By Gail Cornwall
I recently saw a meme that said something like, “Instead of telling our daughters what not to wear and when not to go out, we should teach our sons not to rape.” It would be funny, if it didn’t point the finger at a painful truth: we raise our children to participate in “rape culture.”
Though the term got lots of airplay in the wake of the Stanford sexual assault case, it’s not always clear what we mean by it. Coined by radical feminists in the 70’s, “rape culture” serves as shorthand for a social environment “in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused,” according to Marshall University’s Women’s Center. Examples run the gamut from objectification of women in advertisements to a different widely-circulated meme that reads, “Go ahead and call the cops. They can’t unrape you.”
One primary goal of those who study the problem is to bring our attention to the many subtle ways in which we teach our children it’s okay for someone to take what they want from another’s body. Another less obvious benefit of changing the way our boys and girls think about their bodies is helping protect them from sexual predators who rely upon the same societal messaging to victimize.
In Protecting the Gift, Gavin de Becker says that in order to ward off molestation of kids—and unwanted sexual activity in teenagers who’ve been exposed to the “popular Hollywood formula . . . Boy Wants Girl, Girl Doesn’t Want Boy, Boy Persists and Harasses Girl, Boy Gets Girl”—they must know one thing: “their body is theirs.”
As parents we can teach “sovereignty over the body” in a variety of ways. My husband and I use the ubiquitous phrase “your body, your choice” as a touchstone. My son doesn’t want to hug Grandma? Fine. Better for my mother to stand there uncomfortably than to teach him and his sisters that we have to give affection we’d rather withhold in order to make someone else happy. His body, his choice.
Lately I’ve noticed that a few time-honored games run afoul of this benchmark. Some will call the list ridiculous and me oversensitive. I can’t control their opinions, but I can forbid the following games in my house.
I Got Your Nose
I couldn’t have been more than five when my beloved grandpa expertly brushed the tip of my nose with his hand, tucking his thumb between his pointer and middle fingers and declaring, “I’ve got your nose!”
I howled with laughter. “No you don’t! It’s right here,” I’d say, feeling for my bridge and nostrils.
But he insisted, “No! I took it. Didn’t you feel that? Here it is!” I’d run to the mirror and sigh with relief, mostly feigned but some genuine, when all my facial features stared back at me in their normal arrangement.
Now my four-year-old has taken to the act. Unfortunately, his touch is less gentle, his assertions not so playful. When he scratched a groove in my cheek last week, I said, “I don’t want to play anymore. This game hurts my face.” He accepted my pronouncement, setting off in search of his sister. She too objected, “You’re too rough! Stop!” He did. Later that week, when our five-year-old neighbor sobbed—“He says he has my nose but he doesn’t! He doesn’t have my nose! It’s my nose”—I’d had enough.
In another childhood memory, I shrieked and yelled “stop, stop” as an adult family friend tickled me for what seemed like ages. I was giggling, but I was also scared he would never stop and my body would somehow explode from the pressure.
That doesn’t mean I’m a shrew who deprives kids of all physical contact. The rule in our house is that tickling and wrestling are okay so long as both people are having fun. As soon as someone says “stop,” it’s done. There is no continuing to tickle with a sarcastic, “Are you sure? You seem to be having so much fun. Why are you laughing if you want me to stop?”
Of course, there are parental limits to “your body, your choice.” My kids would jump at the chance to play some games that we nonetheless prohibit.
I’ll Show You Mine, If You Show Me Yours (or “Playing Doctor”)
What could be wrong with reciprocity? Didn’t we all go through the rite of passage in the back corner of the schoolyard? Behind the closet door at the end of the hall?
I’m okay with nudity, little bums running around in the unique tone sunshine takes on when reflected off wet sand. But if sharing private parts, even just a glimpse, is the focus of the activity rather than merely incidental, there’s a problem; and it’s called a slippery slope. Showing your penis to a kid your own age isn’t all that different from showing it to an adult. Showing it isn’t too far from having its picture taken. Touching is a logical next step.
Plus, one of the many crushing aspects of childhood sexual abuse is that young victims often show an “unusual or exaggerated interest in people’s bodies” and “[act] sexual with other kids,” unwittingly becoming predators themselves, according to de Becker.
As a result, he recommends we just don’t start down that path, instructing our kids not to show their private parts to anyone.
I tell my children that the only people who can examine or touch their vagina, penis, bum, and other gentleman and lady parts are (1) parents if they’re helping you (any trusted primary caregiver could swap in here), and 2) Dr. Kaplan if parents are in the room (de Becker says not to use the generic “doctor” since child abusers know that loophole and are all too happy to pose as medical professionals). And we say, “Always speak up if something makes you feel uncomfortable,” upholding our end of the bargain by not punishing or dismissing such statements.
We also add nuance as they grow. With a guilt-laden ex-boyfriend in mind—as well as advice from sexpert Peggy Orenstein (her research for Girls & Sex says it’s important for parents to talk about “toe-curling bliss” as well as risk and danger)—I tell my kids that when they’re older they’ll be free to share their private parts with other people. There should be no shame involved, just a time constraint.
Games are games. Sex is sex. Parents will navigate these waters differently. Our family has made the phrase “your body, your choice”—with safeguards for maintaining childhood privacy—a rudder as we attempt to steer away from rape culture, molestation, teen pregnancy, and more.
Gail Cornwall is a former public school teacher and recovering lawyer who now works as a stay-at-home mother and freelance writer. Born in St. Louis and raised in the Bay Area, she’s a serial monogamist of urban living who resided in Berkeley, New York, D.C., Boston, and Seattle before committing to San Francisco. You can find Gail on Facebook and Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.
Got Your Nose, 2014, by Alex Lavrov