First, let’s talk statistics. According to Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), an American is a victim of sexual assault every 98 seconds. Our youngest citizens are at the highest risk, with almost 70 percent of assaults happening to people ages 12 to 34. When we think of victims of sexual assault, we usually think of women. And while the majority of victims are female, men and boys are victims of sexual assault in alarming numbers, as well.
When I learned about these statistics a few years ago, I realized immediately that part of my job as a parent was to protect my children from becoming victims. And while there is no way to protect your kids 100 percent, there are things you can do to lessen the chances of something like that happening to them. You can teach them about body autonomy, boundaries and how to recognize abuse, and you can make sure they know they can always, always come to you if their gut tells them something is not right.
I have been having talks like these with my boys since they were small. But recently, especially as my older son approaches his teenage years, I have been thinking about another aspect of it all. It’s not an easy thing to think about, but it’s also not something any of us can shy away from.
I realized I must teach my boys about consent. I must make sure they never, ever become perpetrators of sexual abuse.
Don’t get me wrong, my sons are gentle, well-mannered boys. While they fight like little devils with each other, they are nothing but respectful to their peers, girls and boys alike. But here’s the thing. We live in a “rape culture"—a culture where it's normal for men to pine after women in aggressive, predatory manners, where media is plastered with images of this sort of thing, and where this sort of thing is celebrated and revered. Locker rooms are rife with it, and boys being rough around the edges and overpowering toward women are seen as prideful badges of manhood.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg.
It is up to each and every one of us raising boys to do our damnedest to (have vital conversations) early and often.
The fact is, whether we like it or not, even though both men and women are the victims of sexual assault, men are by far—almost in every single case—the perpetrators. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 98 percent of females rapes are perpetrated by men. The statistics are similar for male rape, with 93 percent of those perpetrated by men as well.
These things aren’t fun to think about—not at all—but as the mom of two boys, I believe it is my responsibility to consider this. And then, it is my duty to do everything in my power to raise boys who would not only never commit sexual assault, but also who would always approach sexual encounters with the utmost respect and responsibility.
So, what am I doing in order to teach them these things? Well, I’m starting with many of the same things I have always done in order to protect them from sexual assault.
When they are little, I teach them that each person has body autonomy. No one is allowed to be hugged, kissed or touched without permission. When my boys engage in rough play with each other or their friends, I make sure they understand very clearly what the limits are. “No means no!” is big around here, and when one child indicates that they don’t want to play rough anymore, the other child is obligated to stop immediately. There is no leeway there.
As soon as they have language, I tell my boys the correct names for their body parts (we say “penis,” and “scrotum,” for example). “Private parts” should not be thought of as something silly or to be ashamed of, but as something normal and functional. Most importantly, my boys learn from early ages that no one is allowed to touch their private parts unless it’s a parent helping clean them or a doctor carrying out a medical treatment.
I also have the “sex talk” with my kids at early ages, as soon as they begin to inquire about how babies are made (for each of my sons that was at about 2 or 3 years old). I don’t gloss over any of it. I tell them simply and directly how it happens. And when I tell them about how sex works, I explain in no uncertain terms that it is something two adults do who love and respect one another.
As my boys get older, I add to that. I tell them that you know it is time to have sex with someone when you and the other person have come to an enthusiastic agreement about it. You can only do with someone if they tell you that they want to, and that if they change their mind, that is OK too, and you must stop.
I tell them that things like snapping a girl’s bra, whistling at a girl on the street, teasing someone or remarking on their appearance in any kind of sexual manner is completely inappropriate. We talk about how sex is depicted on TV, in movies, online and even in conversations among friends (yes, this is already starting to happen a bit with my tween).
The most important thing is that my boys know they can come to me with any questions along the way. Sex isn’t terribly mysterious. It is not something to be ashamed of or hidden. And, by god, it is not something they should learn solely from the media or on the schoolyard.
I don’t know for sure that I am doing it perfectly. I know there are things about their sexual education I absolutely cannot control. I know it is quite possible that they will pick up sexual aggression in places I can’t even fathom.
But I also know that there are simple and effective ways to teach our boys—to have these vital conversations with them—and that it is up to each and every one of us raising boys to do our damnedest to do so early and often.
Yes, there are things we can’t control about how our boys and men grow up. And yes, some of these stereotypes are so deeply ingrained in our culture and media that it is hard to fully shield our boys from it. But it is our duty to try. It is our duty to raise men that we would be proud to know—and who can lead the next generation of boys and men toward more gentleness, respect and love.