The words came out of my mouth before I had a chance to consider my audience. Standing in the crowded check out line at the local grocery store, my two-year-old daughter's tiny voice cut through the high pitched beeps of the scanner and the scattered conversation of the dozen or so people standing nearby. Time stood still.
And she interpreted my "What?!" to mean that I didn't understand her the first time. So she said it again.
"I SAID (pausing for effect)... my VAGINA BOTTOM HURTS!"
This is what happens when I am allowed to parent unsupervised.
A few weeks prior to what I'll now refer to as "The Target Incident", I reached an important fatherly milestone. That moment when you realize that protecting your daughter is less about wrapping her in a big plastic bubble and brushing up on your Ultimate Fighting takedown skills, and more about teaching her to be a strong, confident woman.
Around this same time, I read somewhere that it was important to use the medically appropriate terms when referring to your child's anatomy, instead of making up cutesy words like "hoo hoos" and "tiddly bits". The article said that such words might create a sense of shame about the body. So I did my best to teach my daughter a new vocabulary. Unfortunately, I forgot to teach her about the appropriate times and places to use such words. The result was like toting around a little Dr. Ruth Westheimer doll with a pull cord.
Since that day, I am happy to report that my daughter is very confident and no longer spouts anatomical terms at random. At just eight years old, she knows who she is, and we do our best to reinforce just how powerful and capable God made her to be.
Even so, I still worry about her.
There are countless news reports that highlight the dangers women face every day. Human trafficking. Domestic violence. Sexual assault. The stories appear daily. We see accounts of thirty men assaulting a defenseless teenager in Brazil. Or pre-teen girls stolen from their homes and sold into prostitution. Or beloved comedians taking advantage of young women with the help of spiked drinks and a gullible public. And every time I think about such tragedy finding my daughter, it scares the ever-loving fecal matter out of me (to use a medically appropriate term).
I soothe myself by reasoning that these cases are anomalies, and the odds of such random, headline-worthy events ever happening to my child are slim.
I also tell myself that building confidence and strength in my daughter will greatly minimize the risk.
And while I blanket myself in these lies, I mask a sad truth:
When I read these statistics, I come to a harsh realization. And maybe you other dads are seeing it, too. Confidence and strength are no match for this beast. We can teach our daughters to use commanding voices and karate chops ad nauseum and it will barely move the needle. By focusing on our daughters, we have been woefully out of touch, indirectly fanning the flames of victim-blaming. Offering our girls a thimble full of water while ignoring the inferno being set ablaze behind our backs.
Dads, if we want to protect our daughters, it starts with our sons. And teaching them about consent.
Because stranger danger isn't the problem here. It's the cute kid your daughter works with at the fast food restaurant. The funny guy in her church youth group. The helpful one on her group project team.
It's my son.
It's your son.
And to think otherwise is to live in a state of denial. Because eighty percent of sexual assault victims know their attacker.
As dads, we all know that it's our job to have "The Talk" with our kids when they are young. To teach them about the birds and the bees. Explain where babies come from.
The good news is, if your calendar fills up and you miss the chance, you know the fifth grade sex ed class or your son's friends will fill in the gaps. It's not an ideal situation, but your little guy will learn the truth about human reproduction sooner or later. Alternative theories like storks and dolls born in a cabbage patch just don't hold up under close questioning from a determined middle schooler with access to YouTube.
That's a different story.
Your son is bombarded by images of women every day. And a majority of these show women as objects to be desired. A form of entertainment. Watch any sporting event on television and tell me it's not true. From the cheerleaders on the court to the ladies peddling Viagra during commercial breaks. It's non-stop.
But it's gotta stop.
A few weeks ago, I noticed my 10-year-old son talking to his friends about girls. Who they liked. Which ones had a girlfriend. Who was kissing on the playground.
Seeing an opportunity, I sat down with my boy. And I'm not gonna' lie. It was awkward. But I did it anyway.
"Hey son. I want to talk to you about something."
"It's about kissing girls."
"Can we talk about something else?"
"Yes, we can. Later. But right now I need to be sure you understand something very important."
"There might be a time when you feel like kissing a girl. And kissing is great! But you need to be sure she's OK with that. It's not OK just to grab a girl and kiss her. You're not in charge of her body. She is. And even if she says it's OK to kiss her, your lips may be one inch away from hers, and it may start feeling really great, but if she changes her mind and says 'no', you have to back away. Even if the kiss already started. Girls are allowed to change their minds. In fact, based on my experience, you should expect a girl to change her mind a lot."
"And, if you and a couple of your buddies are with a girl and you ask if she wants to kiss any of you. She might say yes. But she might not mean it. Kinda like when your buddies gang up on you and dare you to do something stupid, you might do it because you feel pressured, but you don't really mean it. So don't ever pressure a girl like that. It's not right. In fact, not only is it not right to do these things, but it's also against the law. Get it?"
"So what am I saying?"
"Ugh. Do I really have to say it?"
"Yes. I want to make sure you got it."
"Don't kiss a girl if she doesn't want to."
"Right. And don't ever coerce a girl into saying yes, especially with a group of people."
"OK. Can we talk about something else?"
"Sure. But we'll probably talk about this again sometime."
I'm sure psychologists all over the country are cringing right now, just like my son. It's not enough just to offer general platitudes and tell our boys to respect other people. Just like the birds and the bees, we need to provide details about what consent really means. Otherwise, we are the ones responsible for painting a black and white issue with shades of gray.
Sometimes giving voice to the voiceless and truly loving our neighbor starts at home. Within your own four walls. So, if you're a dad, I implore you, for the sake of daughters, wives and mothers, man up. Teach your sons about consent. If you need some help, I've compiled some simple suggestions from various resources below.
But enough is enough.
The time is now.
And the answer starts with us.
Tips for Teaching Consent to Your Kids
Toddlers: Start to build awareness early. When you are playing, make sure "no means no". If you are tickling, teasing, or chasing, the instant someone says "stop", respect their wishes. If anyone has to say "no" more than once to get a behavior to stop, make sure whoever did not stop on the first request offers and apology (especially if the offender is you). And never coerce them into physical contact with another person (hug your Aunt Kelly!) Ewwww.
Pre-K: Teach the difference between silence and expressed consent. Before initiating physical contact, always ask permission. "Can I give you a hug?" "Is it OK if I move you to this chair?" And rather than waiting for a "yes", acknowledge when body language is saying "no" and tell them you understand. A tentative yes is not a yes.
Young Children to Pre-teen: Respect your kids' need for privacy in bathrooms, when changing, etc. And ask for privacy yourself. If they aren't knocking on doors yet, teach them by modeling the behavior. And, if you have the official "birds and bees" talk, make sure you talk about consent as part of the discussion.
Teenagers: Be as specific as you feel comfortable here. Bring current events into the discussion. Talk about how alcohol can impair a person's ability to express and acknowledge consent. If you would like a humorous, yet specific, discussion of consent, consider this one from the British Police. Or, if you prefer an unfiltered discussion, this groundbreaking article by a NFL hero doesn't pull any punches.
How to Teach Consent to Kids
We Can Teach Kids Consent without Brining Sex into the Conversation https://rewire.news/article/2015/04/09/can-teach-kids-consent-without-bringing-sex-conversation/
National Sexuality Education Standards