Early one summer evening at the height of the #MeToo movement I was sitting at 63rd Street Beach on the South Side of Chicago enjoying sundowners with some of my friends. This was one of our favourite ways to wind down from the week and kickstart our weekends. Inevitably our conversations would either turn political or philosophical and this particular Friday was no different.
“I’m going to teach my daughters how to protect themselves from potential sex offenders.” Declared one of my male friends.
“Perhaps y’all could start holding each other accountable and start teaching your sons and friends about consent!” Retorted our womanist and activist friend Akilah.
For as long as I can remember the onus has been placed on the girl child. Growing up as a tomboy I would always get into trouble for sitting a certain way or doing certain things in the presence of males. I know the adults in my life were trying to protect me as best as they knew how, but if I’m honest their version of equipping me ended up creating more trauma than anything because when I was sexually violated on my 14th birthday I blamed myself. After all, I knew better. My Mom had taught me to conduct myself accordingly. Sexual violence against children continues to grow at a rapidly alarming rate. The time to ring the alarm has come and gone. We are now in a national state of emergency.
South African Police’s annual crime statistics of 2019/2020 indicate that one in five children are victims of sexual abuse, representing 19.8%, compared to a global average of 18% for girls and 8% for boys. No parent in their right mind wants their child to experience violence of any shape or form. The statistics speak for themselves; we are now in a full-on war that requires immediate action from us. I’m not suggesting we go out and buy weapons of mass destruction but I am suggesting that we change our modus operandi by having open and honest conversations with our children about the importance and value of consent.
In their 2021 #Parenting blog post, ‘Childhood Sexuality Is Not a Myth’ Critical Diversity scholar and multi-award-winning author, Jamil F. Khan put it like this; “When a child starts discovering their bodies and the pleasure centres on them, their curiosity gives parents and guardians a gateway to exploring this with them. Making children feel okay about enquiring about their bodies teaches them that a relationship with pleasure and sexual bodily functions are commonplace in the process of growing up. This also allows for conversations about consent and choice. Allowing kids to understand that sex is an activity that involves the power to choose by all involved, develops an understanding of power in other spheres of life too. Personally, an acknowledgement of my sexuality, curiosities about sex and a few lessons about consent would have set me up to wield consent much more effectively in my adult life, beyond sex.”
When we educate children about not only getting but also giving consent we empower them to be able to not only confidently stand their ground and not feel pressured by the increasingly forceful coaxing of a love interest but we will also raise a generation of people who will have safe and enjoyable sexual experiences of as Jamil so aptly pointed out, their choosing!
These types of conversations will also help lay the groundwork for ongoing conversations about consent and help ensure that your child feels comfortable and safe enough to ask questions and have open and direct conversations with you as they get older. The more we engage our children in these types of conversations the easier it’ll become to broach other difficult conversations and the more we model the importance of verbal communication whilst also building a society that will value and respect each other’s personhood which is a great thing for your child’s relational and sexual development.
Tips on How to Have the Conversations About Consent
- Be Curious: Ask your child what they know and understand about consent. One of the best ways of doing this is by asking open-ended questions. For example, “How do you feel about Prince Charming kissing Sleeping Beauty while she slept?”
- Repetition is the Most Effective Way of Teaching: The first principle teaching students are taught at teachers college is repetition. This learning process is described by Professor of Business Studies at the University of Virginia, Robert F. Bruner as, “one of slow engagement with ideas; gradually the engagement builds to a critical mass when the student acquires the idea.” Small and frequent conversations are far more impactful than one “Big” Conversation.
- Space and Time: Some children need time to process before they have questions. Frequently check in with your child by asking them if they have any further questions or thoughts about your previous conversation and if you do not immediately know the answer to their question or you need time to process their question don’t hesitate to communicate this with them but make sure you circle back with them once you’ve done some research and or processed.
- Be Factual: Using age-appropriate language and examples will help your child retain the information that they learn from your conversations. Younger children may grasp the idea of consent much better when you teach them about personal boundaries. Let them know that it is okay to not want to be tickled or accept hugs, kisses or any form of physically attention from anyone – especially when they feel uncomfortable. No means no.
Side Note: That goes for you too Mom! Honour your child’s no. We need to unlearn this bad habit of trying to convince or bribe our little ones for a hug or a kiss because while your intent may not be to violate them, you are inadvertently teaching them to compromise their boundaries and undoing what you have taught them about the value and importance of consent.
With older children, we can be more explicit in how we talk about consent. For example, ‘you cannot assume that your girlfriend/boyfriend has given you consent to show physical affection by kissing or having sex with them simple because your in a romantic relationship with them. It’s always important to ask before and even during the act of physical intimacy.
NB!! It’s also very important to communicate with older children that consent under the influence of any substance is not consent.
- Actions Have Consequences: We must teach children that their decisions don’t only impact them but also other people that they know and love. For example, you could tell your toddler, ‘I understand that you wanted to play with the toy and you did not mean any harm by taking it, however, your choice to take the toy without asking made your friend or sibling feel sad. How would you feel if your friend or sibling did it to you?’ Or, ‘How do you think they felt when you said that to them?’.
Telling your teenage child that they could land in prison as a result of their overstepping another person’s boundaries is not a scare tactic, it’s a reality and a consequence that cannot be stressed enough. Also being open and honest about how devastated you’d be if you learnt that they had violated another human being is equally as important.
Had I been empowered to stand firm on my no instead of being told to not wear, look, or communicate in certain ways, I may have been spared years of shame and feeling like a failure for having been sexually violated. And as angry as I was with the person who violated me, my 14-year-old self was very aware that this young man was a product of our community. While his intent may not have been to violate me, society had normalised the idea of a women’s no being a game of “hard to get”. My community had let me down with their “teach girls narrative” and indirectly violated me and so many other women by placing the onus on us instead of raising us to value and honour boundaries.