Because Playing Defense Isn't Enough: Five Things Our Sons and Daughters Should Hear From Parents About Sex Before They Start College
By Elissa P. Pope, See the Triumph Guest Blogger
Enough is enough. Acquaintance rape and sexual assault on college campuses seem to be out of control. And though recently universities are facing the fire for their lackluster response to the epidemic, the fact is that many campuses simply are not prepared to be the hand of the law when it comes to sexual violence on their campuses. Something needs to change, because according the U.S. Department of Justice, rape is the most common violent crime on American college campuses today. In fact, statistics say that 1 in 4 college women will be the victim of sexual assault during her college career. Those statistics should be sobering to parents – of both boys and girls alike.
We are living in a culture of rape, and we’re sending our children into the thick of that culture when they leave home for college. But even as we begin to acknowledge that reality, we also can’t just sit back and hope that someone else will take care of it for us. No, we as parents are responsible for teaching our children about this reality, and for instilling in them the values necessary to help them survive it. For many years, the focus has been on parents teaching their daughters how to protect themselves from sexual violence perpetrated by males. But teaching our girls to play defense simply isn’t enough.
The fact remains that statistics say that many will still fall victim, and that alcohol is usually involved. Victims of sexual assault are then left to navigate the treacherous waters of victim blaming and shame. Teaching how not to get raped is only part of the battle. We need to teach all of our young people how to respect others’ bodies and how to treat other people with nothing but the utmost respect for others’ rights to make their own decisions about their bodies and their sexuality. To help our children prepare for rape culture on college campuses, let’s be a different voice for our young people to hear throughout their childhood and adolescence. Let’s make sure that they leave home with these words in their hearts:
1. Respect your body – and everyone else’s too. When our babies are new, we revel in the miracle that is the human body, spending hours staring at their beautiful fingers, tiny toes, button noses, and perfect ears. As they grow into toddlers, we strive to help them adopt that same reverence for the human body, as they discover all that is new and wonderful about themselves. We want them to love themselves as much as we love them and to extend that love and respect to others. But those lessons continue throughout their lives. The voice that tells them to love and respect all human bodies should be ever-present. Because with every passing year, their world is getting bigger and broader, and they will meet situations where that respect for another is hard to come by. And they will experience someone who isn’t respecting them. In those instances, we want their heart to be screaming that this isn’t right.
2. Your body should not be the cause of pain for another. A child’s relationship with their parents sets the stage for all future relationships. In even the most loving households, violence creeps in, often through innocent play. In our house, parents and children roughhouse with one another. I think it’s a great teaching opportunity for our children, so that roughhousing comes with a set of rules. One of which is that it is NEVER okay to slap, punch, or pinch one another, even when we’re playing. Even if anger isn’t the source. Our bodies are NEVER to be used for hurting another. Never.
3. When it comes to your body, you’re in charge. As I mentioned above, my children and I like to engage in physical play, which, according to some experts is incredibly beneficial for their development. It usually involves a lot of laughter and joy, and is a great way to bond with one another. But when we’re roughhousing or tickling, and someone says stop, even if they’re giggling through their words, we stop. Always. This is a hard one for almost everyone, because it sometimes means that the person who’s having tons of fun has to put a halt to it. And sometimes it means that the person who said, “Stop” didn’t really mean it and they want to keep playing. We’ve had countless conversations about why we have this rule, and what it means. My hope is that our children are truly internalizing the idea that all people get to be in charge when it comes to their body.
4. You don’t deserve to get everything you want. Everyone hears no at some point in their lives. With any luck, a child’s parents deny them something that they want on a regular basis, because that’s a reality of life at any age. We don’t always get what we want. People tell us no all the time. The lesson goes deeper than that, though. We can’t just tell a child no and dust off our hands before giving ourselves a hearty pat on the back for a job well done. We need to go further and actually teach our children how to respond afterward. Should they throw a temper tantrum? Hit because they’re angry? Try to take it anyway? Argue and persist until they change someone’s mind? That last one works on parents time and time again. We end up raising children who don’t know how to handle denial, or worse yet, who don’t believe that no is the final answer. The bottom line is that no means no. Parents can reinforce this message by setting—and sticking to—limits with their children.
5. Sex has value. I think most of America’s teenagers already come of age knowing this to be true. Value is ascribed to sex in almost every facet of our culture. Sadly, one of the loudest voices spoken to our children says that a primary value of sex is in making young people into men and women. Teens can internalize the message that having sex should be their primary objective if they want not to be seen as a child. And what teenager wants to be seen as a child? That’s an influential message, and it comes at them from countless directions. How then can we, as parents, minimize something with so much power? It’s unlikely that we can be a louder voice than the others. What we can be though, is an earlier voice. Talking about sex with our children is uncomfortable. For many of us, it makes our stomachs churn just thinking about it. So we put it off…we are great at procrastinating! But while we’re busy doing all that procrastinating, the other voices aren’t shy, and they chime in full-force. Before we know it, we’ve missed our opportunity, at which point many of us sigh and say, “Oh well.” Nope. We need to suck it up and talk to our children about sex before the other voices take top billing. Be there first to plant the seed so that your voice has a chance to take root before the onslaught ensues.
We’ve got a hard job, us parents. And the world around us isn’t doing a thing to make it easier for us. The ever-growing presence of screens is opening the whole world up to our children, and in many ways, that’s amazingly wonderful. But at the same time, it’s quieting our voices in our child’s world, and we can’t afford to simply let that happen. Sexually violent images, words, and ideas are frantically swirling around our children and they are getting swept up in the tornado. As parents, we can be their anchor in the storm and help them navigate the challenges they face as they confront rape culture in college.
Elissa Pope graduated from Florida State University with a degree in Elementary Education. After spending several years working in public schools, she is now a graduate student at UNC-Greensboro, pursuing an MS in Couple and Family Counseling. She is passionate about the value of healthy family relationships and the ways in which the counseling profession can be a part of the healing process for those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault.
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