A few weeks ago, the podcast How to Get Away With Parenting released an episode called “How Do I Talk to My Kid About Molestation?” That question, which host Malaika Dower puts to her guest—sex and family therapist Courtney Watson—is quickly overtaken by a bigger issue: How do I talk to my kid about sex? And yet another struggle overtakes that: How do I talk to my kid about sex when I am still working through my own sexual issues?
The root of Malaika and Courtney’s conversation is that yes, a parent can help their child develop a healthy, shame-free attitude toward their body and sexuality, but the parent also needs to process the impact that rape culture has had on them. After all, we can’t teach healthy attitudes if we can’t model them, and we can’t model them if we don’t deal with our own problems. In order to raise a child in a culture we didn’t grow up in—a culture we’re working to create—we have to deal with the trauma of growing up with the cultural norms we’re trying to dismantle.
Courtney emphasizes one strategy in particular: establish a support network for the caregiver as well as the child. Parents can combat secrecy and shame by building a network of safe people that a child can go to if they’re having an issue, but parents also need a community to lean on. “If you have an issue with sex—definitely if there’s some sort of sexual trauma in your past and you feel yourself being triggered in raising your child—get help,” Courtney says. “You don’t have to do this alone.” Courtney stresses this point a few times, including when Malaika asks about helping a child to heal from sexual trauma. She speaks specifically about going to therapy, but the larger point is that raising a child doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that caregivers come to caregiving with all of the cultural baggage they had before they were in charge of a kid.
Malaika enters the conversation asking, “how do I make sure my kid isn’t molested?” And Courtney replies, basically, you can’t. “Rape culture tells us that there’s something we can do to stop someone else from perpetrating against our children,” she says. Here it is, folks: our old friend rape culture. Or, rather, here’s victim blaming, one of rape culture’s favorite henchmen. Victim blaming tells us that if we had worn a different outfit, gone home earlier, or not drunk as much, we could have avoided our own assault. And rape culture tells parents that they’re responsible for protecting their kids at all times. If something happens, victim blaming rushes in to remind parents that it’s their fault. Here’s the cycle in action: the parent must keep their daughter covered/watched/inside because otherwise the daughter may be assaulted. If the daughter doesn’t internalize this message and subject herself to its rules, and someone assaults her, then she was asking for it. Courtney won’t stand for this: “The only person that is responsible for sexually assaulting your child is the person that does it,” she says. “Not your child, not you—it’s them.
There are, of course, things we can do to try to keep children safe, and there are things we can do to support them if anything does happen. Malaika’s kid is just over a year old, so Courtney focuses on developing an open and honest atmosphere that’s free of shame. To start with, she says, call body parts by their proper names. When diapering, when bathing, when playing the “where’s your ____” game. “Society, or we, or whoever, puts that shame on those body parts,” Courtney explains. “At the end of the day they’re still just body parts.” By honestly and openly identifying body parts that we usually shroud in euphemisms, we can show kids that a vulva is no more shameful than a fingernail. (As an added pro, a kid who can accurately name their body parts will be able to communicate what happened if anyone does touch them in a way that they don’t like.) Courtney offers many more strategies for talking to older as well as younger kids, and for talking about sex explicitly as well as bodies and consent. She has included most of these in an article on how to talk to young kids about sexual assault that she posted on her website soon after the episode aired.
The roots of rape culture start in our conversations, expectations, and attitudes toward our own bodies and the bodies of others, and we develop those attitudes from infancy. Anyone who interacts with kids—which most if not all of us do at some point, in some way—has the capacity to help them develop healthy attitudes toward their bodies and sexuality. Today’s kids will grow into tomorrow’s adults, who will respect or blame victims, will ask for or disregard consent, and will treat their partners and themselves with love or contempt. Today’s conversations lay the framework for tomorrow’s actions and attitudes. But to help our kids develop healthy sexual relationships, we have to have a healthy relationship toward sex ourselves. We owe it to our children to take care of ourselves. This is how we combat rape culture. This is how we change the conversation.