3 age-appropriate ways to talk to kids and teens about media portrayals of sexual assault

Guest post by Kristin Ireland

By: Randen PedersonCC BY 2.0
On August 11th 2012, in Steubenville Ohio, a very inebriated 16-year-old girl was raped by two of her peers while others watched, recorded, and encouraged the brutality. The crime, perpetrated by two 16-year-old boys, was brutal and public. In the days that followed, the rapists and other students shared the grotesque details of the assault on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. They minimized the crime, blamed and shamed the victim, and generally behaved in ways that make us question human decency.

On March 17th 2013 Ma’lik Richmond and Trent Mays were found guilty of rape and sentenced as juveniles to be incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility until they turn 21. During the trial the prosecutor asked one of the onlookers, Evan Westlake, why he didn’t stop the rape and his response was “well, it wasn’t violent. I didn’t know what rape was. I always pictured it as forcing yourself on someone.”

Last week I stood in line at the grocery store behind two female friends with pre-teen children in tow. They were discussing the Steubenville trial and complaining about the fallout. As the parents of teenage girls they were happy to see the perpetrators punished but they expressed sympathy over the public nature of their consequences.

And then they spent the rest of the time discussing how unfair the entire ordeal is to them. Because the word rape was being discussed so openly they now had to have conversations with their daughters about what that means. Which, clearly, is the real shame in this whole mess.

At that point the pre-teens bounced over to their mothers giggling and whispering to each other. And that was when I noticed the button on one of their backpacks picturing Damon and Elena from The Vampire Diaries in a close embrace.

And then my head exploded.

I have this super awesome talent for thinking of the perfect thing to say hours later. A talent which is not in any way useful — unless you have a blog. In which case you can blog about it and get it all out. So here are three possible, age-appropriate, conversations you can have with your children about rape that I came up with:

Sleeping Beauty and the 7 year old

Parent: And there she lay, so beautiful that he could not turn his eyes away, and he stooped down and gave her a kiss.
Child: And she woke-up?
Parent: She did wake-up. But do you think what the prince did was right?
Child: Well if he didn’t kiss her she would be asleep forever.
Parent: But how would you feel if someone kissed you when you didn’t say it was OK?
Child: Gross. That’s not very nice.
Parent: Can you think of another way that he could have woken her up without kissing her?
Child: Well maybe if they had a dog they could make the dog bark really loud?
Parent: That’s a smart idea! What else?
Child: I know! A bunch of people could get pots and wooden spoons and they could bang them really really loud!
Parent: What a good idea! Why don’t we draw a picture of that and we can put a new ending in this book?
Child: Yeah!

The Vampire Diaries and the 13-year-old

Parent: So, on this show, the vampires compel people to do things?
Child: uh-huh (said without looking up from computer)
Parent: Like what kinds of things?
Child: Whatever they want.
Parent: Do they ever compel girls or boys to kiss them?
Child: Yeah, Damon does.
Parent: So the girls don’t say that they want to kiss him.
Child: Mom everyone wants to kiss him.
Parent: But how would you feel if someone you didn’t want to kiss made you do it? Or would you ever feel OK kissing somebody who didn’t want to be kissed by you?
Child: *eye roll* No mom.
Parent: What would you do if you were at a party and saw a vampire compelling someone to kiss them?

You might not get a lot of conversation out of a thirteen-year-old but the lines of communication can be opened up and your child can have a better understanding of consent. Vampire compulsion is portrayed as a sexy version of the date rape drug. And teens are getting the idea that an overwhelming obsession to be with someone, regardless of that person’s consent, is the ideal form of love.

In our current culture of slut-shaming, teen girls are attracted to this compulsion aspect. They get to have sex but the fault is removed from them. We need to understand why these plot lines are compelling to our daughters. And we need to talk to them about it.

[Editor’s note: we acknowledge that this example may not work for everyone — some families may choose to be more overt with their discussion of rape with 13 year olds. If you would phrase it differently, what would you say?]

Awards shows and the 18-year-old

Parent: Did Seth McFarlane really just sing a song about seeing women’s boobs on film and reference four rape scenes?
Child: Those actors are old. I don’t even know any of those movies.
Parent: Jodie Foster in The Accused, Charlize Theron in Monster, Hilary Swank in Boys Don’t Cry and Jessica Chastain in Lawless.  Those are all rape scenes.
Child: What a douche. It’s just like my prof in Feminist Perspectives of Modern Media says. The flesh of women’s bodies becomes disambiguated from their personhood and they act as a vehicle for sexual stimulation, degradation, and voyeurism on film and in society more broadly. Women can’t have both sexuality and sexual agency. In our patriarchal, colonialist, rape-culture society, women’s bodies exist to be exploited and perverted.
Parent: Right. I was totally going to say that. Fucking disambiguated, patriarch-y-ichal, rape-culture. Not cool.

Moral of the story: It’s never too early to start the conversation. Our children are watching and listening. In this multi-media generation turning off the TV and censoring content isn’t the answer. Talking is. The fact that teenage Evan Westlake could witness a rape and not be able to identify it as a rape means that we are failing in teaching the realities of consent and assault to the next generation. And if they are our future we need to make some big changes.

Do you have any tips for discussing rape with kids and teens?

Comments on 3 age-appropriate ways to talk to kids and teens about media portrayals of sexual assault

  1. I actually really wanted to thank you for this article, because as a parent of a toddler, discussing rape was something I just hadn’t thought about yet. You always know the sex talk is going to happen one day, but I never thought about discussing the wider implications of unwanted sex and rape and that this is something that we will also need to be prepared to do one day in the nearish future.

  2. I have a two year old boy and a second kid a week away, and think that this topic needs to be discussed early and frequently with children. Beginning with “private parts” in toddlerhood (which I recently discovered accompanies potty training) to sexual assault, rape and inappropriate relationships in high school. I would think that maybe consent can be talked about around third grade or so when a kid goes through the “cootie” phase, or in a discussion about daring some kid on the playground to do something. I hope that by 6th grade my children will know exactly what consent is, and have some basic ideas of behaviors that are completely inappropriate. I think that once a child is old enough to be in a sex ed class in school (which I remember being in 5th grade) they are old enough to know what rape is, even if it is just a rudimentary understanding.

    I read this article from a ninth grade teacher the other week, and found it incredibly appropriate for this topic.

    • Sorry, thought I should clarify “inappropriate relationships”. I think by high school students should have some concept that if things feel wrong in a relationship it is a good idea to talk to a friend or adult, and that it can be better to end the relationship than to continue one that is hurtful or unhealthy.

    • The private parts talk has happened in our house, too, along with potty training (our son is 3). We also taught our son the proper names for genitalia, but he likes his own words for it. Right now we just talk about consent as “You don’t have to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable like…” and then go into scenarios that could happen with sitting on laps or kissing family members.

      • Yes to the scenarios!
        I’ll add to that – ensure that your child is taught that if they dont want to do it they dont have to. Grandma cannot force you to have a cuddle or give her a kiss if you dont want to. Bodily autonomy and all that jazz.
        A way to start teaching them about consent – consent over what happens to their own bodies first – then ensure they extend that to other people as well.

  3. I believe in the idea of teaching and raising kids who know clearly what is not okay. I think I read something along the lines of ‘we’ve been teaching women to defend themselves against rape forever with no change in rape statistics, how about we teach men to not rape’. Although horribly simplified I think this idea is really powerful. I truly hope both sexes can start to receive education at a young age about this topic and be aware that consent always needs to be crystal clear 100% of the time even when that might not be very Hollywood dramatic or seem like a ‘big deal’. The choices we make about our bodies are always a big deal whether that be allowing someone to give you a hug or posting a Facebook picture of yourself in a bikini. I think back to first grade when teachers and parents used to laugh at the boy who chased the girls around threatening to give them a kiss. Innocent enough, but it makes me think about the message that sent at such a young age. Great article.

  4. Thanks for this article – very thought provoking. I think a good way to begin teaching children about consent is by allowing them to set boundaries with their own bodies and respecting those boundaries. A great example that I’ve heard is tickling – this is often seen as cute, funny, innocent etc. but it IS a form of physical control and it is NOT always fun for the person being tickled. So, when you’re tickling your kids listen for them to say “No” “stop” “quit” and IMMEDIATELY STOP. They might really love tickling and want you to do it again. But by listening to their wishes you are sending a powerful message as the parent about consent and their right to decide what happens to their bodies.

  5. This is so helpful. I have a 16 month old daughter, and have started thinking about and talking with my husband about how we’re going to cover a lot of this subject matter. Particularly because while my own parents had “the talk” with me regarding the mechanics of sex, there was absolutely zero discussion of consent, rape, inappropriate behavior, etc. At least, none that I remember. Having a bit if an age-appropriate template is super helpful. Also, that last scenario featuring the patriarchy had me in stitches. Gender studies FTW!

  6. Even with preschoolers I tell them they need to ask before giving someone else a kiss or a cuddle because they might not want to be kissed right then.
    I also give them the option of whether or not they want to kiss/hug/high five/fist bump family members.
    Grandparents were slightly dismayed that they didn’t necessarily get a hug from the kid when they came to visit but respected the kids choices

    • Adding to what you said, if you happen to have grandparents (or whatever) who don’t respect the kids choices about hugs, you as the parent/caregiver might need to intervene.

      When my daughter was younger, I had an older relative who would ‘maul’ her (her word) with hugs and kisses whenever he saw her. I had to constantly remind him about her “rules” for touching, and defend said rules when he would argue that there was no harm in it. I’m sure that he didn’t mean anything nasty, but the fact is that she didn’t like it and it was up to her, not him, and not me. I frequently had to get quite stern.
      It’s one thing to say that your child has the right to their own body, but I think that actually advocating on their behalf teaches them things that all the words in the world aren’t going to say.

  7. I agree that it starts early, both with setting my own boundaries (hey, that’s my private space!) and respecting theirs (accepting “no” for an answer to questions like “would you like a hug?”).

    • I think it’s also important, though, as grown-ups, to recognize the complexity of this issue. Teaching a 3 year old that it’s NEVER ok for anyone, even someone you trust, to touch your private parts without permission sounds clear-cut and reasonable until you’ve got to help your kid get clean, and they give you a clear and proud, “NO, these are MY private parts and YOU can’t touch.” Then it starts to turn into a very subtle issue of helping a kid identify his or her own emotions, distinguishing between being mad and grumpy and not wanting mom’s help versus when it feels truly wrong and icky and it’s time to run away and tell another adult.

      I’m not saying that we should always make a big complicated deal about this stuff – how much a kid wants and is ready to know is really variable. But I think consent is an incredibly thorny idea, especially when you combine it with the idea of adult authority, and it’s really important to talk about not only the overall issue but also how one might deal with some of its intricacies.

      • I think Ariel gave a really good discussion of this in a previous entry sometime back. Her reply was something like “I know you have told me no. But sometimes, certain people like parents and doctors, may have to touch you in ways you don’t like in order to help you. You should still always tell them how you feel.” Then throw in some explanation of why THIS touching is necessary even if it’s unpleasant. You know, “If we don’t wipe all the poop off it can make you sick.”

  8. What I would like to see in all of this conversation about consent (and we’re seeing it a little more in conversations about bullying) has to do with the behavior of bystanders – being willing to do the right thing, even when it is inconvenient or will get you negative attention or even might, sometimes, result in you making an embarrassing mistake. Yes, kids and teens need to know a lot more about rape so that they can try to avoid becoming victims and so they can definitely avoid committing a rape without fully realizing that’s what they are doing. But they also need to be be ok with intervening when they see something wrong, or making a spectacle if their individual intervention would be dangerous or ineffective.

  9. LOVE this post. I teach a lot of popular education around violence and abuse to people of all ages and it is always great to have examples. I use Beauty and the Beast and Twilight a lot to talk about stalking, domestic violence, isolation, and emotional abuse.

    • Thank you for using Twilight as an example. The relationships in that book, especially Edward’s actions are really disturbing at times, and it scares me how much the teenage girls I know and have talked to, love it.

      • I know this is a bit of a tangent, but… I’ve taught Twilight to college students a few times, and I do think there are some really scary dynamics in the book, but I also think it’s important to keep it from being this binary where either it’s all wonderful and beautiful and dreamy OR it’s a crazy stalker abuse nightmare. When I receive papers about the book, at least 3/4 of my college freshmen want to go from the entirely surface reading (it’s a great love story) to the almost equally simple idea that it’s a clear parable of abuse.

        I actually think Twilight is a really great occasion to discuss what the post’s writer put really well: “In our current culture of slut-shaming, teen girls are attracted to this compulsion aspect. They get to have sex but the fault is removed from them. We need to understand why these plot lines are compelling to our daughters. And we need to talk to them about it.”

        I think that rather than effectively saying that these feelings (wanting a strong man to protect them, wanting to be overpowered by “true love,” wanting to be so attractive that someone becomes obsessed with them, wanting to be exonerated of responsibility for their actions related to sex and love, being interested in rough sex-play, wanting to get married and have a baby right now) are wrong, it’s important to validate them and talk about them. Even though our society often implies it’s not, it’s actually totally ok for a girl to feel any or all (or none) of these things, as long as she understands the social pressures that swirl around them and how important consent and choice are. It’s important for a girl who loves the book to recognize that even in a relationship in which Bella enjoys being on the relatively “submissive” end of things, Edward asks for and Bella provides consent for any physical sexual contact. He never physically harms her in annoyance or anger, and he is never angry or blaming towards her for being attractive to other boys. I think talking about the book, especially with a younger girl, is a good occasion to say that if she gets into a relationship where the boy does any of those things, it’s not her fault for wanting to be in a relationship with a guy who fits a lot of the masculine romantic lead ideals in our culture, and she doesn’t need to hide or be ashamed or stay in the relationship. She can just recognize that a guy who would hurt her is not a guy who can handle being in a relationship like that and she needs to get away.

        • Definitely. When I teach with it (typically high school age) we talk about stalking, lack of agency, controlling, and emotional abuse (leaving without saying why) as well as the idea that men have monstrous or uncontrollable tendencies. Many of the young people find aspects they really like, too. That often leads to a more realistic view of where unhealthy or hurtful behaviors occur. Most people deeply love their partners when there is abuse happening, and the people being abusive often have really wonderful and lovable traits. I also know that having these conversations with young people often triggers realizations that they have been abused or accept abuse as a norm in a relationship. People come in to class a Twi-hard and leave hating it as a “parable of abuse” because it reflects the kinds of abuse many young people experience in their relationships and they can act out at the book in a much safer way than on their real life events.

        • Thank you for this. Twilight is a terribly written book, but as someone who saw so much of myself and my relationships in it (both current and former) I really hate when people treat it with blanket condemnation. A co-dependent, obsessive relationship is not necessarily unhealthy if you understand what you’re getting yourself in for and know what warning signs to watch for. There is a notable difference between a relationship with the potential for abuse and an actually abusive relationship.

          Us psychologically broken people deserve love, too. We just have to be more careful about how far we let ourselves go.

  10. This was awesome. I recall a parenting moment I had to “mom up” with my son. At age five he was and still is an incredibly huggy child. He likes to say goodbye to everyone and give them a hug. This was not a problem until he befriended a little girl who did not like to be hugged, by anyone. In his usual way, my son tried to say goodbye and the little girl turned her body and said, “No”. My son was shocked that someone wouldn’t want a hug and tried again. I told him, “Honey, she doesn’t want to be hugged. Its ok”. Then the girl’s grandmother tried to help by admonishing her granddaughter for not letting my son hug her. I intervened and said, “No, she doesn’t want to be hugged and that is ok. Maybe a handshake?” The girl shook her head, “No”. I said, “Ok, that is alright too,” and we finished our goodbyes. Afterward my son was still upset that he couldn’t give his friend a hug. So we talked about it. Yes, hugs are nice, Yes, you wanted to give her something nice, but SHE DIDN’T WANT IT. And that is all that matters. Respecting people’s bodies is one of the most important thing we can give to one another. The next play date he asked if he could hug his friend, and she still said No. And this time, my son said, Ok. I couldn’t be prouder.

  11. “We need to understand why these plot lines are compelling to our daughters. And we need to talk to them about it.”

    I agree. It is important to understand why these plots are appealing to girls. But I would add: Try not to make assumptions about why when talking to girls. Ask them. Talk to them about the stories they enjoy. And listen to what they say about why they enjoy them. It might not be the reasons you think. And the reasons might not be the same for different girls.

    And talk about the different between what is appealing in fantasy and what they want in a real relationship. The sort of relationship that is fun to read about may not be the same as the kind of real relationship someone wants. And, at least in my opinion, that is ok. But it is good to be clear, in oneself, about the difference.

    • “But I would add: Try not to make assumptions about why when talking to girls. Ask them. Talk to them about the stories they enjoy. And listen to what they say about why they enjoy them. It might not be the reasons you think. And the reasons might not be the same for different girls.”

      This. When I first read Twilight, I was in my twenties and coming to terms with being queer. I enjoyed the books for many reasons. Wishing I had a boyfriend like Edward was never one of them. Identifying with Edward was one of the biggest. No, I’d never secretly watched anyone while they slept, or broke their car so they couldn’t visit my rival. 😛 I had, however, felt like my natural desires made me a monster, like my teenage love for a quiet, bookish girl was a threat to her and not something I deserved to pursue, and like I had to spend my life in the shadows because I’d sparkle too brightly if I showed myself in the light. And unlike the eponymous heroine of Carmilla, another vampire book I loved for the same reasons, Edward got a happy ending. The girl unashamedly loved him back, wasn’t afraid of him, and saw that he was normal in many ways and loved him for all the ways he wasn’t. The sparkly blood-drinking demon got to have a wife and a family after all. That, not “Obsession, codependency, and emotional manipulation are totes romantic” was what I got out of Twilight, and at that time in my life, it was what I needed to hear. And for the record, I’ve fully embraced my queerness, I’m no longer afraid to sparkle, and I now laugh at anyone who suggests demons have anything to do with the way I love.

    • “The sort of relationship that is fun to read about may not be the same as the kind of real relationship someone wants”

      1000 times this.

      I got into this with a friend when I was talking about BDSM desires and what’s in Twilight. She pointed out that kink play stalking is totally different because it’s negotiated and consensual. This is totally true. But the FANTASY is that it’s real. When I’m reading a novel I don’t want to read about the practical and pragmatic safety precautions I would take when pursuing dangerous activities in my own relationship. I want to read about the fantasy. I want to vicariously live the excitement of a dangerous, predatory relationship. And then put the book down and go back to my safe, sane, and consensual real life.

      • I really liked that comment too. And I liked the way you expounded on it. It really made me feel relief at what i like to read/fantasize. I will have to explain this to my husband…. 😉

      • Yes yes yes! It’s also important to remember that kids of various ages are interested in and will experiment with this kind of kinkiness – it’s not just an adult thing. Being 13 doesn’t exempt you from having sexual kinks, although many people will not have discovered and will not understand their kinks at that point. Which is why it is SO important to have a framework to discuss this stuff. A girl who gets turned on when she thinks about a boy handling her roughly really needs to understand that this kind of fantasy or role-playing is totally different from real life, and that having these desires or fantasies does NOT mean that she “deserves” it if someone in real life hurts her in a way she doesn’t like and didn’t ask for.

Join the Conversation