**Trigger warning. I talk about rape here. And while I don’t get graphic, I’m not known for pulling my punches. Please proceed with care and take care of yourself if you need to.**
Being a parent is a bit terrifying. There are approximately ten bajillion ways that you can totally mess up your kids forever, and in the modern world the internet is there to make sure you know about every single one of them. And then on top of all that pressure, you’re also intimately aware of all the really horrible shitty things that happen out in the world. Things that could happen to your kid. Or, even worse, things that your kid might grow up to do. It’s scary, and as parents, of course we want to protect our children as much as we can. If we can’t lock them in a tower safe from danger, a la Rapunzel, we want to at the very least send them out into the world with as many tools and weapons against the bad guys as we can.
And that’s where the problems start. A few days ago I posted a link to Facebook about why the anti-roofie nail polish is not an effective way to combat rape. And I got into a conversation with a fellow mother who I adore and respect who said that she thought that the more tools her teenage daughter has to protect herself, the better.
Now don’t get me wrong, I think that not getting drugged in a bar is a good thing. I’ve never been roofied, but I know people who have, and it is horrible. But this is not a simple issue. And my objections to this product and others like it (like these horrible “chastity panties”), are not only that they don’t actually help nearly as much as they claim to, but that they distract from the real issues, and actually cause harm.
I have always been a big proponent of the idea that narratives have power. The stories we tell ourselves, and each other, and our children about the world and how it works actively influence how it works. You’d think it would be the other way around, but it isn’t always. And the narratives we, as a society, tell about rape are dangerous and misdirecting and flat out wrong a lot of the time.
People who rape are monsters. Perpetrators are not monsters. Rape is pretty damned monstrous, but a lot of the time the people who perpetrate rape are just ordinary folk. Nice guys* who are in your classes and friends with your husbands. Colleagues at work, your brothers, the guy in your dance class, YOUR SONS.
Your sons. This is the part that, as a parent of a boy, haunts me. I am doing everything in my power to make sure my son does not grow up to be a perpetrator of rape. And that means constantly and consciously deconstructing the truly astonishing array of narratives he is exposed to that are trying to turn him into one. Go read Sleeping Beauty again. I’ll wait. See? I read my son fairytales, because I am a folklore nerd, and when the prince gets to the tower I have to stop and explain to my THREE YEAR OLD why it’s really not okay to sneak into a sleeping girl’s room and kiss her. I mean, maybe if you have a pre-arranged agreement, but even then, you want to be really clear about that. A girl you don’t know? OH HELL NO.
How about every single romantic movie in which the plucky hero refuses to take no for an answer, pursues the girl anyway, despite her objections, and wears her down until she realises the error of her ways and falls into his arms? How about the whole notion of women playing “hard to get”? Obviously three is a bit young for dating advice, but when he gets there, my advice is going to be “tell her (or him, for that matter) how you feel and if she says no, TAKE HER AT HER WORD”. It’s okay to be sad and disappointed about it. It’s NOT okay to bombard her with flowers and gifts and serenades. That’s not romance, it’s stalking.
This idea that perpetrators are monsters is comforting, because it lets us pretend that we can spot them. That somehow we’ll know. That a perpetrator can’t possibly be someone you know and like. That there’s no way in hell you could be raising one. Or have raised one. But the truth is that the dominant narratives in the world at the moment are constantly telling boys that they have a right to women’s bodies, that women don’t know what they want, that we play hard to get. You want to avoid raising a perpetrator of rape, you have to be willing to constantly and consciously counteract those messages.
Rape can be avoided. Here’s the terrifying truth: as a women in the world, it’s remarkably difficult to avoid being raped. It could be argued that it’s impossible. That must be truly horrifying if you’re the parent of a teenage girl. I get that. It’s horrifying to me, and I’m not. You can wear chastity panties, and you can never ever go walking by yourself, day or night, and you can dip your anti-roofie nails into every drink before every sip, and you can never kiss a boy, let alone go home with him, and you can only ever wear track pants and baggie t-shirts, and YOU MIGHT STILL GET RAPED.
And then people will blame you. No matter what you did, or how careful you are, people will say you should have done more, been safer, been more careful. How could you go home with him, couldn’t you tell he would rape you? You totally shouldn’t have had that third glass of wine, you were drunk, what did you expect? You shouldn’t have worn that short skirt.
And that right there is the narrative that is fed by the anti-roofie nail polish and the chastity panties. That is why I think they actively do harm. Not only will they not prevent rape at ALL (I’ll get to this in a moment), but they help create the narratives that support the perpetrators. Perpetrators are sometimes just boys who get their messages mixed, boys who haven’t been taught to not buy all the many many messages telling them that they deserve sex from girls. That does happen. But a lot of perpetrators are serial offenders. A LOT. And each time someone is disbelieved, each time you say, “Well, she was drunk, what do you expect?” or “Maybe she should have done more to protect herself”, you tell them that they are JUSTIFIED.
Each time you make it women’s jobs to protect ourselves from rape, you tell the perpetrators that they are not responsible. You tell them that they are in the right. You support the narrative that it’s the survivors’ fault they get raped instead of the perpetrators’.
But as a parent all you really want to do is protect your daughter, right? So you think, well maybe Jax is right, maybe this does support the status quo, but what if it helps? What if it saves her? Surely if there’s a chance it will, then it’s worth it, even if it isn’t a wider good?
Well I agree. IF it did stop rape, I’d be all over that. But it doesn’t. I’m really sorry, but statistically, if your daughter gets raped, it is far more likely to be under the influence of alcohol than because of getting roofied. And it’s far more likely to be one of her friends, someone she knows, maybe even her boyfriend, than some random stranger. Giving her rape whistles and nail polish may make you feel better, but it doesn’t actually make her safer. It’s an exercise in false security. The only thing that will stop her being raped is to never be alone with someone who will rape her, and since perpetrators aren’t actually monsters with neon signs, that’s almost impossible to ensure, short of locking her away in a tower. (And even that didn’t work for Rapunzel, so there ya go.)
So what do you do? You want to protect your daughter. Is there nothing you can do?
There is really only one thing we can do, and that’s change the narrative. It’s not a satisfying answer, because it’s really fucking hard to do, and because it takes so long, and your fifteen year old wants to go to her first teenage party tonight, and you don’t have time to change the whole status quo before she goes.
For me, parenting in a way that combats rape culture is all about instilling particular (and, alas, non-dominant) narratives in my kid’s brain.
Your body is yours. And every other person’s body is theirs. In my house, tickle wars end when the ticklee says stop. ALWAYS. No matter what. He does not have to cuddle anyone he doesn’t want to, and if he wants to cuddle someone and they say no, he has to be okay with that. Even if that person is Mommy. Sometimes Mommy gets touched out, and she needs him to not clamber on her for a while, and he has to respect that. That’s a tough thing for a 3 year old to grasp. But he’s getting there. And if Mommy wants cuddles and he says no, Mommy accepts that (which is not always easy, but Mommy is keen on walking the walk).
Your voice is important. This one is especially true for parents of girls, I think, but it’s true for boys too. The dominant narratives have a tendency to teach girls that their voices don’t count. That a “real girl” is subdued and quiet and sedate. That “real girls” don’t run and shout and assert themselves. Girls still get told that “boys don’t like smart girls”. When we speak up about our experiences as women, we still get shouted down and dismissed as over-emotional and irrational. Teach your girls that their voices count. We need them.
We also teach kids that their voices don’t count. That adults know best, and that the things adults say are always more true than what the kid knows. This is straight up untrue. It’s a tricky balance, teaching your children to question authority while also respecting experience. It’s way, way easier to just say “because I told you so”. I try to resist that temptation, because I don’t want my child to ever accept something just because a grown up said so. Not even if that grown up is me.
Accurate and shameless anatomy. A penis is a penis. Not any of the truly horrible euphemisms that float around. We use proper words for body parts. Because bodies are not shameful things. Private, yes. But not shameful. And because, while I really hope I never have to have a conversation like this with my son, if he ever needs to tell me about someone touching him in inappropriate ways, I want him to have the words to do it. And to know that he can tell me without shame.
Demystifying sex. My child already knows where babies come from. I mean, he doesn’t grasp all the finer points, but he knows the basics. Babette Cole’s truly wonderful Mommy Laid an Egg has been in the story rotation since he was born. (It doesn’t use proper anatomical terms, and is a tad heteronormative, which is my only beef with it, but it does present the information in an entertaining and not shameful way, which makes up for it. Plus everyone should see the page about how “mommies and daddies fit together” because it is wonderful. Who knew you could do that with helium balloons?) As he grows older I plan to make it an ongoing conversation, and answer all questions as they arise. To me the idea of “having the talk” is insanity. Instead of a once off talk, I aim to create an environment where it is an ongoing dialogue that he is comfortable having with me.
Talk about consent and what it means. That’s not just about sex either. You can start addressing this from a very young age. “Your brother doesn’t seem to be enjoying that game.” This works both ways. Because it teaches kids that their consent matters, and it teaches them that so does everyone else’s.
This has gotten longer than I intended, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface, so even though I feel like I have a lot more to say, I’m going to stop here.
I totally understand the need to protect your children, believe me. I’m a parent, I get it. But I think the trick is to change the culture. The trick is to recognise the real ways that we can help to undermine the dominant (and wrong) narratives about sex and rape and consent, and help our children to be active in that too. And to recognise false security for the dangerous, misdirection it is.
And as a final note, fellow parents? Sometimes we screw it up. I screw it up all the time. But I try to do better all the time too. I think we’re doing okay. But let’s keep trying to do better. I will if you will. 😉
* Before anyone gets all #notallmen on me, yes I know some perpetrators are women, but the stats suggest that the vast majority are men. So for the purposes of this post, let’s not quibble on this, okay?