Sexual Assault Prevention: A Mother Discloses to a Daughter

*trigger alert: sexual assault*

Mom, I don’t plan on getting raped…

So said college-bound daughter, age-appropriate disdain in her voice. Unbidden, these words jumped out of my mouth,

Neither did I.

Time stopped. There was no room for misunderstanding. My daughter understood immediately what the words meant. My mind desperately sought for a way to unreveal what I had revealed, to twist those words into some other meaning so that my daughter would not have to know, so that my daughter would not have to worry, so that my daughter would stop looking at me in that way.

You?

Yes, me. Yes, this strong woman who knows how to take care of herself, then as now, though my ideas of just what “take of herself” means have evolved over time. Yes, me. Yes, too many women.

Yes, this bittersweet hashtag: #yesallwomen.

This disclosure to my teenaged daughter was a fierce Mama-Bear moment, sensing how dangerous it is for anyone — for her — to believe that there are some women who plan not to get raped, and somehow, by implication, some who do.

I could not let her go off into the world with such a hazardous delusion – for her own safety, as well as for the safety and sanity of the young women she will meet, befriend, and console. Not only do I not want my daughter to be the target of sexual violence, I don’t want her to perpetuate victim-blaming or take part in slut-shaming.

I knew this moment would come. I just did not know it would come then.

I know it is best for a disclosure of this kind to come from a place of healing (past tense, largely resolved), rather than a place of being wounded (where the issue is still alive). This kind of revelation can impact a child’s sense not only of humanity and what kind of cruelty is out there in the world (and more often, inside a family). It influences their sense of their own sexuality, since that is so closely tied to the values and behaviors that parents and caregivers communicate both implicitly and explicitly. This is true when they are little people and true when they are teenagers (and for all I know, even young adults, but I am not really there yet).

I raised my kids with aspirations of empowerment: to know their bodies; to know that their bodies belonged to no one else (including not to me); that all people are sexual beings with opportunities for pleasure and obligations of respect. When my kids were little, we practiced who they would go to should they get lost in the grocery store. We did it as a game, building a sense of accomplishment, focusing on safety rather than danger. I like this post of a father helping his two young girls feel safe and strong walking in their neighborhood, helping them to know what to do, addressing in a real, yet strengths-based way, their fears that arise.

All this early effort helped to lay the foundation for my teenaged daughter to have the necessary skills to process my disclosure (to ask questions, to identify her emotional responses, to make connections) and for me to have had lots of practice meeting her needs (responding to her questions as best I could; being sure to answer the question she is asking, not the one I might be hearing; offering names for possible emotions and normalizing that experience; clarifying my intention – to grow her confidence through awareness in the belief that information is power).

Let me acknowledge loudly and clearly: disclosure doesn’t work for all parents or all children. I honor this truth, whether it is experienced with ease or is a heavy burden to carry.

That said, for me, and perhaps for me alone, I knew the time would come. As a woman, as a mother, and as a minister-to-be, I knew I must consider who may be hurt by my speaking publicly. Just as true, I feel I must also consider who may be harmed by my silence.

Aside from whatever pace  a child or family may have, the world is out there, offering itself up both as an imposition and an opportunity for conversations on this topic. It’s both tedious and heart-breaking to name the litany of potential triggers for discussions and disclosures about gender-based violence, starting with the latest (widely discussed in the U.S. media), but by no means only, example of misogyny-being-lethal in Isla Vista.  Take for instance, this tragic event in India.  By writing this post, it is my hope that this might become a constructive impetus for more conversations between mothers and daughters, fathers and daughters, parents and sons, about this awkward, crucial topic.

As the mother of a college-bound daughter, I worry about her, her friends, and all the young women going off into that new, exciting world that holds so much adventure, learning, horizon-expansion, and tragically, possible betrayal and violation. Then there’s the whole White House campaign – Notalone.gov – drawing attention to the one in five women who will be assaulted not just in her lifetime, but while at college, pressing colleges and other involved institutions to be more effective in prevention and responding to this crisis.

My whole adult life I have paid attention to brave women survivors (and men) who have spoken up, spoken out, about sexual assault of any kind, especially those on college campuses. Recently, I read another of these personal testimonies; this one is from Lena Sclove. In it, she cites a statistic that caught my breath:

a study co-authored by one of Brown’s own researchers found that nearly two out of every three college rapists is a repeat offender.

That was true in my case. After it happened, I learned of at least three other women, all of whom I knew personally, who had experienced non-consensual sexual contact with him, leaving us in various states of violation, holding the shared experience, common to the majority of sexual assault survivors: none of us reported this to any authority, our voices silent and silenced.

Long after I figured out that it wasn’t the so-called stupid things women did that got them raped, it was rapists who raped them, I still used to think that if I helped other women through the aftermath of date rape, I would become immune; I would be “too smart” or at least “too informed” for it to happen to me. I had thought that my feminism and political activism would protect me. It did, though not as I had imagined: it hastened my healing and helped to restore my voice.

I feel exceedingly thankful for women who are speaking up and speaking out (such as this amazing post about the self defense paradox, which I think any parent struggling with how to equip their daughters in a world of violence should read) I feel great admiration for all, regardless of gender, regardless of surviving sexual assault or standing as allies with survivors, speaking truth to power, even when voices quaver.  May they – may we – continue to find the courage to keep this up. I hope my daughter surrounds herself with such people, women and men of all sorts, who will hold her up, hold us all up, not just searching for a safer, more just world…but in calling out such a world, creating it.

May it be so.

P. S. This is an outstanding resource about personal safety for building the skills and guiding conversations with your children from birth to the teen years.

 

Special thanks to the readers and comment providers (L.J., J.L., C.B.) on this post.  Your insights and support were invaluable.

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11 Responses to Sexual Assault Prevention: A Mother Discloses to a Daughter

  1. Sandy Mandel says:

    Thanks, Karen. I’m assuming that it is okay to send this information to friends and family, but wanted to check; could you confirm?
    “I have never met a woman who hasn’t experienced some form of sexual violation”. When I heard this statement in my first women’s studies class in 1972, I remember responding to this question, answering no: until I suddenly remembered the older man next door, (I was seven), the group of neighborhood boys, (I was eight), seeing the step-grandfather try to molest my Mother, (I was five) and on and on. How will I talk with my now 17 year grand-daughter? Your writing will help and is the wake-up moment that even though we have talked about boundaries and bodies and safety over the years, there is much more for us to talk about. I usually wait until she indicates she is ready, is looking for information. I’m afraid that this can’t wait and also afraid of what she might tell me has already happened.

    • irrevspeckay says:

      Sandy, I am pleased this post gives you inspiration for your ongoing conversations with your granddaughter. This is a public blog and in writing this post, as with my others, it will go where people spread it. Thank you and peace to you and yours.

  2. Tedd Cadd says:

    Wow and thank you! Such a great perspective.

    I, too, disclosed to my daughter unintentionally. I was on a retreat weekend where God finally got my attention and started my healing process (such a very painful beginning). At the end of the weekend, each of us new participants on this renewal weekend were invited to speak to the community of others who had been on these things. I told them of the sexual abuse and how God was using that weekend to start my healing. I didn’t realize my daughter was in the audience. It did lay the groundwork for conversations that were good but it was a great shock to her.

    One other thing: I’ve been fairly open about the abuse and abusers in my life since then. It’s on YouTube as part of a video speaking to male sexual abuse survivors, for example.

    But one time where I was a speaker at the renewal retreat I mentioned, I spoke a little of my story as part of that. There were several men who came to me afterwards and shared their stories. each one was in counseling…except for one. That man had never told anybody before. As he told the story, he ended curled up on the ground shaking violently, unaware of the environment around him (very much like what happened to me). I heard a thought, “You’d better be more careful about what you say. See what you did?” I realized that my words had impacted this man so very deeply. Then I heard, “No. You didn’t do that. His abuser did that. You’ve just given him the chance to be free.”

    So while I am circumspect to some degree about my story, I also know that other survivors need to hear from those of us who can speak truth and hope.

    • irrevspeckay says:

      Thank you for your presence in the world. I do believe that when we are speaking, publicly or privately, that we have a responsibility to be thoughtful about how we speak, to be mindful of its potential impact on the listeners. We do not cause whatever reaction a listener has, but in solidarity, I believe we must offer as much informed consent and choice as possible, but noting the topic we are discussing so that people can opt in or out, by explicitly normalizing that their listening or engaging in our communication might impact them in ways that raise feelings and memories and that self care or asking for help is an important thing. It is my hope that the title of my blog was clear about the content — though I think I will now act on my own guidance and edit it to note a “trigger alert” ~ Karen

      • Tedd Cadd says:

        I agree. That instance was one of the first times i ever spoke of it (and what I said was very limited). In times since, I do so in settings where the subject is clear beforehand.

        I thought your title was quite clear. And thank you for sharing the story and thank your daughter for her living into what you had to say.

  3. oopster74 says:

    Reblogged this on oopster74 and commented:
    “This disclosure to my teenaged daughter was a fierce Mama-Bear moment, sensing how dangerous it is for anyone — for her — to believe that there are some women who plan not to get raped, and somehow, by implication, some who do.”

    I get how the last part of that sentence is phrased, by implying some women plan not to get raped means that some must, it’s a failing of the English language there, but I think most people reading will understand that it’s not meant to mean that, it’s just how you say things sometimes.
    I’ve not been raped thank God, but I was mugged when I was 12 or 13 by a teenager a good five or so years older than me with a big German Shepherd dog (Alsatian). While I’m not trying to compare apples with oranges, that experience of the dog barking aggressively, the 2 punches to my nose after he backed me up against the fence of a housing estate left me terrified to leave the house for months on my own and with friends and family around me, I never admitted that fear to anyone at the time, I think my only saving grace of it is that my memory is extremely bad and like all experiences, it faded with time. I had just left my local church after a Sunday morning service and was literally 20 metres away from my aunty Dotty’s house, where I ran balling my eyes out as it happened. My mugger wanted money, which I didn’t have, I was 12/13, I had zero money to give, but he wouldn’t believe me. Unknown to me, I did have £5 in a sealed envelope for my parents as they’d won a church raffle that week, knowing that may have made my attack last less time (it seemed to go on for such a long time but must have only been a few minutes).
    I blamed myself for not running, for not defending myself, kick him in the nuts, kick the dog, run as fast I could, shout my head off, I just stood there terrified and crying after each punch, and I felt the shame of that for a long time after, but it wasn’t my fault that I was attacked, I shouldn’t have any shame or guilt to feel for my attack, and no one made me feel those feelings. I was asked what I did and why I didn’t stand up for myself, but I was just too scared and didn’t want to make things worse by pissing him off. If someone who’s raped (and here comes the bad English again sorry), and they feel even half the fear, shame and guilt that I felt, then words just aren’t good enough to describe how angry and upset about that situation, and how much sympathy and support I would have for the victims (and I don’t want to use that word), of such horrific acts.
    I want to live in a world where we don’t have to teach our children what to do if they’re attacked, because there won’t be people who attack others, but the reality is that there are some sick freaks in this world who don’t give 2 shits about how their actions affect others, and those people deserve ALL they get coming to them, and that makes me feel like a bad person, a bad Christian (yes I’m a Christian but I try not to be a judgemental arsehole like so many Christians can be perceived to be) for thinking those things, but we have to put the protection of people and society first. I don’t really care if the perpetrators are punished, they will be, just as long as they’re never able to hurt anyone ever again.
    I would extend my sympathies to you for what you’ve went through, but I’m guessing you’ve had all that, been there and got the T-shirt, so I’ll just congratulate you, on the positive things you indicate you’ve done to help others that have gone through similar things. We ALWAYS need people that are willing to help others out.

  4. redhester says:

    thank you. i am grateful to be your sister and reblogged on redhester.tumblr.com so that tumblr sisters could begin sharing your wise words via that platform. i am sorry you were violated and pray for the safety of your precious daughter. she deserves better. you deserved better. we all do.

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