In my last post, I discussed sexual violence and sexual harassment, and how common it can be in a teen environment. This week, as promised, I want to discuss how parents can try to help their teens recognize and reject this type of behavior, and the type of environment where it is tolerated.
I’ve posted about this in the “Teens and Sexual Assault” series, but I wanted to address a few more recommendations, and repeat a few key ones. These recommendations are not gender-specific; while the study that sparked my first post was about teen girls, any gender can perpetrate, or be the victim of, sexual violence.
Be a good role model. I’m not talking about refraining from committing sexual violence; hopefully you do that already. But you can put extra effort into treating people respectfully. Don’t comment on other peoples’ bodies. Keep your conversation- from chatting with friends to your Facebook feed- respectful. Turn off shows or movies that portray sexual harassment or violence as okay or even desirable. If discussing a situation where sexual violence is involved, never blame the victim. Call out rape culture when you see it, and make sure your teen is listening.
Teach your teen about rape, consent, and relationships. You can’t count on your teen’s school, or friends to do this, and definitely not the popular media. Make sure they get accurate, helpful information. Make it clear to your teen, no matter what their gender, that they are responsible for respecting their partners. Encourage them to seek enthusiastic consent, rather than to push boundaries and wait for a “no.” Return to this topic, again and again. They can’t hear this message enough.
Teach your teen about what sexual harassment is. This isn’t intuitive, especially when teens are surrounded by a culture that treats sexual violence as normal. Explain that sexual harassment can make someone else feel disrespected, uncertain, and frightened. Firmly communicate your expectation that your teen never engages in this type of behavior, or endorses it in a friend. If you find out they have sexually harassed someone, don’t minimize it, and give consequences.
Discuss the link between sexual violence and substance use. Unfortunately, the two often go together. Make it very clear that someone under the influence of substances cannot consent to sexual activity, and that anyone trying to take advantage of someone under the influence of substances is committing rape. Encourage your teen to take care of friends who have been using substances, if possible, and try to look out for their welfare.
Teach your teen how to handle rejection. Rejection hurts, sometimes terribly. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, or betrayed. However, the only appropriate response to a rejected romantic overture- be it a request for a date, a relationship, or sexual activity- is respectful agreement. (Disappointment is normal, and it’s okay to express it, but in a respectful way that doesn’t attempt to invoke guilt or a changed decision.) Most women I know, and quite a few men, have dealt with someone who ended up pursuing them long past their comfort zone. It’s a terrible feeling, one you don’t want your teen to have, or to cause.
Make sure the educational environment is addressing this issue. Your teen’s school should not only have strong anti-harassment and anti-violence rules with clear, meaningful consequences for both who violate them, but educate students about this topic regularly. Make sure this education is focused on teaching teens about not committing sexual violence, as well as safety measures to try and prevent it.
Teach your teen to stand up for others. “Bystander intervention” is a powerful phenomenon. Empower your teen to intervene, or seek help, if they are concerned that someone is being harassed, coerced, or forced into a situation. It’s better to seem intrusive or bring an adult in to break up the party, than to have someone suffer through being a victim of sexual violence.
Teach your teen that they are never entitled to sexual activity. This goes for someone who they’ve had a crush on, flirted with, dated, or are in a committed relationship with. Nobody has a “right” to someone else’s body. No matter what the relationship, sexual activity with someone is a privilege and negotiation that involves a lot of communication, not a right or a routine.
I’d love to hear other recommendations I haven’t mentioned here.
Also, check out the recent #yesallwomen tweets, in reaction to the recent Isla Vista massacre, for more reminders about why we need to change our culture, pronto.
Thanks to Erin Harrup, Elisa Mader, and Amanda Rosenblum for their suggestions and guidance on this post.