One of my earliest memories of being in an uncomfortable situation with a boy was when I was 10 years old.
I’d spent the night at my best friend’s house, and we had been watching TV on her living room floor. It was after midnight, and everyone else was asleep. I was next to her 15-year-old brother, who was still awake.
As we lay there, talking about the New Kids on the Block video on MTV, he slid his arm around me. The weight of his arm settled on my back, and I felt wronged. I wasn’t sure he should be touching me, but I didn’t know how to ask him to move. The next day, I explained what happened to an adult I trusted and was assured that I was overreacting. Since nothing overtly sexual happened, my concerns were dismissed.
Throughout my childhood, there were similar circumstances. I don’t think that the adults in my life meant to be careless. Instead, they grew up in a time where more explicit abuses were committed against women and girls. The abuse was not only expected, but was socially acceptable.
Our mothers were unprotected. As a result, they didn’t recognize that some of those behaviors fit the definition of sexual violence.
Parents are reluctant to talk to girls about sexual violence for fear of scaring them. We shelter them from information that we think they are too young to understand. Although their ignorance can protect them temporarily, the consequences could be grave.
I can understand the instinct to preserve our daughters’ innocence, but girls watch movies, listen to music, and use social media. They are already exposed. We put girls in danger when we do not teach them how to protect themselves from rape culture.
As the mother of a middle schooler, my goal is to prepare my daughter for what I know, as a woman, is inevitable. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, almost half of all women (44.6%) experience sexual violence other than rape throughout their lifetime.
Let’s start by teaching girls which behaviors are a part of rape culture. You might be surprised to know that it includes any unwanted touch, even non-sexual touching. Also included are actions that are generally accepted as part of many women’s first experiences with sexual situations — like catcalling, coercion or flashing.
When we openly educate girls about what behaviors are unacceptable, and which settings or circumstances are risky, we keep them safe. We can’t equip girls to defend themselves against abusers if they don’t know what abuse looks or feels like.
Next, we have to listen to girls. When they tell us about their exposure to non-consensual or unwanted sexual attention, parents and guardians must believe and support girls’ experiences and feelings. When we believe girls, we let them know that they can trust their intuition. When a situation feels bad to them — it is. When we believe girls, we show them that they can trust us and that their physical and emotional well-being is a priority.
Listening encourages and reinforces a girl’s right to her body, which is the first step in learning how to protect herself. When a girl knows that she is free to decide who can touch her, she is more likely to speak up when someone violates her boundaries or personal space. Trusting herself and the adults she depends on builds confidence. A confident girl is an empowered girl.
In thinking about how to empower my daughter as she grows up, I made the decision to sign her up for self-defense classes. While women’s self-defense training is already offered at colleges across the nation, we shouldn’t delay teaching girls verbal and physical strategies for avoiding and interrupting violence. Studies have shown that self-defense training can reduce not only sexual assaults but all kinds of coercive sex.
Some argue that teaching women self-defense lets offenders off the hook — they say we should teach men not to rape. Granted, the rate of sexual assaults has dropped since the old school slogan “no means no” became a staple in conversations around sexual violence, but it’s just not enough. Eighty-two percent of all victims under 18 are female, in many cases too young to provide legal consent.
For these girls, the word “no” is either a whisper or not a part of their vocabulary.
Girls cannot afford to wait for abusers to listen. We must protect them now. Their lives depend upon it.
Kathryn M. Johnson, who lives in Chicago, has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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