Sacred Worth: Talking to Daughters & LGBTQ+ Teens About Sexual Harassment & Assault
Harvey Weinstein's terrible legacy is not bound by the geography of Hollywood or tied solely to the superfluously beautiful women who loom large on the big screen. Like an electrical current that zings its way silently with tremendous speed, the abuse visited upon women already under the gaze of the public eye has transmitted itself squarely into our own lives. The stories, like spades, dig up what we wish could remain buried. They make their way into our morning coffee and take refuge in the baggage we carry out the door each day. And so with every Harvey story (or Bill, or the other Bill, or Trump, or Roger...) that I hear, I imagine the girls and young women that I know encountering his plotted traps. I think of the kids and youth that I love who identify as gay or lesbian, who identify as trans or express their gender creatively, and I want to strengthen our collective ability to prevent such abuse. To keep our beloved ones safe or, since that's not possible in this world where the words "Me Too" have been uttered from the lips of nearly every woman I know, to teach them to defend themselves. To think, ahead of time--as so many of us never did--what to say, what to do, where to go. This essay is dedicated to that cause. (Next week I will post an interview with the utterly fabulous sexologist Dr. Kelley Johnson about how we instruct our boys and young men, so stay tuned.)
One of the great privileges of leading the kids & youth ministries in two former churches was the opportunity to be trained in and to teach a class called Our Whole Lives, a comprehensive sexuality education that is age-appropriate and taught in intervals to K-1st graders, 4th-6th graders, 7th-9th graders, and 10th-12th graders. The premise of Our Whole Lives is that we intentionally create spaces for learning and conversations about human sexuality throughout our kids' entire lives. The conversation is not a "once and done." It is ongoing, which rests on the requirement of creating safe space to nurture connection from which trust flows as naturally and dynamically as a river. And while parents are oftentimes functionally a kid's primary sexuality educator (even if they utter not a word on the subject, their underlying assumptions about bodies and gender roles and affection and sexuality seep from their pores), culture is not far behind. If we don't overcome our own discomfort with talking to our kids about these issues, they will have the conversations elsewhere. Or, they will be fed that subconscious, processed dialogue that comes straight from media. And yet these conversations extend far beyond the parent-child relationship. One of the goals of Our Whole Lives that I attempt to live into in my own life is to be an askable adult for any child or youth. Grandparents, Godparents, friends, teachers, coaches, and other trusted adults all know what it means to develop a relationship with a child or youth out of which comes questions about bodies and sexuality, about gender roles and relationships, about harassment, abuse, and love. We honor the sacred worth of each beloved child and youth, then, when we enter into these conversations prepared to listen deeply, speak from the heart, and share accurate information.
Our Whole Lives offers a wonderful mantra for our youngest kids on how to handle "bad touch." No, Go, Tell. Again: No, Go, Tell. I'd like to expand on that mantra in order to equip adults to talk to tweens and teens about sexual harassment and assault, one of the vital and life-saving conversations all of them deserve to have.
No. We need to teach the magic word "No!" to all of our kids and youth, but particularly girls, young women (especially girls and youth of color, especially immigrant girls and youth), and kids/teens who identify as LGBTQ+ and/or express themselves in gender creative ways. No simply means we teach our kids how to overcome any discomfort they have with telling someone, even someone in power, even someone they love: Stop. I don't like that. You're hurting me. This feels uncomfortable. Something's not right. I need to go. No. Any and all of these phrases are appropriate for use. They should be practiced in front of a mirror. Your child or teen may roll their eyes at this suggestion. You should still suggest it. Tell them to say it firmly, to experiment with saying it forcefully. Let them shout it from a mountain top. Give them a gesture to go with it. Oftentimes a "talk to the hand" gesture works well. It is firm, it sets your body an arm's length from the other, and it communicates clearly. Tell them they may have to repeat themselves. They may have to say it again and again, louder and louder. But it is vital to communicate to them that we know they possess the inner strength to transcend the awkwardness of that moment, the discomfort of violating a power dynamic, to shut the mouth of the inner tape running inside their heads that tells them to pipe down. Tell them to say, "No!" in a thousand ways with their words and their bodies, their facial expressions and tone.
Go. Get the hell out of there. Now this can be challenging, which is why we need to work on the prevention end. Kids and teens should not be alone with adults in a one-on-one situation unless it is with their doctor. Even then, as doctors have been known to abuse and harass, we need to have the conversation with them afterwards: how did that feel? Do you like this doctor? Do you want to see them again or would you prefer another doctor? If, as exceptions to every rule occur, your child or youth is with a trusted adult one-on-one, it is always good to ask them afterward how it went. Read their body language. This also goes for sleepovers, which some therapists I know don't even allow their kids to do, because of the stories they have heard from the mouths of children. Most abusers are well known and trusted, which is precisely how they get access to a child or teen. This does not mean you are assuming the worst of every human being, it means that you put in place a practice and observe it so meticulously that it becomes mundane. Like looking both ways before you cross the street--we don't teach it because we think drivers everywhere are horrible and would fail to stop, but because one time could prove fatal. It only takes one time. Teens headed to college should be required to read a book or article about sexual assault. How can they prevent it? Don't assume your teen won't go to parties or partake in a drink. It only takes once. Instead use language like, "If you ever..." and complete the phrase without judgement.
Also part of prevention: teach your child from the earliest age the scientific names for their genitalia. If you have to practice in a mirror, do it, but get comfortable with words like vulva, vagina, penis, testicles. Say them to your kids as you would arm or leg. Did you know that sexual health educators and doctors alike recommend this as an actual strategy to prevent abuse? If an abuser understands that a child or teen has a firm grasp on the correct terminology, they know these kids have a language to report.
Of course, the time will likely still occur when your child or teen will encounter harassment or abuse in an environment that they desperately need to escape. (If your child or teen ever shows an interest in self-defense, sign them up.) Tell them, in no uncertain terms, that as they are saying "No!" (firmly, with the gesture), they also need to search for a way out of the situation. That might mean an actual escape (we know they are smart enough and strong enough to try to do it!) or a distancing of a relationship, a change in a coach or doctor or teen job, eliminating the practice of staying overnight at Uncle So-and-So's house. Tell them that all rules are suspended as they find a way to get out. They should do whatever comes to their mind to get away, including self-defense. If they do not take a self-defense class, have them watch a basic video online.
Tell. From the earliest ages, our kids should be instructed to name three trusted adults to whom they can tell any secret, including a "bad touch" encounter. Three adults. They need to know the adult's name and how to contact them. It might be that two of the adults are their parents, a third is still needed. It's good to let these adults know that your child has selected them as a trusted and tellable adult. Their job, you can convey, is to listen deeply and to believe. Do not minimize. Do not suggest an alternate narrative, as painful as their story might be. Remember they would not tell you if they didn't trust you. As our kids grow into teens, they may also need to navigate an institution's reporting protocol--reporting harassment on the job, for example, or reporting assault through a school. Whenever they become engaged in an institution, it is your job, dear parent or grandparent or trusted adult, to help them find the reporting protocol. It is your job to help them discern how and when and with whom they will use it. It may be that there is a conflict between what your teen opts to do and what you think ought to be done. In such situations, please contact someone like Dr. Kelley Johnson or a local therapist. Explain the situation to them confidentially and ask for guidance. In other words, remember you are not in this alone. There are experts who have walked other parents through this before. We want to empower our teens, which means deferring to their decision making in moving through difficult situations. At the same time, the choices are often between a bad choice and a worse one, and many of us, if we had to do it over again, might change the choices we made as teens. This is why it's good to have the conversation before it happens. What would you do if you were on the job and someone used this language with you? What do you think so and so should do if a teenager or adult grabs them? Explore the gray areas, the nuance. Affirm that these decisions are painstaking and often have consequences. Nevertheless, we still have to be about telling. Because when we don't tell, shame festers and abuse continues. How can you, trusted adult, build and affirm your child or teen's capacity for courage to tell the truth? To speak up for themselves? Look for the teachable moments. Highlight a story that's in the news or discuss what a friend should do in a situation. Keep the conversation going. Who are your teen's three trusted adults?
No. Go. Tell. This is the conversation you must have with your beloved child or teen today. Do not wait or procrastinate. Honor their sacred worth, and have the conversation, even if it's a short one, today. Prepare the soil, open up the space, and dive in. Know it will never be perfect, and mistakes are okay, because we learn from them. Debunk the myth that someone they think is good or powerful, someone they love or trust could never do this terrible thing. Tell them that no matter what is threatened against them if they tell, they always must tell. Tell them you will believe them. Tell them it's a conversation we'll be having our whole lives, because they are precious and courageous and beloved, and they live in a world that is beautiful, yes, but broken too. A world that too often denigrates girls and women; a world that hasn't found liberation around sexuality and creative gender expression; a world where power is acted out through sexual prowess. But we want their world to be better than that, and it begins with them advocating for themselves and for each other. No. Go. Tell. We can do it.