By Liz Greene
Society has a big problem, and unfortunately, it’s one that a significant portion of our population refuses to acknowledge: rape culture. Though we’ve certainly taken steps in the right direction, we still have a long way to go to effectively wipe out the harmful attitudes and behaviors at the core of this issue. One way to do so is by educating our children.
Though you may not be aware of it, you’re sending messages about sex and consent to your children all the time — even in the earliest stages of their childhood. As such, it’s crucial you give them the tools they need to recognize, protect against, and dismantle rape culture. This seemingly impossible task is actually surprisingly easy to carry out. All it takes is a little knowledge and a willingness to communicate.
Here are a few ways we can disrupt rape culture from an early age.
Teach Them That Consent Is Key
First and foremost, teach your children that “no” and “stop” are important words and should be respected. Explain that when someone says these words, we always stop what we’re doing immediately — no matter what. Point out that their words are to be honored, too, and that when they say “no,” their friends/family/authority figures also must to stop what they are doing. If they find their words aren’t being respected, tell your child that it’s perfectly acceptable to stop playing with them and leave. This will help your little one understand how important it is both for themselves and others.
Don’t force your children to give hugs and kisses when they don’t want to. You may mean well, but when you tell your kids to give a friend or relative a hug without considering their feelings, you send the message that consent can be overridden or doesn’t matter at all. Instead, propose different ways to greet or say farewell to loved ones, such as high fives, fist bumps, or a simple wave. On the flip side, teach children to ask permission before physically showing affection to a playmate.
Thanks to years of “No means no,” society seems to have a difficult time labeling rape as rape when the word “no” isn’t voiced. That’s why we need to teach our teenagers about enthusiastic consent and that “only yes means yes.” Teaching teens to say “yes” to what they do want, as well as “no” to what they don’t want, gives them the power they need to control intimate situations. As a conversation starter, ask your teens how they know when a partner is interested, or wants to kiss them. Tell them to always ask permission to kiss or touch their partner, and to wait for affirmative consent before proceeding with sexual activity. Explain that coercing their partner into a sexual act of any kind, even kissing, is never okay.
Mind Your Own Words and Actions
Any parent can tell you that little ears are always listening. Since your children are often hanging on every word (and determining how it applies to them), you have to be incredibly mindful of what you say. For instance, most people don’t mean any harm when they say “boys will be boys,” but far too often the phrase is used to excuse bad behavior. Boys, whether they be preschoolers or teenagers, are perfectly capable of respecting other people’s bodies, possessions, and space.
However, when they repeatedly hear that bad behavior is excused if you’re male, they learn that they are above the rules and not expected to control their impulses. This message becomes especially troublesome as they grow older and sexual desire starts to kick in.
One way the “boys will be boys” attitude often manifests is when we tell little girls that if a boy teases them, it means they “like” them. By telling children violent or violating behavior is a sign that somebody cares for them, we are teaching them that violence and love are intertwined. Furthermore, we’re teaching them that the person being violated just needs to accept it. It doesn’t matter what your child’s gender, they need to learn early on that teasing, hitting, or hurting someone to get their attention is not acceptable.
Many girls are taught that their value and “goodness” lies in their “purity” — whether that means their virginity, modesty, or both. There are many reasons why this is an incredibly harmful message. First, it encourages girls to be ashamed of their bodies and sexual desires. Second, those who are sexually abused or assaulted may feel as if they’re “damaged goods,” and fail to seek support. Finally, teen girls who do explore their sexuality are often slut-shamed, an act that can cause them harm well beyond their school years.
School dress codes can also be troublesome. Policing, over-sexualizing, and labeling girl’s bodies a distraction teaches children that what a girl wears determines the way she is treated — and that she’s at fault if she’s sexually assaulted. If you find the dress codes at your child’s schools are sexist, take some time to express your concern to the administration. Hopefully your argument will inspire change.
Call Out Examples of Rape Culture When You See It
It’s never too early to teach your children to think critically about media portrayals of sexuality, race, and gender. From a very young age, they’re inundated with a number of cultural messages in television, movies, books, and music that frequently fall under the definition of rape culture. Women are portrayed as liars, manipulators, or sexual objects. Men are portrayed as violent, hyper-masculine, and only interested in women for the sake of sex. Obviously this isn’t how the world works, and it’s certainly not a message we want our kids to absorb.
Even Disney movies aren’t safe! Luckily, they offer a few teaching moments. While watching “Beauty and the Beast”, you can talk about how kidnapping someone isn’t romantic — nor is yelling at them, or saying unkind things. Explain how you should always treat your significant other with respect, and vice versa. “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” both provide a good opportunity for a conversation surrounding consent. Neither Aurora or Snow White were conscious when kissed by their respective princes, therefore they could not give consent.
When it comes down to it, if we aren’t educating our kids on the intricacies of navigating sexual relationships, consent, and respect for themselves and others, we’re doing them real harm. We have to make a conscious effort to disrupt the subtle, sometimes nearly imperceptible lessons that society teaches children about their bodies. If we want to dismantle rape culture, we have to communicate with our kids. They deserve to be safe and happy.
Liz Greene is a makeup enthusiast, rabid feminist, and an anxiety-ridden realist from the beautiful city of trees, Boise, Idaho. You can follow her latest misadventures on her blog, Instant Lo.