Teaching Consent to Children

If you’re reading this blog then you spend some time online, which means you must know about the outrage over the “sentencing” of convicted rapist Brock Turner. Just to sum it up, Brock Turner was caught in the act of sexually assaulting an unconscious young woman behind a dumpster. At his trial, a jury of his peers convicted him of assault with intent to commit rape of an intoxicated woman, sexually penetrating an intoxicated person with a foreign object, and sexually penetrating an unconscious person with a foreign object, all three classified as felonies. The maximum possible sentence was fourteen years, and the prosecutor recommended six years. The judge sentenced Turner to just six months in prison, of which he will actually serve three.

I’m not going to write about how outrageously ridiculous and insensitive that sentence is–there are more than enough blogs that are doing that already, like this one by the Rev. Erin Wathen. What I am going to write has to do with something Rev. Wathen named in the title of her post: rape culture.

This verdict and sentencing has sparked a much needed national conversation on rape culture. The ways in which Brock Turner’s defenders have been trivializing the crime and blaming the victim for being drunk and vulnerable are examples of rape culture. Turner’s own father trivialized the assault in a letter he wrote to the judge by calling it “20 minutes of action” and claiming that his son had “never been violent to anyone including his actions on the night of January 17th, 2015.” His other name for the assault was to call it an “event.” The only mention of the victim was a brief statement at the beginning of his letter stating that “[Brock] is truly sorry for what occurred that night and for all the pain and suffering that it has caused for all of those involved and impacted by that night.”

That’s where I need to stop. I get that parents want to protect their children, but you don’t do it by disregarding the fact that your son was thrice convicted of sexual assault and equating it to casual sex (20 minutes of action–really? Really?). And you don’t do it by telling a woman who woke up on a hospital gurney with various abrasions on her body and dried blood and bandages on the backs of her hands and elbows that she hadn’t actually experienced any violence.

The sad thing is, parental protection aside, I suspect Turner’s father actually believes everything he wrote. And he raised Brock to believe it, which is part of the reason why this whole thing happened. Stripping a woman who drank herself to unconsciousness and violating her with your fingers is natural, right? What else is a healthy young man supposed to do? She wouldn’t have let herself get into that situation if she hadn’t wanted it, right? And Brock himself was a victim of the alcohol consumption and partying culture that permeates college campuses everywhere. He was drunk, too, so he shouldn’t be held responsible for a little misunderstanding between two people who drank too much, right?

This needs to stop, and parents need to stop telling their children that boys will be boys and good girls wait until marriage. That’s how rape culture begins. We need to teach our children to recognize the humanity of other people–all people, and not think of some people as objects for others’ use or entertainment. We need to teach them that the world isn’t there to serve their needs or make them feel good, and that other people have needs and feelings too. We need to teach them how to put themselves in another person’s place and think about how they would feel if someone were treating them like that.

And we need to teach them consent.

I have a son and a daughter. They’re both very young, and they don’t know about Brock Turner. They don’t know about rape. They know about sex, but only the basic mechanics of how it can make babies. They’re not aware of any other reasons why people would want to have sex, though I think my son is beginning to suspect that those people on TV really aren’t just hugging, which is what I’ve told him when he’s walked into the living room during a steamy scene in The Good Wife. At some point I’ll explain how sex isn’t just for making babies, how it also has pleasurable aspects, because that’s a part of it too and I don’t want them thinking that they can only trust their friends to tell them “the good stuff.” And I’ll talk to them about consent.

But that won’t be the first conversation we have about consent.

In fact, we’ve already talked about consent, though we haven’t used that word and it hasn’t been in relation to sex. See, my kids are typical siblings who get along great with each other except when they don’t, and I usually let them work it out on their own.

But if I hear one of them say ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ I listen carefully. And if it’s followed up by a second ‘no’ or ‘stop,’ I get involved. Ignoring the other person’s objections or attempts to leave a game that has gone sour is not allowed, and the offender gets a time-out. This goes for both my son and my daughter. When someone says ‘no,’ the answer is no. When someone says ‘stop,’ you stop. I’ve told them both that if the person you’re playing with isn’t having fun anymore, stop playing that game and do something else you will both enjoy.

This is all in relation to childish games, but you can see how it will translate into future, not-so-childish activities. And if, say, a 20 year old man is with a woman who is bleeding and motionless on the ground, he should be able to figure out that she’s probably not having fun, and he should stop playing.

Rape culture doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and consent isn’t only applicable to sex. Teach your children now how to recognize signs of resistance (this game is no fun, I’m not playing anymore), and teach them to consider how their actions impact other people. They’re never too young to learn that.

Also, we parents have to remember that our precious snowflakes actually can do wrong, they can make bad decisions, and those decisions will have consequences that they will have to face. No more protecting them from disappointment. No more making excuses for their behavior. Recognize that they are not perfect, and let them know that. It’s OK not to be perfect. Let them know that, too. And please let them know that they can’t always get what they want. A child who never hears ‘no’ from his parents is unlikely to understand what it means as an adult. A child who discovers that when his parents say ‘no’ all he has to do is keep pushing and that ‘no’ will turn into a ‘yes’ will apply that same behavior later in life, because it’s always worked before. When you say ‘no’ to your children, make it stick.

But ultimately, people make their own decisions. Brock Turner’s father, even if he did teach his son all these toxic things, isn’t responsible for the rape. Brock Turner chose to rape that young woman, and now he should have to face the consequences.

There is no formula that guarantees our kids will turn out right. It’s possible that Brock Turner’s parents actually taught him everything I’ve listed above, and their son still chose to rape. But it’s still a good place to start.

The victim made a mistake by drinking too much. There are consequences for that, too. But those consequences should have been a hangover and a headache. That’s it. And Brock made a mistake by drinking too much, but the alcohol was not responsible for his actions. The victim herself explained it well in her moving and eloquent statement to the court, which I strongly recommend you read in its entirety: “Alcohol is not an excuse. Is it a factor? Yes. But alcohol was not the one who stripped me, fingered me, had my head dragging against the ground, with me almost fully naked. Having too much to drink was an amateur mistake that I admit to, but it is not criminal. Everyone in this room has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much, or knows someone close to them who has had a night where they have regretted drinking too much. Regretting drinking is not the same as regretting sexual assault. We were both drunk, the difference is I did not take off your pants and underwear, touch you inappropriately, and run away. That’s the difference.”

Rape culture needs to end, and one thing that will contribute to that goal is teaching our children consent, respect, empathy, and humility. They’re really not to young to learn those lessons, and they will carry them for the rest of their lives.


Teaching Consent to Children — 1 Comment

  1. Wonderful post. I have seen people blog about parenting, rape culture, alcohol and consent in relation to this. I haven’t seen anyone get to the meat of the matter like this post does.

    I have to admit I didn’t read the full post of the impact statement until last night. I have taken care of people like Emily. I have walked out of an exam room, down the hall to my office, closed the door and cried a bit before pulling myself together to go on to the next patient. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what happened. My FB feed was full of the links to her statement. I clicked on one and read it.

    What happened to Emily Doe is disgusting. I am saddened at the way the legal system afforded the perpetrator the opportunity to again attack Ms Doe and give the father a place to voice his defense of an indefensible act. There shouldn’t be instances in the world that require this discussion.

    Women are outraged. MEN are outraged. More important still~ EMILY is outraged. She put into words what needed to be said. Clearly, concisely, in detail, she laid out the case for responsibility and accountability. People from all walks of life are outraged and speaking out. The survivor’s statement is plastered all over my Facebook feed with links to the //FULL// text, not just some little snippet or soundbite. People are talking about it in //public//. I had a conversation with teenagers at church coffee hour about this subject. Amazing. I find myself feeling the emotion of gratefulness.

    Why amazing and grateful when this was such a horrible thing? Because there is overwhelming support for the woman. There /is/ outrage. Loud, well thought out commentary from all walks of life calling out those who would diminish what has happened.

    I am old enough that I remember a time when women were required to be silent. Law enforcement and the clergy were willfully deaf and blind not because they were heartless but because they truly believed the fault lay with the woman. Although it seems obvious to most in the civilized world now, then a woman was to blame, was to be silent, was to rectify her faults because surely if she behaved well, this would not have happened.

    I was in nursing school when there was a cataclysmic shift~ a small number of women were outraged, out-loud, and unrepentant! Unheard of. Society was not sure what to do with this. I remember sitting in a cramped, hot, lounge area on a hospital floor with the door firmly closed. We discussed the topic of violence against women in hushed voices. We were taught it should be OK to report sexual assault (called molestation then), rape, domestic violence. The instructor expressed the controversial opinion that these were acts of violence where the man bore the responsibility. Not everyone in the class of all women agreed. If you took care, dressed the right way, didn’t lead someone on, didn’t aggravate the situation….

    When I began as an NP I was the only woman provider in a small practice. There was tremendous focus and push in the media (no FB then!) for women to come forward. I was overwhelmed with women telling me of violence towards them. Revealing was in vogue but there were few resources and people in the general public would much have preferred to hear nothing about it. Dealing with all these women with no way to help them other than to listen was what brought me to church. There is very little that one can do to relieve the angst this causes or the deep feeling of injustice. No amount of legal punishment rectifies the suffering.

    So. I am grateful. Not because Emily Doe suffered an attack and will continue to suffer the aftermath. That is horrible. I am grateful that she was so eloquent in calling the attack by its real name. Grateful that people from all walks of life are supporting not shaming this brave woman. Most of all I am grateful that we, as a culture (not the whole culture- see Brock’s Dad and the judge) are beginning to be capable of expecting consequences for bad acts. We aren’t there yet but we are starting to get it.

    What I would like to ask the judge- if the perpetrator were to have performed any act of violence other than rape would this be a question? If he had decided to mutilate the body, cut off a body part would the sentence have been as lenient? If he were to have beaten her but not done something sexual?