When I was a first year in law school, I was thoroughly appalled when someone offered in class his strongly held opinion that rape was not rape unless there was a knife to a woman's throat. He was probably 22 or 23. This was in 1993.
In 2015, I'm not sure what opinions Brock Turner held, but his deplorable "20 minutes of action" and his subsequent criminal convictions illustrate that he lacked the values and self-control of a reasonable human being, as he was unable to pause, consider his actions, and ultimately stop himself from sexually assaulting another human being. He was a freshman. At Stanford.
Here is the problem. People don't get, and we are not talking enough, about the fact that rape is rape is rape if there is no consent. In what is still, unfortunately, a misogynistic and inequitable society, we are not educating our sons and daughters sufficiently or early enough -- so that they can make sound and respectful choices, or feel empowered to speak up, no matter the circumstance.
Sexual violence on college campuses is an enormous problem. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 16 men experiences sexual assault during college. More than 90% of sexual assault victims on college campuses do not report it and suffer in silence. And sadly, many colleges and universities turn a blind eye to the issue because when sexual assault happens on their campuses, it's terrible PR - bad for admissions. (Really??)
In thinking about the beliefs of my law school classmate and the actions of Brock Turner, both of whom are highly educated but very young, I realize that we -- as individuals and as communities -- have the very important responsibility of talking much more about consent and doing so early on in our children's lives. Talking about acceptable behavior. Talking about rape. Given the age of Brock Turner, and these terrible statistics, clearly, we are not doing enough early enough. Sexual assault happens across demographics, across socioeconomics, even at the pinnacle of educational institutions.
We must talk to our kids more. We must advocate in our communities. This is what each of us -- every single one of us -- has the power to do.
I have two children, a girl and a boy. I am the chair of the board of an organization that provides direct services to women survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking (the New York Asian Women's Center). I feel fortunate to have never been the one in five women who has been abused or sexually assaulted. But I do this work because I want this world to be a better place -- of course, for my daughter because I want her to be safe, but equally for my son.
I can't, myself, serve our clients directly. Our incredible staff has years of education and experience that I don't, and with that, they help our clients to heal and to get them back on their feet. But what I can do is help them advocate and educate. What I can do as a mother is talk to my children. What I can do is encourage others to do the same. And those are things that we can all do.
Obviously, despite the headline on this blog post, I am not advising parents to be discussing sexual violence with their preschoolers. But reflecting on my son's short nine years so far, I have thought about the different age-appropriate situations that allowed us to start this conversation around the protection of our and others' bodies and consent -- and to do so at a very early age. I hope that these lessons steel him at many points in his life:
• Tickle Torture: It was actually my son, who was three or four at the time, who taught me here that no means no. I love the sound of children's laughter -- especially my own -- and what better way to elicit joy and uncontrollable laughter than by skillful tickling? When my son was little, he would laugh, scream, and simultaneously beg me to stop. At first, I didn't -- he was laughing, wasn't he? We were having fun, weren't we? But then one day, he said vehemently in his just post-toddler voice, "When I say stop, you have to stop!!" Wow. A simple command, and yet I had ignored him. He made me put it in the context of respect for one's own body and the bodies of others, and I immediately stopped the torture. This is not to say that tickling is verboten in our house, but once he draws the line, we are done. He may come back for more, but that's totally up to him.
• Dessert: Every night, my son asks me if he can have dessert because everyday is different. What other sugar did he have at school or at practice? How much running around did he do? I don't know how this practice of him asking before diving into the pantry or refrigerator started, but I like that he knows that just because I said yes yesterday and the day before that, he doesn't assume that yes applies to today.
• Kissing Great Aunt Matilda: In some cultures (including my own), it is expected that a child greet a grown up with a hug or a kiss, even if the child feels uncomfortable doing so (who wants to kiss, in some cases, a veritable stranger?). Again, early in my parenting years, I followed my family's culture and ensured that my children did the right thing, until I realized that in certain instances, I was forcing my kids to do something they didn't feel right about doing, an affront to their personal space and the integrity and perceived safety of their own bodies. Post realization, if I recognized they were uncomfortable, a high five sufficed or a hug later on their own terms.
• Dismissal and Pick Up: My kids' school, as many schools do, have comprehensive rules around dismissal. They want to know who is permitted to pick up a child and when there are exceptions to that rule. My son knows that just because Uncle Tony picked him up on one day doesn't mean that Uncle Tony is always permitted to pick him up, and it certainly doesn't mean that if Uncle Tony took him for ice cream in the city after school one day that Uncle Tony can, on his own volition, drive him down the New Jersey Turnpike a couple hours to the amusement park. There are rules in place to require consent each time.
• The Pre-Camp Talk: Every year, thousands of families in New York City and beyond send their kids off to sleep away camp for several weeks, and every year in my house, I have had the same conversation with my daughter: "If someone touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, speak up. Tell that person to stop, and then tell someone." I will have the very same conversation with my son when he leaves in a few weeks.
So no, we don't have to talk about rape with our 4-year olds. And yes, these may seem like silly situations on which to foist the idea of rape, and yes, the conversations will get more sophisticated and more difficult. And no, I am not a perfect parent who never makes mistakes, nor do I expect the same of my children. But as parents, we can start drawing boundaries and helping them understand consent in ways that makes sense for them so that by the time they are out in the world and faced with tough choices around their own impulses and the integrity of and respect for other people and their bodies, they have the values, the strength and the wherewithal to do the right thing.
In addition to looking for teachable and age appropriate moments, let's please talk about this in our homes, in our schools and in our communities. That is the least that we can do. As parents, none of us wants our daughters to be the victim of rape, any more than we want our sons to be the perpetrator. So when you're testing your son or daughter on spelling words to make sure that they ace that test on Friday, just as Brock Turner's father did, make sure to take the extra steps, that he seems not to have, to inculcate fundamental respect and love for their fellow human beings.