By Karen Galbraith, LSW
It would be easy for me to say that the theme for Sexual Assault Awareness Month back in April—Preventing Campus Sexual Assault—had nothing to do with me. For one thing, it’s been 20 years since I was a college student, and for another, my kids have years to go until they even begin to submit their college applications.
To top it off, my children are boys, so I could easily allow myself to be lulled into thinking that many of the discussions about campus sexual assault don’t really apply to them. After all, they will rarely (if ever) be told by someone other than me to be careful about what they’re wearing (and probably only in reference to needing a coat in winter), or to never leave a party without a friend, or to always keep their drink covered. Their integrity will not be questioned if they choose to hang out with someone they’ve never met before, nor will they be told that they should have known better than to go upstairs at a frat party.
Does this mean that because I have boys, I can cross campus sexual assault off my list of “Discussions I Need to Have with My Children?” Far from it. In fact, in light of what we now know about sexual assault prevention, I would argue that it is critical for parents and caretakers of boys to have these discussions, and we need to have them early.
Shifting Our Attention
Thankfully, there is increasing recognition of the danger of the traditional “what girls should/shouldn’t do to protect themselves against sexual violence,” otherwise known as the “make sure it’s another girl, not you” model of sexual assault prevention. Not only is this type of guidance ineffective, it is offensive. Most important, this outdated kind of advice blames the victim for the horrible, life-altering decisions of others. Second, old-school prevention that assumes that victims are female ignores the fact that people of all genders are affected by sexual violence.
Now we are turning our prevention attention away from victims and are focusing our efforts where they should be: teaching potential perpetrators not to sexually assault people. Additionally, current prevention strategies recognize that preventing sexual violence is a group effort, and strive to engage bystanders who can intervene in ways ranging from challenging sexist attitudes to interrupting an assault. Known as primary prevention, this type of education incorporates a more effective, long-term approach to preventing sexual violence and the social norms that contribute to its prevalence.
Sexual violence can be thought of as a pyramid, where rape and sexual assault are built on a base of attitudes and beliefs, not only about sex and gender, but about all the -isms related to understandings about who has power, control, and value in our society. Most simply, this graphic illustrates the fact that you don’t sexually degrade, demean, and/or dehumanize someone you fundamentally believe to be your equal. The message is clear: In order to topple the pyramid of sexual violence, we must chip away at the base. Since attitudes and beliefs about privilege and power are showered upon children from the day they are born, we, as parents and society, need to build the foundations of campus sexual assault prevention early—long before college orientation.
Chipping Away at the Base
It is important to note that children and adults of all ages and genders are influenced by the attitudes and beliefs that dominate our society. From birth, we all learn harmful messages about power and control. As a result, it can be hard to know how to talk with young children about complicated subjects such as oppression and sexual violence. Here are some simple ways to get the conversation going:
1. Teach children about history’s unsung heroes. Explore the accomplishments of women, people of color, and individuals who identify as LGBTQ, for example. Read books, watch movies, check out museums. Talk about why these contributions, although of equal importance, are often ignored or receive much less attention than the contributions of heterosexual white men.
2. Challenge gender roles in your home. Teach boys to bake and do laundry; teach girls to mow grass and change tires.
3. Help children to openly and appropriately express feelings. Create an environment where it’s safe for boys to cry and girls to be angry. Teach healthy and safe coping skills.
4. Speak out about comments that demean people. Jokes and remarks that degrade one person or a group of people degrade all of us. These types of comments teach children that some people are not worthy of respect.
5. Be mindful of the movies, TV shows, and video games the children you care about are watching and the messages they are receiving through media. While you cannot control everything a child is exposed to, you can use it to fuel conversation and learning.
6. Be open to exploring your own biases. Be honest about the difficulties in challenging them.
7. Most important, be a leader. Children are watching you.
Karen Galbraith, LSW, is the training projects specialist for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (pcar.org). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This article first appeared on the PCAR pcar.org/news/boys-need-hear-about-prevention-too.