Why I've Been Talking To My Daughter About Rape Since She Was 5

talking to daughter about rape
Self

Until consent culture takes over, the topic's going to keep coming up with young kids.

It's not that I want this topic to keep coming up. I wish we lived in a world where it wasn't an issue. But since my daughter turned 5, I've had at least three conversations with her about rape.

.....

It started with assaults in our neighborhood.

The first time rape came up in conversation with my daughter, it was very unexpected. We'd just moved to the most child-centric neighborhood in Brooklyn. We arrived here at the end of March 2011 and all was quiet, until two weeks later when a string of sexual assaults took place in the greater area. Suddenly there were cop cars everywhere at night and police standing guard on every corner. From April through September, more than half a dozen women were sexually assaulted while walking home at night. One woman was raped in the vestibule of an apartment building. There were signs up in every store window featuring sketches of the alleged assailants, and there was no way for me to avoid the issue. When my daughter asked me why there were so many police officers present at night, I told her that some women had been attacked while they were walking home. I didn't go into great detail, but I think I did mention that men had touched their private parts when the women didn't want them to. I told my daughter that the police officers were there to keep us safe. She felt reassured by that.

Much as it was strange to talk about this sort of thing with such a small child, it was also kind of liberating. It certainly gave me a springboard from which to remind my daughter about good touch and bad touch, and to teach her that her body is hers and hers alone. We talked about consent, about the fact that her private parts are private and that if anyone ever tried to touch her there she should scream and kick and tell an adult immediately. We talked about vaginas and penises because she'd been learning the proper names of body parts in kindergarten, and even though that felt a bit overwhelming, too, I knew it was the right thing. I'd read that the best way to protect a child from falling prey to sexual abuse is to be sure they're well-informed about their bodies, that they're comfortable describing their private parts using the proper terminology, and that they understand their right to bodily integrity and autonomy. I'd been talking with my daughter about these topics from age 3, but suddenly imparting this knowledge felt more urgent. I wanted her to know that she had a right to keep herself safe and that I would help her if anyone tried to hurt her.

And then came Les Mis.

I knew we'd have to keep having refresher talks on body parts and safety throughout childhood but I didn't expect to have to confront the topic of rape again until my daughter was much older and about to become sexually active. About a year and a half later, though, rape came up again when we went to see the film version of Les Miserables. We'd been listening to the Broadway cast album on long trips in the car, so my daughter was excited to see the movie. I'd completely forgotten about the fact that Fantine gets raped in the story and I certainly didn't expect them to show it in the film. But they did. Huge on the screen in front us was a near bald, toothless Anne Hathaway, distressed and struggling underneath the weight of the man attacking her. When my daughter saw that imagery, she said, "What's happening to her?" I said we'd talk about it later and we did.

After the movie, I explained that Fantine had no other way to make money since she'd been fired, so she took money from sailors who wanted to sleep with her, which was a risky job. I told my daughter that since there was no one to protect Fantine and she was working on the docks, one of the men decided he wanted to sleep with her without paying, so he attacked her. That's why she was upset and pushing him away. I don't know if she understood or not, but I remember thinking, "God, this is so hard to explain." You see, sweetheart, sometimes men decide they want to have sex with women, and so they do, even when the women don't want them to. I didn't say that. I talked around it. But trying to delicately explain rape to a child makes you realize exactly how horrifying it is. It makes you realize that we talk about it like it's a disputed act, like it's not the grotesque, brutal violation that it is. We talk about rape as if it's simply a matter of perspective, a he-said, she-said. It's not. It's war. It's violence. Sexual violence. That is what rape is.

And now, we need to talk about Bill Cosby.

This past week, I was listening to a clip of one of my comedy heroes, Bill Cosby, talk about drugging women. The clip was from his 1969 album, "It's true! It's true!," and it was posted by The Village Voice in the wake of the many renewed allegations of rape and sexual assault against him. My daughter came up to me while I was listening and stood next to me. Usually when she walks up to me while I'm listening to comedy we'll laugh, because it's something silly that kids can relate to. But not this time. She didn't understand Cosby's jokes about being obsessed with finding Spanish Fly and using it to drug the one woman in his neighborhood that everyone deemed worthy of being raped. Apparently, according to the bit, there is one of those women in every neighborhood. Some poor Mary who is the proverbial scum cookie for all the men she meets. A magnet for abuse. Ugly and sad and weird, the perfect girl to rape, because even if she told anyone, no one would believe her or care. This is the "comedy" I was listening to from one of my childhood heroes. Most jokes don't have a very long shelf-life, but this material in particular had really not aged well.

I started talking over the bit, saying, "This is Bill Cosby. I used to listen to his album "Himself" over and over again when I was your age. It was one of the first things that got me into comedy." At 9, my daughter is very precocious and can understand sophisticated concepts, so I told her the bit was about slipping drugs into a woman's drink and that it made me sad because Cosby was accused of doing that in real life. I told her about The Cosby Show and what a great show it was and how everyone my age was raised on it. I explained that I was mourning the loss of a childhood hero who was never who we all thought he was.

So what's next?

At this rate, the next time rape comes up in conversation, my daughter will be 11 and probably starting puberty. That's when sexuality gets real. I don't want to have to talk to my daughter about protecting herself from being raped. (And I don't mean ways to avoid being violently attacked by a stranger lurking in the dark, because most rapes and sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.)

Instead, I want to talk to my daughter about consent.

I want to talk to her about enjoying romantic touch when she's mature enough to handle it emotionally.

I want to talk to her about taking pride in her body and herself, about feeling secure and safe and loved and respected.

I want to talk to her about sharing a positive and wonderful physical experience with someone she loves and trusts.

I don't want to talk to my daughter about rape. But I already have. Because until the consent culture takes over and all young people understand how to approach one another and communicate about healthy sexuality, it's going to keep coming up. 

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