Content warning: Abuse (physical, emotional, sexual), rape, sexual assault
Sexual assault. It's an ugly topic, and one that is difficult to talk about. But as parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and mentors, we must face the reality that the kids in our lives may be at risk. A majority of people who have been sexually assaulted were first assaulted before the age of 25. And 40 percent of female victims were assaulted before the age of 18. I find it both horrifying and heartbreaking to think about the many children, teens, and young adults who have been victimized during their formative years. But we can do something about it. We can continue to talk openly and thoughtfully about sexual assault and the damage it causes. And, perhaps most importantly, we can talk to our kids about it and what can be done.
The first step towards change is defining the problem, particularly for young people who may not understand it. Sexual assault is any type of sexual contact or behavior that happens without the consent of all participants. Consent -- or willing, freely-given agreement -- is legally defined differently in different states and under different circumstances. The age of consent also varies from state to state. Some people cannot legally give consent, even if they would like to. Children and young teens, for instance, are not legally able to consent to sexual activity, so any adult (and sometimes other children) having sex with them would be breaking the law, even if the child agreed. Not all sexual assault involves a physical attack. It can also be verbal (like sexual harassment) or visual (like "flashing" or being forced to view pornography).
Sometimes people use threats or pressure to gain consent when they know the other person does not want to give it. A landlord threatening to evict a tenant, a husband telling his wife that she owes him, and a boyfriend begging repeatedly until his girlfriend gives in are all using sexual coercion, the act of using pressure, guilt, alcohol, drugs, or force to have sex with someone against his or her will. Like other kinds of sexual assault, coercion can happen with spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, family members, friends, coworkers, bosses and dates. Even if the person agrees to it, coerced sex is not consensual because consent is not freely given. But because coercion can appear to be consensual, some survivors are left feeling confused or blame themselves for taking part. It can be particularly confusing for a child or teenager to understand that it isn't their fault.
We tell our children to beware of dark streets and strange men, but research shows that the overwhelming majority of assaults are committed by someone they already know. The numbers are staggering: Almost 75 percent of women who have been coerced into sexual activity were coerced by a current or former partner. Men don't fare much better: More than half of men who have been raped were raped by an acquaintance. These numbers reflect the awful truth that often the person who assaults us is someone we love and trust.
What can you do to protect your children? Educate them. Talk to them about what sexual assault is and let them know that it's okay to tell if something bad happens -- even if touching wasn't involved. Teach them about safe ways to show affection. Let them know what they should expect from friends, relatives, and others, as well as how they should treat them in return. Be clear that they never have the right to pressure someone into doing something they don't want to do, and no one has the right to pressure them, either -- even if they're in love. Talk to them about what to do if they see a friend taking advantage of someone. Let them know that they have the power to speak up if their gut tells them something is wrong. Sayings like "boys will be boys" and "that's how she shows she likes you" should no longer excuse bad behavior and a lack of respect. When we allow children to treat each other in ways we would never allow adults to they are set up for failure and left vulnerable. It's not easy to talk about tough topics like this, so use these tips to help you start the conversation and these to help you talk to your kids about dating violence and building healthy relationships. Girlshealth.gov also has great resources for you and your daughters to learn about what to expect from both friends and dates and how to be a respectful friend and girlfriend to someone else.
We can no longer ignore sexual assault within established relationships. Most perpetrators of sexual assault are boyfriends, girlfriends, relatives, dates, or friends -- someone a youth may not otherwise think of as a threat. We need to teach girls and boys about healthy relationships long before they have a chance to learn first-hand about unhealthy ones. These conversations can happen early and often and can be worked into all sorts of everyday situations.
If we educate our children about what to expect from a healthy relationship -- throughout their lives -- we can make it much easier for them to recognize when something is wrong and get help when they need it. This is important not only for the well-being of our children but for the adults they will become.