I'm sorry if this will surprise you: sexual assault and harassment have been so much a part of my life. I'm not surprised anymore when I read about it. Angry? Yes. Filled with rage? Yes. Fighting the instinct to hurt the person who hurt me or my friends or my family? Yes.
How can we be surprised? Our world, nation, and very fabric of everything I know has been permissive of power and violence. I can turn on a movie or television that features any time period and watch/read/hear a story about sexual violence and harassment. We have glorified it. Made iconic prints, statues and ideals about it (e.g., the "sailor kissing a woman" here).
My sister, Grace Talusan, often writes about her own experiences with violence (particularly in her upcoming book The Body Papers due out in Summer 2018 - yes, that was a plug, go buy it!). My cousin Roslyn Talusan writes openly about her experiences. And, in different, maybe less subtle ways, I have written about my own.
It pains me to think that one of the reasons why I wanted to my two daughters to earn their black belts is so they could defend-and-attack if they were ever in a situation in which they were being harassed. While some people cringe at the judo grappling where the girls are on the ground, someone is laying on top of them, and they have to redistribute body weight in order to escape an attacker, I secretly love watching them get out of situations. And, then quickly, I get mad that they would ever have to fight anyone off of them to begin with.
As my son continues to grow up, he has heard from a very, very, very early age that he must respect the mind, body, and soul of other people. In our home, because he interacts primarily with his sisters, we emphasize how he may never disrespect the mind, body and soul of a girl or woman (aka me and his sisters). He, and the girls, has heard "No means no" and "the absence of yes is a no" as part of his vocabulary. He, too, takes karate, and he is learning about boundaries, respect, and using his words way before he uses his hands.
In our home, we are careful never to send messages to our daughters about how their clothing is perceived or how their body movements should be interpreted. We are teaching them to be proud of their identities and their fluidity. We have given them language to talk about, share, question, and affirm who they are. And, yes, we have even said, "Okay, so if you're going to wear that, people who are not as aware of respecting others might say stupid things to you. That's not your fault. So, what might you do, how might you respond, what do you need for yourself, what do those people need to know?" We never say, "Don't wear that because you'll be asking for it."
None of this is easy, trust me. It's so much easier for me to fall back to the messages I received as a child -- that my clothing, somehow, mattered. That if my shirt was to low cut or my skirt was too short that I was "asking for trouble" or that I wasn't "being decent." And, these weren't messages by my parents. These were messages by teachers, media, movies, friends, parents of friends, and others. And, truthfully, the lack of messages about how my body is my own was equally as loud as those that told me how to be, dress, walk or think.
So, now that I work with younger children, what do we do? How do we start this conversation earlier?
Well, as adults, we have to first recognize our own problematic assumptions that we were raised with about sex, consent, our bodies, and respect for others. We will have a difficult time teaching our own children about these issues unless we spend a lot of time thinking, wondering and being curious about what we learned. Find some time to ask yourself these questions. Better yet, as you are reading this post, stop and journal as you read each question. Or, if you happen to be reading this while sitting next to someone, ask if they wouldn't mind dialoguing with you about it (you know, figure out your audience....):
- What were my first or earliest messages about my body? Were these messages positive, negative, or absent from my upbringing?
- What were my first or earliest messages about sex? Were these messages positive, negative or absent from my upbringing?
- What were my first or earliest messages about consent? Were these messages positive, negative or absent from my upbringing?
- What were my first or earliest messages about how people dressed? About drinking? About dating?
- What were my first or earliest messages about my ownership over my own body? What were my first or earliest messages about saying "no" or saying "yes"?
We have to take the time to think about our own thoughts and behaviors. How did our beliefs get shaped?
Then, how do those early messages shape my beliefs about my own child(ren) or young people in my life?
- Looking back, what messages do you wish you were given, when you were growing up, about the topics above?
- What messages were you given that are rooted in sexism, victimhood, or power?
- How do we disrupt those messages as parents/guardians or caring adults?
One of the earliest messages I had about sex was that we never talked about sex. Whenever we, growing up, watched television with my parents, they fast forwarded or turned the channel until they predicted the scene would be over (yes, this was pre-Netflix and DVR!). While I'm sure their intent was to protect our fragile eyes from seeing this -- or, more likely, to protect their embarrassment -- what happened is that we learned not to talk about sex or ask questions.
Now, whenever my family is watching television and there is a sex scene or "sexy-ish" scene, we simply say, "So, do you have questions about what they are doing?" Yes, I blush the entire time. Or, when they close their eyes because of a kissing scene, we simply say, "Kissing is a normal thing between people who love or care about or are attracted to each other. Kissing isn't a bad thing." We, in our house, try to normalize talking about sex so that our kids learn that talking about it is important -- imperative -- to a healthy relationship. Now that our oldest is 14, I bought a subscription to Teen Vogue which, over the past year, has been a particularly woke publication! There are some sexual topics in there, and I've said, "I know they answer questions in this magazine, but I'd love to talk about it or answer any questions you might have."
It certainly doesn't hurt that both my husband and I have taught Growth Education (he specifically teaches the year-long class on sex, bodies, contraception, and protection!). We have language to talk about this with young people. But, that doesn't mean we don't get embarrassed or blush when it comes to our own children. Believe me, we do!
I realize simply talking about sex and relationships isn't going to cure our world's deeply problematic culture of sexual violence. I'm no fool.
And, I also realize that we can't sit back and do nothing.
Parents/guardians/caring adults, please don't wait until your child's college orientation program for them to be exposed to dialogues about sex. Let them know that talking about or asking questions about sex and consent and behavior is imperative to healthy relationships.
The #MeToo campaign was a platform for letting others know how pervasive sexual assault and harassment is in our own circles. Now, it's time to talk about what we are going to do next.
Peace and love,