*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.
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.