Adapted from an online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: There’s been a lot of public discussion surrounding sexual assault lately, and one thing I keep reading/hearing is, “We need to teach our sons not to rape.” Do they mean literally sit down with a child and tell him that it’s not okay? Do they mean raise the child in such a way that rape would never be something they are capable of?

I have a 10-year-old son and only last year talked to him about where babies come from. What age is appropriate to discuss rape with kids? Clearly this shouldn’t come out of the blue, but should include a discussion of respect, boundaries, etc., but I’m at a loss as to how this should happen.

Teaching Sons Not to Rape

Teaching Sons Not to Rape: I could write up the answer that explains how I’m talking to my kids, and have been since they were little — thanks in part to some really important programs through their elementary schools, yay for these enlightened educators — or I can save myself the typing and send you to a blog post by Jessica Birthisel (, an assistant professor of communications who seems to be working from the same set of bullet points I am.

(Nick Galifianakis/for The Washington Post)

Short version, it’s on teaching children respect — from toddlerhood — for themselves, for others’ bodies and for limits, including to take “no” for an answer.

It’s about learning not to take what isn’t one’s to take. Doesn’t just have to be sex.

And when your son starts to show the first flickers of romantic interests, don’t pass up opportunities to talk about consent. You’ll get them.

Re: Teaching sons: It’s important to model respect for women and girls for more than their appearance. When you run into someone, is your baseline conversation on looking nice? When boys make fun of someone (anyone) for being fat/ugly/weird looking, do you call them on it? Girls and women are taught that their value is in how they look and that boys/men are entitled to 1. enjoy them for their physical charms and 2. act unreservedly on the feelings these charms inspire. Admire women and girls frequently and openly for their accomplishments and character — it goes a long way in teaching how they should be treated.


Re: Teaching sons: I had 500 lectures from my parents not to walk even a block alone at night, etc., vs. the barely even one conversation they had with my brother about it. I think there’s an assumption even among the best parents that rape is so obviously a crime that they don’t need to explain why it’s wrong.

When your son’s in high school, talk to him about dangerous behavior. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be about rape, but that he shouldn’t just shrug when he sees someone getting into a bad situation and assume they have control. Teach him to be the [Stanford] bike riders who helped when they saw someone in trouble.

Anonymous 2

Anonymous 2: Thanks, both of you. So much of it is about getting away from assumptions. A routine of asking, “What does she think?” and “What do you think?,” in all contexts, can help break a reliance on them.

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