When I was sexually assaulted almost two years ago, I never imagined it would change my life as much as it did. The effects on my marriage, my self-esteem, my career, my friendships, and even my interactions with strangers have ebbed and flowed, as I have struggled to navigate the sea of emotions that have resulted.
As the mom of two little girls, it’s vital to me that they understand what I didn’t until recently. I don’t want to raise them in a way that perpetuates rape culture or victim blaming, and the only way to do that is to lead by example and have conversations about consent and consent violations now, so they understand they hold the power within themselves going forward.
But to be honest, I didn’t realize how much work I had ahead of me. At least, not until my daughter came home from school in tears one day, because three boys on the bus kept repeating dirty jokes she didn’t want to hear.
I’ve never been one to get myself directly involved with issues at school, but after her requests to move seats fell on deaf ears and the boys continued to torment her daily with jokes, I stepped in.
“Oh, boys will be boys!” is what one school official told me.
“Maybe if she didn’t react to them or if she weren’t so sensitive, they would stop,” is what her bus driver told me.
It was at this point I told Addie that her “no” means everything, and if it wasn’t going to be respected, she had my full permission to punch these boys. My husband (understandably) wasn’t very happy with my decision; and thinking that perhaps I had overstepped my bounds a bit, I asked another mom with both a boy and a girl how she would handle a similar situation. In the end, her response was actually very similar to mine.
Addie never did have to punch anyone, though, because after I gave her my permission to stand up for herself in whatever way she felt necessary, she wasn’t afraid to get in trouble for causing a scene. (At least with me.) She knew I would stand up for her when no one else would, and her restored confidence seemed to cease their invasive behavior.
Move this scene from a school bus to a bar, where grown men corner a woman and berate her with lewd suggestions and tawdry jokes. She tells them to stop but they don’t. She is visibly upset. They move in closer, the jokes become harsher. Security is nowhere to be seen. Would you expect her to simply not react and tell her to “stop being so sensitive?” Or would you expect her to fight her way out, kicking and screaming the whole way, if necessary?
The “no” of an 11-year-old is every bit as valid as the “no” of an adult. It’s not as though the word suddenly starts to mean something the moment we turn 18. When my own kids tell me to stop something they feel uncomfortable with, you had better believe I listen. I don’t tell them “it’s no big deal” or to “stop being such a baby” as I continue to pester them. I stop when they say “stop,” and don’t push things when they say “no.”
Obviously, there are things that my kids aren’t allowed to say no to by virtue of being kids and living in my home — like doing chores or eating vegetables, for example. Those are non-negotiable. But if I come up behind one of them and start tickling them like crazy and they ask me to stop, I’m going to. They didn’t consent to being tickled, so if they don’t want to be, they shouldn’t have to be. The same rule applies to their sibling relationships — if one of them tells the other to stop, the other is expected to stop immediately.
If a no isn’t respected at home, by a child’s own parents and siblings, no less — how can a child expect their no to be taken seriously outside the home? We’re told that if we cause a scene — over anything, really — we’ll get in trouble. We’re told to ignore the things that bother us, even when we’re scared. We’re told that if there’s a snake in the grass we are to “Hold still, and hopefully it will just go away.” Never, in all of this, are we told we posses the power to take out the snake in a number of different ways.
The concept of consent — it’s real and true meaning — wasn’t fully explained to me or understood until I was in my 30’s; and there’s no way I’m going to let my own girls grow up without understanding it. No means no, yes means yes, and if you said no when you meant yes, or yes when you meant no, it is to be respected. Alternately, I expect that if my kids are told “no” by someone else, they are to stop doing whatever it is they are doing immediately. It doesn’t mean they get to demean or belittle the other for saying “no.”
Subconsciously, we tend to believe that if someone is laughing and smiling, they probably don’t mean it when they say no. But science has told us otherwise: Psychologists have actually proven that laughter is a very common reaction to feeling scared. We’ve all had someone jump out at us, and only moments after we startle, we begin to laugh, even when we don’t think being scared is funny.
But rather than continuing to chase the laughing girl (because clearly she looks happy about being chased), imagine if the boy stops chasing the girl and asks if she’s okay. The girl is given the chance to say “No, I’m not okay” if she’s feeling scared. The boy listens. The boy stops chasing. The boy never violates consent. The girl never becomes a victim.
I can’t turn back the clock on my own life; I can’t undo what has been done to me. But I can continue to teach my girls what it means to give their own consent — even when it comes to something as “small” as a playground taunt. At the very least, it’s an awfully easy way to start having a really tough conversation.More On