if they don’t want to discuss their feelings with you, you can say, “In our family, we don’t ever want anyone to behave the way the boy might have, or for someone who has been hurt to keep silent.” These messages can be modified to fit children of all ages, but the message is the same; your children should consider the impact of their behavior on others, and to come to you if they’ve been hurt.
It’s hard to imagine that any child would want to grow up and experience what either Dr. Ford or Judge Kavanaugh faced in those hearings; this is a great time to promote healthy discussions and for schools and youth-serving organizations to do their part. Start by becoming aware of the responsibility to create a healthy sexual climate, in which every adult in the school models respect and calls out violators. Schools should avoid enforcing the peer group distinctions that are fundamental to adolescents – just because adolescents form themselves into tribes doesn’t mean adults should reinforce that
We don’t know yet whether any benefit will accrue to Dr. Ford, Judge Kavanaugh or the country from this painful, divisive moment. But perhaps the best that can be said of it is that you can create a conversation and a lesson that will benefit your children for decades to come.
For more resources on talking to children, follow these links:
American Academy of Pediatricians
Talking to children about sex https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/puberty/Pages/Talking-to-Your-Child-About-Sex.aspx
Talking to teens about date rape https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/dating-sex/Pages/Date-Rape.aspx
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center materials on prevention https://www.nsvrc.org/safety-prevention
Dr. Janet Rosenzweig is the Executive Director of The American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and the author of The Sex-Wise Parent and The Parent’s Guide to Talking About Sex: A Complete Guide to Raising (Sexually) Safe, Smart, and Healthy Children. For more information, read her blog, follow @JanetRosenzweig on Twitter or contact DrRosenzweig@sexwiseparent.com to schedule a program for your school or community group