When I gave birth to a baby girl after having three boys, my friends would ask me what the differences were. “She’s just a baby,” I would say with a shrug. “There’s no difference!”
But as she grows up, there are differences – though fewer than one might think. Most notably, I find myself worrying a lot about how to teach my daughter to protect herself from sexual assault. Boys and men can be victims, too; I am very aware of that. We have taken precautions over the years with our three sons and hope we did enough to protect them. But with my daughter, I worry we can never do enough. I worry that there is no way to keep her from being vulnerable.
The horrible truth is that I am probably right. According to RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), an American suffers a sexual assault a mind-boggling every 98 seconds. Ages 12 to 34 are the years of highest risk for these crimes, and it is females ages 16 to 19 who are four times as likely to be victims than the general public. Although those numbers are chilling, the statistics get even worse for students on college campuses: 23.1 percent of female undergraduate students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence or incapacitation.
After the reaction to last week’s emotionally exhausting day of testimony in Brett Kavanaugh’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I am surprised the numbers are not higher. Every time I checked in on social media that day and in the days since, my female friends and acquaintances have posted their own stories of sexual assault, of last-minute escapes, of terrifying moments they have endured when they believed they would be assaulted. Most of them had never talked about what happened to them before now.
After I commented on one Facebook post about a teen boy isolating me in a bedroom and trying to coax me to undress for him when I was 9 or 10, my own husband was shocked.
“Were you ever going to tell me that happened to you?” he asked. I shrugged. “I got away,” I replied. I didn’t report it to my parents because “nothing” happened – and, luckily, that was the end of my story. But then my husband and I froze: Would we know if something like that or worse happened to our spunky first-grader who was at that moment asleep on rainbow sheets and clutching select members of her menagerie of stuffed animals?
Would she tell us, or would she carry around the horror of a moment for 30 or more years before she talked about it at all? If we can’t protect her, can we do anything to make sure we can be there for her if she needs us?
Parenting and child development expert Deborah Gilboa, a family physician in Pittsburgh, told me that when discussing the topic with our children, one of the ways we can help them feel safer about opening up to us is to speak about sexual assault and harassment as if it is not a matter of if, but when.
I can start talking to my daughter about it now at 6 years old – and I probably should, she said. “You can say, ‘When someone touches your body or talks about your body in a way that you don’t like, that’s something I definitely want to hear about,’” Gilboa suggested.
“Or, ‘Sometimes, people are going to think that your body is their body, and they’re wrong,’” she said. “‘And it doesn’t matter what you said, or what you did, or what you showed them, or what you were wearing. They’re just going to think that, and that is definitely something you should tell me – just like you would tell me if somebody hit you.’”
From my 44-year-old perspective, talking about sexual abuse and harassment as if it will definitely happen sounds scary – probably because it scares me for her – but Gilboa said it will not have that effect on a child. “You are framing it for her before it happens,” she explained. “Your parents didn’t say it to you, and when it did happen to you, you probably felt more alone and like maybe you had messed up somehow.
“This will prepare your daughter better.”
As she gets older, I can modify my language to be age-appropriate but still send the same messages: People are going to look at her in ways that will make her uncomfortable, say things that will make her feel bad, and possibly try to touch her in ways she doesn’t like. That will not be her fault, and I want to know if it happens.
Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood,” told me that once children reach their teenage years, there are specific techniques parents can use.
Parents can be mindful, she said, about how they talk about incidents of assault in front of their teenage children when they come up in the news.
“A lot of good parenting happens in what we call ‘displacement,’” Damour said. “If you’re watching something with your teenager and there is a description an incident involving sexual assault, that creates an opportunity for a parent to say, ‘That must have been so awful. That must have been so scary. I hope she felt she could tell the people who loved her so they could be helpful.’”
That kind of statement allows parents to articulate that they would be a safe place to go in that situation without putting their children on the spot, she said – or even requiring a response from them at all.
“Saying point-blank to a teenager, ‘Would you tell me if this happened to you?’ tends to be a very fruitless approach,” Damour warned. “A teenager in the hot seat is going to do what they can just to end the conversation.”
Any parent of the elusive and skittish teenager knows that the car is a magical place where teenagers will at times talk about things they would never address at the dinner table, and Damour also suggested using that setting for this purpose. Without making eye contact – or, again, even expecting a response – she said parents can bring up the topic and make it clear where they stand.
“Then if the teenager mentions it, or it comes up that somebody was assaulted and didn’t feel like they could share the info, the parents can say, ‘I wonder what got in the way for her of telling an adult?’ and sort of throw that out there and see if their own teen might have some response – at which point there might be a valuable conversation underway,” Damour said.
It’s not easy to tell when a teenager has been sexually assaulted, as evidenced by the flood of stories coming out now of adult women carrying the secret for decades. In its online resources, RAINN notes: “Some of the warning signs that a teen has been sexually assaulted or abused can easily blend in with the everyday struggles teens face as they learn how to relate to their bodies, peers, and environments.”
Therefore, parents need to be aware and trust their instincts if something doesn’t seem right to them. Unhealthy eating patterns, signs of anxiety or worry, failing grades, changes in hygiene or appearance, self harm or abuse, drinking or drug use, or changes in sleep or social behavior can all be signs of trauma.
However, Damour warned that the absence of these kinds of symptoms is not necessarily reassurance that everything is okay, either – a caveat that made me want to cry.
Whenever strangers see my family out in public and note my tall teen and tween sons next to my 6-year-old daughter, inevitably they make a joke about how she will never be able to date with her big brothers around. My reply is that she can take care of herself, thank you very much – the little sister of three boys, after all, has to be fierce just to hold her own. We try to nurture that spirit and encourage her to speak up and stand up for herself, hoping it will serve her well.
When – not if – someone does try to speak to my daughter or touch her in a way that makes her uncomfortable, I want her to use that spirit to fight it, to talk about it, and to heal. I hope that when that time comes, I hear her, and I can be the parent she deserves.