By opening a discussion around body autonomy early with kids, we allow idea of sexual consent to fall into place later.
Nearly every day in the news there’s a movie studio, political party, rock band or television network trying to manage its reputation in light of sexual abuse or harassment allegations against someone in their organization.
It’s indeed high time that these perpetrators are held to account, along with the organizations that — to varying degrees — have been complicit in their actions. Time’s up, right?
But what if we also need to take a good hard look at the role families have played in reinforcing the power dynamic that has allowed systemic sexual abuse to go unchecked? In light of the #MeToo movement, a growing chorus of parents — mothers in particular — are speaking up about changes they’re making at home to move the needle on harassment and abuse. And women’s rights advocates say they’ve got the most important role of all.
In her new audiobook Trying to Be Good, Vancouver actor and mom of two Emelia Symington Fedy writes candidly about her own experiences with non-consensual sexual activity in her teens, and her determination to raise boys who truly understand consent.
“When I was 16 there was an older boy interested in me. He was probably 22. He had me over to his house during a party, and I didn’t say no, I didn’t yell no, I didn’t scream no . . . but he could tell through my body language that there was a problem.”
Fedy said the young man proceeded to have sex with her anyway and that her thought process at the time was around avoiding a scene.
“I made the decision in the moment: ‘I can scream. I can make a big deal about it. All these kids are cooler than me. I’m going to be embarrassed. It’s easier just to let it happen and go home.’ ”
Now that she has two sons of her own, Fedy is starting their education around consent early. At just 41⁄ and 31⁄ 2, Arthur and Obie are rough-and-tumble
2 little guys whose play style gives her and their dad plenty of opportunity to talk about healthy boundaries and agency over their own bodies.
“We say ‘Arthur, is Obie liking that? Is he giving you consent to keep wrestling?’ ‘No.’ ‘OK . . . well, then, stop. He did not give you consent.’ ” Ditto when they’re chasing girls around the playground.
That policy extends to the way she respects the boys’ bodies, too. “When I’m tickling my sons, when they say no, I stop immediately.”
Karyn Pickles of Paris, Ont., takes the same approach with her kids, Ben, 11, and Molly, 8, asking if they want to cuddle or share a hug. “My son has super-long hair and he drives me crazy because he calls me out when I start untangling it without asking first: ‘Mommy, I do not give you permission to touch my hair.’ ”
But she said she’s glad she and her partner have laid that foundation.
“When you start with that basis, sexual consent falls into place,” said Pickles, who often writes about sex education and women’s rights on her blog, picklesink.com.
“You teach children and model for yourself an expectation that you don’t touch another person’s body — in friendship, love or anger — without checking that they’re OK with it first.”
But understanding consent isn’t the only part of this picture.
Julie S. Lalonde, an Ottawa-based women’s rights advocate who spends a lot of time speaking to groups of kids, said that despite it being 2018, boys still get a lot of messages that it’s not particularly manly to express and talk through emotions. And that leaves them ill-equipped to navigate their interactions with girls and, later, women.
Part of ensuring we’re not raising the next generation of Weinsteins and Spaceys requires parents to have frank conversations with boys about dealing with — and accepting — rejection. “When we deny young men the space to be vulnerable, we create the conditions where they don’t take no for an answer,” Lalonde said. “They take it as a personal affront to be rejected.”
Lalonde would know. For 10 years, she was stalked by an ex-boyfriend. “He felt entitled to me. He had not been told no his entire life. And when I broke up with him because he was awful, he was like, ‘What do you mean, no?’ ”
Farrah Khan, manager of sexual violence education and support at Ryerson University in Toronto, said the conversations parents have with their kids about healthy relationships are critical, especially given that between the ages of 16 and 24, there are high rates of sexual assault.
Although it may be tempting to try to shelter kids from these difficult stories, the many sexual abuse cases in the news today do provide an important conversation starter.
“The thing that parents can do is talk to your children, and not from a place of shame and blame, but a place of hope,” Khan said.
We need to encourage our kids to express their body autonomy, talk about boundaries and feel secure in their right to say no, she says, and to understand “that saying no to someone else is saying yes to yourself.”
Sadly, girls and women are often encouraged to quiet the “shark inside the tummy” or the hair that’s raised on the backs of their neck, Khan said. “We tell girls to be quiet when they say something’s wrong. We have to challenge that.” Brandie Weikle writes about parenting issues and is the host of The New Family Podcast and editor of thenewfamily.com
It may be innocent horseplay, but parents need to teach their children that it’s time to quit if the other child isn’t enjoying it.