Parenting Boys to Prevent Sexual Assault

Last week when I read the article in Sunday’s paper about Idaho campuses targeting sexual assault, I held my breath for a moment, the way I always do when I read statistics about assault. I have a daughter.

The article by Idaho Statesman reporter Katy Moeller repeats a statistic I’ve heard before: “One in five women will be sexually assaulted during college and it’s most likely to happen during their freshman or sophomore years.”

My daughter moves back into the dorm in less than two weeks. She’s a sophomore. That statistic makes me sick.

We haven’t talked about sexual assault much, but I remember broaching the subject when she was about 11. We’d gone away for a girls-only weekend that sandwiched good food and fun activities with some preadolescent education, woman-to-woman.

We had long conversations about some of the stuff she’d face in her teenage years, most of it good but some of it bad. Some of it downright ugly. Growing up is mostly a wonderful thing. But it has some hard parts, and I wanted Emily to know she could talk to me about anything and I’d answer her questions honestly.

My mom did the same thing with me at that age and it acted like a block in the doorjamb, keeping an avenue of communication open, if only a crack.

The short conversation we had about sexual assault was hard. I cried. Those statistics have faces that belong to real people, people who should never have been touched or treated the way they were, often by someone they knew and trusted.

And so I told my daughter that her body was hers to control. No one else had a right to touch her without her permission, whether it was a hug or something more. And she had the power to give or deny that permission for her entire life, at any point.

Emily doesn’t remember that conversation, though she remembers us talking about boy-girl relationships and peer pressure when we weren’t swimming in the hotel pool or hitting the shops for souvenirs.

When I asked her about what she does to stay safe on campus she had good answers, like walking in groups, checking in with friends and trusting her gut about who she spends time with.

“One guy I met, I liked for a couple days,” she recalled.

But something about him unsettled her and she chose not to hang out with him again. “I found out later he was a player. It made me glad I trusted my gut,” she said.

I’d want every girl going off to college to trust her gut. I’d also want her to have a solid plan about what she’ll do when there’s alcohol, because that’s a huge factor in many assaults. But sometimes those precautions aren’t enough and the assault happens anyway. That isn’t the girls’ fault.

It bears repeating. Sexual assault is never the victim’s fault. It doesn’t matter how she dresses, if she flirts, if she consents to some physical activity or in any way implies that she’s open to furthering a physical encounter. The moment she says “no” is the moment the encounter needs to stop.

As much as I want my daughter to know this to her core, I want my sons to know it, too.

That ugly statistic isn’t just about assaulted women. It’s about the men who assault them.

While we’re raising our daughters to think about how to keep themselves safe, we should be raising our sons to be a source of safety.

I didn’t do a preadolescent trip with my boys. They each had a fun weekend with Curtis, bonding over water slides, go-carts and laser tag with a little bit of talking man-to-man. But I’m still making an effort to broach the hard topics. That includes sexual assault.

Our boys need to know, long before they pack their bags for college, that they have a responsibility to respect a woman’s “no.”

I don’t want my sons to believe the oft-told lie that a girl could “ask for it” by how she dresses, talks or acts. Or the lie that they’re a victim to their own desires and once they pass a certain point they can’t stop.

They can stop. They have the character, the will and the capability to stop. They’re in charge of their own bodies.

If we have a hope of changing that disheartening sexual assault statistic, it’s time our prevention strategies include how we raise our sons. Our daughters’ safety depends on it.

This column originally appeared Aug 21, 2015 in The Spokesman Review.

What do you think boys should be taught about sexual assault?

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