Reporter's Notebook

How Should Parents Talk to Their Kids About Rape?
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Spurred by the Brock Turner case and Juleyka’s note about “reading the Stanford victim’s statement as a mother of boys,” readers share their own experiences discussing the difficult topics of consent and sexual assault. To join the discussion, drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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How Should You Counsel Your Kids on Sexual Abuse?

We previously heard from readers and experts about how to talk to very young children about consent as a foundation for more explicit discussions about rape and sexual assault when they’re older and more mature—and far more likely to encounter such dangers. But this next reader, based on personal experience, warns against assault occurring when those kids are still so young:

Thank you and Caroline for hosting a sane discussion on sexual safety. I’d prefer to remain anonymous on this; I don’t want to attract unwanted attention.

I was truly bothered by [the reader note from a parent] teaching a 5-year-old girl karate so that she could someday defend herself from rape. Not that I’m against teaching 5-year olds karate; it’s a great way for children to learn self discipline and focus, and it builds habits that will benefit a person throughout their life.

The thing that got me here was the false sense of security, particularly when it comes to a child’s safety from sexual predators—because the most likely predator for that girl, until she begins developing secondary sexual traits, is a friend or family member who actively cultivates her love, someone who grooms her. And no amount of physical self defense will help her through the violation of trust she’ll experience.

Perhaps that’s a different discussion, but the threat to that girl isn’t date rape or violent “forced rape” (all rape is forced); it’s the friend or family member who’s potentially already on the inside of her parent’s circle of trust.

I say this as both a victim of a pedophile and a victim of a rape. Looking back, I see that the arc of the pedophile to the date rapist could almost be predicted. My pedophile destroyed my trust and replaced the concept that I had a right to consent with risky sexual behavior as a way of reclaiming my sexuality from him. It took me a very long time to work it out.

I don’t have an answer to teaching consent, other than to say that setting an example of consent and respect is the best way to teach consent and respect.

A good place to start is a piece from Parenting magazine called “Tips for Child Sex Abuse Prevention,” written in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

Jorge Silva / Reuters

In response to our callout, several parents of teenage boys wrote in, sharing their experiences—and offering their best advice for others. Here are three of their stories.

First up is Donald White, the father of two boys, who responds to Juleyka:

Dear Mother of Boys,

I applaud you for your piece in The Atlantic. I chose to share it on Facebook, hoping your modeling suggestions are followed by other parents. I will share aspects of how I parent my sons, ages 19 and 16.

The Stanford rape piece is so very sad. From my point of view, Brock’s father failed as a role model for his son. It seems Brock did not learn to respect and treasure women. His behavior supports this theory.

I believe our children are brilliant and, when helped with effective parental guidance, can make effective, smart choices if and when they face a difficult situation. In life, we all face challenging situations. I talk to my boys candidly about drinking, drunk driving, sex, STDs, unwanted pregnancy, and death resulting from bad choices that could have been prevented. I do not hold back; I use real-life examples to make strong points. I was an RA in college and saw many poor choices regarding alcohol, driving, vandalism, unwanted pregnancy, and more.

He continues:

An earlier reader, who anonymously shared her story, pushes back on the suggestion that karate could offer a solution for sexual assault:

Interesting discussion. Thank you for including a variety of responses. I admire the father’s determination to teach his daughter self defense by sending a painful joint lock lesson in the event someone has trouble respecting his daughter’s “no.” It is very important to teach children to say “no” and have their choices respected. It is important to give our children permission and tips to defend themselves. Loving parents hope their children will be successful in defending themselves.

I truly wish karate and other self defenses (i.e. pepper spray, whistles, or a weapon)  were the answer to rape prevention. I also pray his daughter is successful if the time ever comes to use karate. I hope she swings into action like all the tough superheroes on television and in the movies. I cheer her on. And applaud her parents and instructors.

I tried to fight. I didn’t win. I was outnumbered and drugged.

In an effort to reduce “the high risk of the rapid consumption of hard alcohol,” Stanford University on Monday announced a ban on liquors 40 proof or higher from undergrad parties on campus, while also prohibiting undergrads from having hard-alcohol containers that are 750 milliliters or larger in student residences. One reader suspects that Stanford is just trying to cover its own tail:

This new policy will accomplish virtually nothing. It’s merely a liability reduction program for Stanford. Kids will continue to get shit-faced and young women will continue to be raped, but merely off campus, where Stanford has no jurisdiction, responsibility, or liability.

Another reader agrees, calling the policy “stupid and unenforceable”—and he speaks from experience:

My college banned hard liquor entirely on campus, and it never really stopped anyone. That was at a very small school (1,800-2,000 students) where the chance of enforcement was much higher. [Stanford has about 7,000 undergrads.] Sure, every now and then they’d confiscate some things after searching the dorms, but not enough to make any difference I ever noticed.

This next reader, on the other hand, applauds the move from Stanford:

On a dispassionate examination of the variety of factors related to sexual assaults on campus, the primacy of alcohol as a contributing factor cannot be overstated. If this policy is indeed a response to the sexual assault situation (and there are numerous other benefits to reducing the prevalence of consumption of hard liquor on campus), then it should be praised for being a bloody obvious thing to do.

Another reader broaches the context that many believe drove this decision:

I doubt whether this Stanford policy will be very effective at curbing binge drinking among students, but I suppose it probably won’t hurt too much to try. I am looking at it as a general attempt to reduce dangerous binge drinking, rather than as a direct, or particular, response to Brock Turner’s crime. Otherwise it does, indeed, begin to stink of an attempt to cast alcohol as a substance that inspires heinous criminal behavior in and of itself.

All that aside, I understand that “sexual assault” is sometimes a useful euphemism, especially in this age of safe spaces and trigger warnings, but I don’t think we should mince words in this case: Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman. He raped her. It was rape. I believe it’s wrong to neuter the language we use to talk about horrible things like this. It’s important to use plain, unpalatable, uncomfortable terms when discussing the bad things people do, or we risk finding ourselves in a quagmire of waffling equivocations down the line.

Brock Turner, as you probably recall, is the Stanford swimmer who was convicted in June of sexual assault (and using that term isn’t equivocating here; he was specifically convicted of “assault with intent to rape an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object,” since prosecutors had dropped the “rape” charges months earlier.) Those foul crimes resulted in just a six-month jail term that effectively ends on September 2—his expected release date—despite a powerful letter read by the rape victim during his sentencing hearing. Turner’s light sentencing set off a firestorm of controversy, including a campaign to recall the judge in the case.

Instead of debating the case, we convened a reader discussion about how parents can talk to their children—from a very young age to their teen years—about rape and sexual assault. To continue that thread, here’s Renie, a long-time reader and mother of two daughters:

I think that most of your readers’ comments about teaching children about their bodies and their right to keep their bodies safe from unwanted behaviors from others are fine for younger children. I think that most of us have been doing a good job with younger children.

But when it comes to teens and young adults, I think we are still tiptoeing around the elephant in the room: booze.

Yesterday we heard from a mother of two daughters who worries about the role that alcohol often plays in sexual assaults on campus. A father writes:

I did indeed just drop my daughter off at college last week and had this conversation with her. She didn’t have much exposure to guys or alcohol in high school, and I wanted to give her my opinions on both.

When I was in high school, I said, people focused on the moral dimensions of drinking, as if alcohol was a sinful thing unto itself. It felt great to drink, especially because I was thumbing my nose at the Bible thumpers.

I told my daughter that the issue with drinking isn’t the act; it’s what come next. People treat it as a license for all kinds of bad decisions. The moral rebellion I felt then is now a rebellion of human decency and norms.

On assault, I told her that sex is something she should do 1000% on her terms and no one else’s. Also, sometimes, women are assaulted on campus and then try to hide it because they are afraid of telling their parents that they were drinking or in bed with a boy. I said, no matter what, we’ll support you. Regardless of the circumstances, if she feels assaulted, that’s all that matters to us.

Tough conversation to have, but critical in this day.

His remarks about drinking being a rebellious act made me think of a reader email sent a few months ago by Jack. He essentially argues that there’s a risk in being too alarmist about college drinking and sex—that some young men will blindly rebel against overheated rhetoric and throw sensibility out with the bathwater:

As a kid, I was taught a lot about alcohol, drugs, and sex—insistently and repeatedly—and didn’t listen to much of it. I think it’s worth looking at why.

A reader pushes back on the comments from a mother of two daughters, who said in part:

I’m about as politically correct a person as you can imagine, but I refuse to pretend that there is nothing a woman can do to make rape less likely. Staying in control of one’s faculties may not prevent all attacks, but it will make them less likely to happen. Rapists choose their victims for their vulnerability, and a woman fully aware of her own surroundings is safer than one who is drunk—not absolutely safe, but certainly safer.

The latest reader writes:

My stomach turned when I read that. That kind of thinking is based on the idea that “rapists gonna rape,” as if assault is an unstoppable constant and our only hope is to rape-proof ourselves and our daughters in the hope that someone else ends up being selected as a victim.

I graduated from undergrad in 2011. In my last year at university, I had a textbook removed from my kinesiology course that told its female readers that they could avoid being sexually assaulted if they didn’t touch men on the arm or accept an invitation into a man’s home, because, presumably, doing either of these actions triggers that unstoppable rape compulsion that men are incapable of shutting off.

I followed every rule that I was told when I was younger: don’t drink, don’t go out alone, don’t dress “provocatively.” The last time I was sexually assaulted, I was wearing a pair of jeans and my father’s windbreaker, taking a cab back to my sister’s house. I was not intoxicated. I did not touch the cab driver’s arm. I did not follow him. I was a young woman and I got in a cab. When the police arrived to take my statement, they told me that the reason that I had been assaulted was because I told the driver I was from out of town (when he asked me how to get to the address I had given him).

The point of me sharing this story is this: We can and will always find an excuse to explain why assaults happen until we decide that rape and assault are not inevitable constant forces. I’m tired of hearing excuses for why men assault women. Let’s stop excusing away assault and actually hold perpetrators accountable rather than accepting a scenario where we encourage young women to police themselves in the hope that some other woman will end up being the rape victim.

If you’d like to respond, or have an experience to share, send us a note and we’ll post.