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7 Things I Teach My Kids About Consent, Sexual Harassment and Assault6 min read

During a crowded bus journey my daughter’s shrill voice–aged four–piped up clearly and succinctly above the hum of the ongoing conversation. “I would like to have sex with [insert classmate here].” A silence not unlike the one which pervades the moment before the conductor raises his baton fell in anticipation of my reply. And on behalf of all the sex-positive parents, I swallowed my embarrassment and said seemingly unperturbed,

“Really! And what does sex mean to you then?”

“It means we’ll be related!” answered my daughter happily as everyone let their breath out and resumed their discussion of the Swedish weather using their twenty different words for snow.

My talk about the the birds and the bees started rather earlier than I thought it would. And also therefore, my discussion about everything which had to do with it. That’s a dicey tightrope between fearmongering and living in love. Too little information and we won’t have protected her, too much information are we will have harmed her. She’s seven now, and her little brother is five. In these three years these are some of the things we’ve covered about sexual consent, assault and harassment.

  1. My Body My Rules

Bottoms are a thing–as Dirk Gently would put it–when you’re a kid. For some reason they’re hilarious; making jokes about them is hilarious, what comes out of them is hilarious. Patting them is also hilarious. But My Body my Rules for us means that you cannot pat anyone’s bottom without permission (or indeed any other body parts). As a general rule no one should touch my children non-consensually and they should not touch anyone else’s body either. That includes no forcing hugs from grandparents (even though it’s meant challenging their views–they were brought up in a different era) and Mummy’s boobs (although asserting my own privacy after breastfeeding was hard). Still there are obvious exceptions which we’ve put under the bucket of ‘health and safety.’ I make rules about health and safety, which include washing, vaccinations and medical examinations.

  1. Using Safe Words

I would love ‘no’ to have more power, and I have tried–oh how I’ve tried–to instill the power of this little word into my children’s psyche. Yet it’s still used within playtime context as a joke, and more often than not they laugh when saying it seriously. So when ‘no’ is ignored, as it all too often is meant to be during their role playing games, we’ve resorted to safe words which mean ‘stop play now.’

Simple words, I said. Seldom used, I said. They were going through their dinosaur phase at the time. Saichainia Poo, they said. Well at least it’s memorable.

  1. Believing Them

Easier said than done, when the chocolate coins disappear from the sweetie cupboard and your small son swears solemnly with chocolate stains round his mouth that he  has no clue where they are. Luckily my son is not as practised at keeping up deception, but I’ve had to learn to get at the truth in such a way that doesn’t undermine my children’s perception that I trust them. Because if they don’t feel that I trust them, they’ll be less likely to confide in me. I’ve made a concerted effort to play the long game, knowing that the small lies they tell as part of their development are less important than the help they may never get if they think I won’t believe them when it counts.

  1. Correct Names for Body Parts

Words have power, we’ve often said to our children. Of course it doesn’t just apply to words for body parts. But most predators will not use ‘vagina’, ‘vulva’ and/or ‘penis’ with children. Children who are clued up about their body parts, and the words to name them will have a greater awareness about precisely what is going on, if something does go on. Yet calling a vagina a vagina only in the context of assault also associates it with violence and potentially shame. We merrily chat about vaginas and penises. How wonderful they are, as well as being highly practical.

There is one rule though, we don’t talk about them at the dinner table.

  1. Recognising Coercive Tactics

About a year ago a six year old boy, my daughter’s classmate, threatened to take nude pictures of another female classmate and post them online because she rejected his invitation to play. These things happen far earlier than we ever dreamed possible. To know these tactics and their power, is to be forewarned. But children cannot properly comprehend blackmail–especially when it’s used as a last desperate attempt by desperate mothers to get the little darlings to do what you want them to. It’s true, I have used ice cream to reward eating vegetables (health and safety, health and safety). Yet I take the opportunity to discuss how very wrong it is to threaten non-consensual use of another person’s image is to diminish their agency. It is to treat them like an object, which leads to a greater conversation about…

  1. Don’t Treat People Like Oranges

It’s a confusing topic even for adults. But to simplify it so far we use oranges. You can throw an orange, you can juice an orange… because the orange has no power, and no responsibility (even when you imbue it with power, by kicking it into goal). Is it the orange’s fault if it hits you on the head? No! Did the orange score the goal? No! Finally, a conversation about objectification which dissolves into giggles. We don’t treat people like we treat oranges because people are not things. No one can treat you like an orange. No one can take your juice aka your power. No one is allowed to make you do something you don’t want to.

  1. Sex is Great (but only when you’re ready and only when everyone is fully on board)

Part of the sex conversation in my childhood was that I was responsible for resisting men’s advances and then succumbing at the right time. It was a game of cat and mouse where if I played my cards right, I would lose my virginity on my wedding night. My pleasure was never the focus of the conversation and it took decades for me to lose my shame about my own sexuality. So with my children we’ve covered sperm meets egg, but we’ve also covered that sex is between two people who are attracted to one another and who want to feel closer (any gender, different body parts).

Great sex is about respect, agency and mutual pleasure. It took me more than thirty years to learn this, and I cross my fingers they will enjoy great sex sooner than I did.

Published on The Body is Not An Apology

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