Talking to Your Kids About Rape as a Survivor

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

An anonymous reader shares her story:

I was raped while I was in college, so I'm 1 in 6. I didn’t report it, and I washed all the evidence down the drain.

I have a 25-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter. We live in Maryland, my daughter goes to college in Los Angeles, and I fear my daughter becoming another statistic. We have discussed Brock Turner’s victim’s letter to the judge, the father’s letter, the friend’s letter, the hero’s action, and the judge’s poor sentencing. I hope the rape culture will change for them and all other women and men. 

Rape at its core is about boundaries, so I intentionally began my discussion with my children about rape and assault when they were toddlers. They learned the proper words for their body parts. We also taught them that it is never too late to change their mind and to respect their friend’s choices. Safety was an important word and one of the first assessments we taught our children to do. I didn’t use the words assault or rape until they were entering middle school. However, I used every teachable moment to begin teaching them the value of their bodies, respect and compassion for others, responsibility for their actions, accountability, admitting hurt, and seeking help.

Their interactions with other children, adults, and authority figures provided lots of opportunities to discuss power and control, bullies, and consent. Having this type of dialogue with them when they were very young kept the discussion open for them to discuss relationships, things they saw on television, heard or saw their friends do, or even things they said or did. My husband and I taught them empathy and the value of others. 

Their lives offered many teachable moments to talk about sex, love, assault, rape. And we taught them how to de-escalate situations, as well as the importance of intervention if a situation wasn’t safe or someone was in danger of hurting themselves or others.

When my son was a sophomore in college, it became important to share my own experience with him after someone he knew at his college was accused of raping another student. He was trying to process who he believed, and—despite all our teaching—I heard him practically recite every rape myth about drinking: The guy was a good guy, well liked, the girl messed up the guy's life, it was consensual … and the belief that he needed to judge the truth.

It became important for me to share my own story with my daughter before she went to college last year because, quite frankly, I was a mess and needed to explain what appeared to be very irrational behavior. However, my daughter had already read on my blog that I had been raped, so it went much smoother than my discussion with my son. 

I believe we have made it clear to them that, while we would support them no matter what they have done, they will be encouraged to tell the truth. We won’t lie for them. They should expect consequences for their behavior and understand the importance of apologizing to the satisfaction of the harmed. They should seek forgiveness but can’t force forgiveness.