How to Talk to Your Daughter About Sexual Assault *
Social media feeds were filled with the hashtag #metoo yesterday. It started with Alyssa Milano’s tweet:
If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.
I hope it worked… for creating awareness, at least. As a male, I can say that men have no idea how common harassment is, whether it’s blatant or subtle. Since sexual harassment doesn’t affect us in the same way, we aren’t paying attention. This needs to change.
I’m reminded of a Facebook post by a friend, who had a conversation with her 3-year-old about inappropriate sexual touch. It surprised me that others disagreed with having this conversation “at such a young age.” Then again, statistics disagree with them.
- 1 in 7 girls will be sexually molested before the age of 18.
- Out of these girls, 20% will be abused before they are 8 years old.
- 90% of victims know their perpetrator.
- 1 in 7 incidents will be perpetrated by a juvenile.
Secrecy and shame
You are teaching your daughter how to conduct herself all day – all the time. How? By your example. Your kids learn more from “experiencing you” than from listening to you.
What’s more, when you actively avoid speaking of something, you create a taboo subject in your daughter’s little mind. Your daughter can feel your discomfort. She might then label whatever it was that made you so uncomfortable as something that is essentially bad. She might likely feel uncomfortable speaking of this topic herself as an adult.
Your child learns not only the content of what you teach her but also the context – in this case, your non-verbal reaction.
One observable example of this is how race is addressed in the US. Many parents avoid speaking about race to their children. When children point out to their parents that someone looks different from them (usually in public), parents use the “shh-method” to change the topic. Because of their own discomfort with race issues, parents don’t bring the topic back up afterward.
The message becomes deeply ingrained: there is something about this difference between us and this other person that is bad. And it should not be spoken of.
The guilt a child feels for bringing it up can be internalized as shame. And most people avoid shame, which results in avoiding the topic. And look, we still struggle in conversations about race!
To you, this was a fleeting, maybe embarrassing moment. Your daughter was affected in a much deeper way. She learned a lot when you avoided speaking of something because it made you so uncomfortable. (Maybe you learned it that way from your parents, too!)
You need to start the conversation
Children start learning about their own sexuality as soon as they are able to spot their genitals or notice somebody else’s. Parents are usually OK with telling their children about genitals. But sexuality is still a touchy subject in our culture, and because of our discomfort with it, when we decide not to talk about it, our actions speak louder than our words.
If your message to your daughter is unclear, she won’t know when it is OK to speak of sexuality, or when it is not. This is where secrecy and shame start making their home.
If your child is not comfortable speaking of sexuality in general ways with you, she will not likely speak up when someone touches her inappropriately.
You can teach your daughter healthy boundaries
How? Naturally. Matter-of-factly. No big deal. It is what its.
When my daughter went to the doctor for her 2-year-old check-up, the doctor asked for consent before checking the vagina. It was simple, and very natural. She said,
“I need to check your vagina. Is it OK if I look at it?” After, she asked, “Who is allowed to touch your vagina?”
My daughter just stared at her. I was a little embarrassed that I hadn’t had this talk with her yet. (I’m a therapist… we talk about EVERYTHING)
“Only your parents and your doctor,” the doctor told her. And that was it.
That night, I followed up during bath time.
“Hey! Remember what your doctor said? Who gets to touch your vagina?”
As she got a little older, we had the conversation again. It’s not a one-time deal. Nor is it a serious talk. I brought it up naturally.
Me: Hey, tell me, who is allowed to look at your vagina?
She: Only my Papa, my Daddy, and my teacher… and maybe my grandparents.
Me: Right! And what if someone else touches your vagina?
She: No! They can’t!
Me: So what do you do if they try?
She: I say, “Stop it!”
Me: Yes, AND you run away. You can scream, and you go tell an adult… But what if a friend or someone you know wants to touch your private area?
She: No! NOBODY, Papa!
Me: Right! … Wait, I have a trick question for you… what if they told you that I or Daddy said it was OK to touch?
Me: Nobody. I will never tell another person that it’s OK to touch your vagina.
She: Never, ever, right?
Me: I will never ever tell anyone to touch your privates.
She: Good. My vagina is just mine. I don’t have to share it!
Maybe I overdid it. (And maybe one day my daughter will hate me for posting this on the internet)
It’s an ongoing conversation.
We have other conversations that “de-mystify” our genitals, too. The other day she laughed at me, saying, “I see your butt!” (because it seems I won’t ever be allowed in the bathroom by myself). “You did!” I answered naturally. She giggled, so I went,
“I know. It’s funny because it’s private and it’s usually hidden in our pants. But it’s just a body part! And we are family, so sometimes we see each other’s privates.”
I’m not going to lie. There is a certain discomfort when your daughter laughs as she sees you naked! Which is why it’s even more important to stay calm and act natural.
“And if anything ever happens…”
As a therapist, many girls and women told me of when they were harassed. The initial shock keeps them from speaking up or doing anything at all in that moment. It’s a natural response. And the shame that follows can be crippling.
My hope is that she would speak up right away. As a dad, I don’t want her to feel ashamed.
But to believe that these conversations can keep her 100% safe is to put the responsibility on her. And that’s not the case. So, if (and I say this with such a heavy heart) she was ever treated inappropriately, harassed or abused, my hope is that she will come to me (or someone safe) and break the silence.
And that’s why conversations like the one I described before need to end with something that says,
“If anybody does anything to you that makes you feel mad, or afraid, or yucky, or ashamed… you can ALWAYS come to me. And I will always support you. And if someone ever touches any of your private areas, you can always come to me. I will not be mad at you because it is never your fault when someone else touches you in that way. And I will do my best to keep you safe, and help you feel better.”
To so many women who joined the #metoo hashtag, I am so sorry you had to experience that. I see you, and I admire your strength and courage. Thank you for being Brave… Like a Girl!
* This article was originally posted under the name “How to Help Your Daughter Prevent Sexual Assault.” The feedback from a kind reader made me change the title to “How to Talk to Your Daughter About Sexual Assault.” I so appreciate the feedback. Thank you!
You’ve written a ni e article about how to repond to sexual assualt, and perhaps incrrase resilience, but not how to prevent it. You title is a misnomer, as victims can’t prevent a cime. Only perpetrators can do that. Sadly, with this article title, I find that you are perpetuating the myths we are trying to eradicate- that women cause rape by their behavior. I realize you are well intentioned, but please consider another title for your article.
I hear what you say because if someone was to approach her, and she yelled or screamed or told a teacher, the harassment would have still happened. It would not have prevented it. Thank you for the feedback. Let me think about how I can change the title. I really appreciate your feedback!, and I don’t want to perpetuate the myths that women have any responsibility in this.
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