TEACHING A GIRL TO BE SAFE IS ABOUT MORE THAN LOOKING BOTH WAYS
Story by Krista Threefoot ILLUSTRATION BY Paige Vickers
I first realized just how pervasive sexual harassment and assault are when I found out I was pregnant with a girl. After my initial elation, my next thought was this: I will have to prepare my daughter for a world where it is a woman’s responsibility to keep men from hurting them. Sadly, we are raised to expect bad behavior from men and it is up to us to keep ourselves safe.
That baby is 9 years of age now, with a 6-year-old sister. And my views on what I need to teach them have changed. Yes, our daughters need to learn to keep themselves safe. The world will never stop being dangerous. But when it comes to sexual violence, the most important lesson I can teach them is the meaning of consent.
Consent is a two-way street. Our daughters and our sons must understand that they have the power to set their own expectations for how their bodies should be treated and the responsibility to value the expectations others have set for themselves.
These lessons are difficult to teach children, and society makes it even harder by clinging to the idea that what we expect from boys is different from how we expect girls to behave.
That classic line, “boys will be boys,” is just one example. This phrase, if applied in any other way, is frankly insulting. Your Irish grandfather gets a DUI again—ah, well, the Irish will be Irish! It’s stereotyp¬ing of the worst kind, and it’s unfair to our sons to suggest that men and boys are preprogrammed to behave a certain way, that they lack self-control.
Boys and girls are children with developing brains. They don’t inherently understand personal space; my daughters bounced and ran and careened around the house when they were small. Sometimes they broke things. It’s a disservice to our children to suggest that boys get to be one way and girls another.
And why do we lead our children to believe that the mere existence of women becomes a temptation to men? This notion is disturbingly prevalent in schools; in many districts girls must comply with dress codes much more detailed and restrictive than those for boys. Administrators seem to believe that, by being exposed to a female collarbone or thigh, boys can’t function. A boys’ success in school is predicated on girls’ fully-covered shoulders and midriff.
Identifying girls’ bodies as a distraction teaches our sons to objectify women while teaching our daughters that they are responsible for how men treat them. We make it clear that consent is a one-sided effort to protect girls’ bodies from men who can’t control themselves.
And then there is the “getting some” trope. Remember the movie American Pie, whose plot was driven almost entirely by teenage boys’ struggle to get girls to sleep with them? If not that particular movie, you can probably remember any number of similar stories—they are everywhere, and not all are decades old.
How will we teach kids to understand consent with so many messages out there that sex is something guys try to weasel out of girls? Real consent and understand¬ing, mutual relationships can’t develop if sex is simply the result of relentless pursuit on one side and finally giving in on the other.
I know that as my girls grow, I must teach them how to protect themselves from unwanted advances.
But more importantly, I will also teach them this:
Their bodies are their own.
They are responsible for what they do with their bodies.
They are never responsible for how others treat them—no matter what they are wearing.
Men and boys must heed the same rules and responsibilities as girls and women—no excuses. And their consent isn’t something boys win after breaking down their defenses. It is not a payback for dinner and a movie.
Above all things, I want my daughters to know that they, and no one else, set the expectations for how they use their bodies. Isn’t that what we have always taught our sons? *