Teaching My Sons About Consent May Be My Most Important Job as Their Mother

Image Source: Thinkstock
Image Source: Thinkstock

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in September 2016.

By now, we’ve all heard the news: Brock Turner, the convicted rapist — er, former Stanford swimmer — who was found guilty of three felony sexual assault charges in June 2016, was released from jail on September 2, after serving just three months of his already obscenely short sentence. Oddly enough, while some of us are shaking our heads, pounding our fists, and demanding change, most people this week still seem far more upset about Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who exercised his right to sit down during the national anthem.

I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.

People are more upset about a football player who exercised his legal right to sit during the national anthem than they are about a man who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and got off with only three months in jail.

At least, that’s what I’ve been sensing by reading the headlines and scrolling through Twitter this week.

That isn’t to say that there hasn’t been an outcry about Brock Turner, of course. There has. According to CBS News, demonstrators have gathered outside California’s Judicial Commission for several weeks calling for the removal of Judge Aaron Persky, the sentencing judge, and UltraViolet, an organization dedicated to advancing women’s rights and fighting sexism, circulated an online petition seeking for Judge Persky’s removal that garnered over 920,000 signatures.

And that outcry has certainly sparked some change, albeit slowly. Last week came the news that Judge Persky was barred from hearing criminal cases. And on Monday, California lawmakers passed a bill inspired by the case, which will now require mandatory prison sentences for the sexual assault of an unconscious victim and no longer allow judges the discretion to impose probation only.

Social media movements have been hard at work changing the national conversation surrounding rape culture, too, with hashtags like #wewiththepitchforks and #twentyminutesofaction circulating all over Twitter and Facebook.

But given the stakes involved and the way the Brock Turner case has touched us in a deeply personal way, many of us are still asking questions. How is it possible that we live in a country that doesn’t respect the word no — whether it’s in regards to unwanted sex or racial injustice? How can we, as parents, teach our sons about consent, boundaries, and respect from an early age? How can we shift the paradigm so that the level of outrage over something as awful as sexual assault exceeds the disdain expressed toward something as innocent as peacefully protesting by sitting during the national anthem? What else can we do?

A big first step, many suggest, is that instead of teaching our daughters how to prevent their own rape, we should be teaching our boys not to rape. I’ll be honest, it seems almost absurd that I would need to type those words because Duh! DON’T RAPE. But apparently those words don’t go without saying since we live in a world that still tacitly tolerates rape while at the same time saying “don’t rape.” We don’t seem to understand the importance of the word NO. We live in a world that outlaws rape but gives rapists lighter sentences than someone who, say, doesn’t pay their taxes. We live in a world that shames victims and couches our condemnation of rape with questions like, Maybe she wanted it, but was she drunk?

And that is NOT okay.

The ways our society has implicitly tolerated rape for generations is so pervasive that some of us don’t even notice it — unless you’re the victim of it, of course. And because it is so pervasive, our removal of this look-the-other-way or pretend-it-isn’t-happening culture takes more than just a hashtag on social media and a petition for the removal of a judge (though yes, those are excellent starts). It takes years of work, lots of hard conversations, and an intentional and deliberate effort to teach our children at a very early age about respect, boundaries, consent, and the power of the word no.

I have two sons, no daughters; but I am also a woman. I have experienced my own fair share of sexual harassment and know several women who have been the victim of sexual assault. And while I can and will tell my sons “don’t rape,” quite frankly, that isn’t enough. They need to also learn the power for the word no, whether they are the ones saying it or someone is saying it to them. They need to learn how to be radically empathetic, respectful, and compassionate — and they need to equate the word no with STOP.

They are impulsive and wild and make mistakes. Often. So I need to tell them again and again and again, stop means stop. No means no. There is power in those words, I tell them.
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My sons are only 6 and 9 years old now, and while they both know what sex is, they don’t yet know the word rape. They do, however, know that unwanted touching is never okay. They know that the words no and stop have power and need be respected always — whether they are in a tickling fight, wrestling with each other, or protesting an injustice. They are impulsive and wild and make mistakes. Often. So I need to tell them again and again and again, stop means stop. No means no. I tell them again and again. There is power in those words, I tell them. Use those words. And listen when others stay them to you.

No and stop. These words are holy words, important words, powerful words. The most important words I’ll ever teach them.

I am continually astounded by the complexity and difficulty of this parenting gig. I honestly thought that once we made it through the diapers and sleep deprivation, it would be smooth sailing. But I was wrong. As my boys get older, our conversations about sex, boundaries, and consent will change and get more detailed; just as the ones about race, injustice, and respect will also change. And as much as I am not looking forward to those difficult conversations, they can’t be passed over.

NO means no. STOP means stop.

Our children need to know how to treat each other with respect — not just now, in the classroom or on the playground; but on a date years down the road, or at the party when they head off to college. They need to know what to do if they see something that is questionable, and how to stand up when they see or hear something that perpetuates our rape culture (or rape tolerance culture). They need to know the power of those two all-important words, no and stop; and not just when it comes to sex but anytime they see an injustice in the world. And most of all, they need to know how to listen when others say them — not judge or make excuses, but to really listen.

We need to keep telling our children — and showing our children — over and over and over again that their voices are important and valid, that their words have immense power that deserve to be respected. Whether they are saying no to tickle fight or saying stop during a playful wrestling match; whether they are saying no to injustice and racism or bullying or hearing the word stop from a sexual partner. Their words matter.

This lesson might seem simple; and the truth is, it should be. But until there is more public outcry over the rapist than someone who simply sat during the national anthem, until the rapes and injustices stop, we have a lot of work to do. And we will keep saying NO.

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