Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Why (and How) I Talked to My 9-Year-Old about Rape

Yesterday, spurred in part by the ongoing (rightful) outrage about the light sentence received by the "Stanford rapist," Brock Turner for the rape of an unconscious woman behind a Dumpster on the Stanford campus, I sat down with my oldest son to talk about rape.

My oldest is 9-1/2 and just finishing fourth grade. He's a year from being a rising middle-schooler. He's just a few years from teenagehood and all of the experimentation and adventure that goes along with being an adolescent in America. And as the oldest of four brothers, his experiences and the way we teach him to face the world will set an example for his three younger brothers.

It's a heavy responsibility for him and for us.

In the entire 10-minute conversation, I used the word "rape" only once. Because talking about rape doesn't mean saying, "Hey, you shouldn't have sex with a girl if she doesn't want you to." Talking about rape is placing his behavior in a broader context of being a person of integrity, of doing the right thing, and of knowing what the right thing to do is.

I talked to him a little bit about the Stanford case itself. I didn't give him details about what Turner did. I said the boy and the girl were at a party, and they both drank a lot, and the boy decided that he was going to do what he wanted to the girl even though she was unconscious and couldn't tell him whether she wanted him to do that or not. I talked about how the boy made a very bad decision and that many people are very angry that he got such a light sentence, because what he did hurt the girl very badly, and she will always be hurt by it, even after he gets out of jail and goes on with his life. I talked about how when we hurt someone badly, whether it's physically or mentally (or both), that hurt doesn't go away, ever.

I then asked him if he knows what the word "consent" means. He wasn't sure, so I gave him a simple example. He was sitting at his computer, so I said, "If I ask if I can use your computer, and you say yes, that's giving consent for me to use the computer, and then it's okay for me to use it. If I come to you tomorrow and ask to use the computer and you say no, I don't get to use it just because you told me I could yesterday. Consent has to be given every time." He looked at me like I'd just told him the beach is sandy.

Then I explained why it's so hard for many women who have been touched in ways they don't want to be touched to report the crime. I said, "What if you were out on the playground at school, and for no reason at all, some kid walked up to you and punched you in the face? That would be wrong, right?" He nodded. "But what if then you went to a teacher and said the boy had punched you in the face, and the teacher said, 'Well, what were you doing? Maybe you made him angry. Maybe he didn't like the expression on your face. You know he doesn't really like you. You must have said something he didn't like.' And on top of that, the boy got suspended for three days and everyone was upset that because he was suspended, he couldn't play on the basketball team, and he's such a good basketball player, and it's such a shame that this one action ruined his career! None of that changes the fact that it was wrong to walk up to you and punch you in the face, but if that was the reaction you got, it would make you not want to bother reporting it, right?" I told him that's basically what happens to a lot of women who try to report when someone has hurt them.

I told him I really didn't think I was raising boys who would ever think it's right to touch someone who doesn't want to be touched. I told him I wanted to be raising boys who would become teenagers and men who would be able to see when someone else was doing the wrong thing and speak up. We talked about various scenarios. For example, if he sees a friend of his touching a girl, and she obviously doesn't want to be touched, he could go up to his friend and say, "Hey, man, are you sure this is cool?" Or, if he feels it would be dangerous to interfere directly, he can always call the police and report an assault in progress. Or, he can gather his friends who also know right from wrong and all together they can approach the person and suggest that what he's doing is not okay.

I said I knew most of this was kind of abstract for him now and that I hoped he was never in such a situation. But, I wanted him to have my words in his head all the time, so that if he finds himself in a place where he has the opportunity to do the right thing, he will know what to do. I said the only reason the boy at Stanford even got caught was because two guys rode by on bicycles and thought something looked weird, so they stopped to intervene. I said those two men are heroes, and I want my sons to be the ones who stop and check in when something doesn't look right.

This is not a one-time conversation. This is an ongoing and evolving subject that we will have to revisit. I will have to start this conversation with each of my sons as they get big enough to understand. And I can plant the seed with even the youngest by reminding him that if he's doing something and the other person asks him to stop, then he must stop. Period.

If it's simple enough for my 9-year-old to understand, then it's simple enough for a drunk 20-year-old to understand. Start the conversation. Keep having the conversation.


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