A few months ago, I posted online about some of the first times I experienced sexual violence. It was one of the hardest posts I've ever written. So many of these assaults happened when I was younger than my daughters are now. That thought makes me angry and terrified. I want desperately to protect my kids from harm, and from a childhood like the one I experienced. Consequently, there are so many ways that being a sexual assault survivor has changed how I parent my daughters.
I can't actually remember my life before sexual violence. From an early age, there were unwanted touches and games of doctor, rape threats from a neighbor kid, and sexual harassment from boys at school. Any complaints were generally dismissed as playground mischief or "boys being boys" or blamed on me for instigating or antagonizing them.
Then came my sexual experiences as a teen, many while my parents were in the next room and many that involved force, coercion, and things going much further than I had wanted to or felt comfortable with. I was afraid. I wanted to be liked. I was ashamed. I thought it was my fault, and I thought that if I told my parents they would blame me or punish me for allowing it to happen. Worse were the times when I, like all adolescents, made some really bad choices, like drinking too much or going home with a boy. I was so afraid to tell anyone because, in the end, I thought I deserved it. After working professionally with sexual violence survivors, I have learned that my experience is far from unique.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) one out of six American women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, and most of those assaults happen to girls and young women before they reach the age of 24. I want a different life for my daughters. I want them to know that they own their bodies, I want them to feel empowered to stand up for themselves and set boundaries, and I want them to speak out when they hear rape jokes or see a friend being harassed. I want them to tell me if something horrible happens. Above all else, they don't deserve to grow up thinking that sexual assault is a normal part of reality they have to accept.
I Respect Her Bodily Autonomy
With exceptions for hygiene and health issues (like brushing their teeth and getting vaccines) that are not negotiable, I respect my children's right to bodily autonomy. Even when I disagree with their choices about things like whether or not to hug grandma, how to wear their hair, or what clothes they wear, I respect their rights to make those choices. Their bodies are their bodies, period. Full stop.
I Am A Bit Overprotective
My daughter is almost 8, and my stepdaughter is almost 11. While they've earned the right to a bit of freedom, especially since we live in a tiny town, I can't help but worry that the worst could happen. I'm sometimes too overprotective, and I always fear the worst will happen.
I Teach Her About Consent
I try to always ask my kids before I touch them, and encourage them to ask other people before touching them, too, even for hugs and other "nice" touches. In the end and always, they deserve to know how to ask for and give consent.
I Respect Her Privacy
When I can, I try to respect my daughter's privacy. She has a right to grow up and figure things out on her own, without me reading her diary or watching her every move. However, because I am a survivor, this is really, really hard for me. I want to keep her safe. In fact, my daughter's safety is literally the most important thing to me. I never told my mom about my assaults until decades after they happened. I don't want her to ever get hurt but, if she does, I definitely don't want her to suffer alone and in silence.
I Teach Her About Online Safety
Honestly, the internet scares the sh*t out of me. As a survivor who has worked with thousands of other survivors, I am acutely aware of just how little information is necessary for someone to access and harm a child, and we have quite a few rules about what can and can't be shared or viewed online.
A few months ago my stepdaughter told her dad that someone had threatened her with sexual violence in a kids' video game online. She had innocently come across a channel on the kids' gaming site Roblox called The Kidnapping Game. Why the hell is there a kidnapping game on a kids' website? Needless to say, our kids don't visit that site anymore, but I worry that it's impossible to keep them safe online.
I Freak Out About Innocent Things
While there's definitely things I should freak out about, I freak out about many normal childhood experiences, too, and especially if it seems like there is an uneven power dynamic. My daughter came home the other day and said that a teenage boy had given her a ride on an ATV. First, I freaked out about her riding an ATV, then I immediately wondered why a teenager was talking to my 8 year old.
I Don't Sexualize Her
Our society sexualizes kids, especially girls, all of the freaking time, from toddler beauty pageants to sexist school dress codes for preschoolers to asking middle school girls to cover up so they don't "distract" male students. That's bullsh*t. They are kids. They should be able to wear a strappy tank top, a short skirt, or a bikini, without adults trying to police their bodies or shame them.
I Support Comprehensive Sex Education
I want my daughters (and sons) to have great, empowering, safe, consensual sex some day and with partners they choose. Part of making that happen is ensuring that they learn accurate information about sex, including consent, contraception, condoms, gender identity, sexuality, and abortion. Girls need to be empowered to stand up for themselves, especially regarding what they want and don't want from their partners, negotiate condom-use, and rescind consent when they don't want to continue. Boys need to learn what consent looks like, too, and to respect their partners' boundaries.
I Build Her Self-Esteem
Through my own experiences and work with survivors, I have seen how easy it is for rapists to prey on young girls' loneliness, fear, shame, body image issues, family issues, desire to be loved and accepted, and lack of self esteem. I try to build up my daughters so they can replace this vulnerability with confidence and self-assurance as they move through life.
I Call Out Rape Culture And Sexism When I See It
From "boys will be boys" to bullsh*t dress codes, I call out rape culture and sexism when I see it. I want my daughters to learn that they deserve better than a culture that normalizes rape, lets rapists off the hook, and blames victims for what happened to them. That means I discourage body shaming, I teach them the word "no" and how to use it, and encourage them to stand up for themselves and tell an adult they trust if someone does or says something that hurts them or makes them uncomfortable.
Above all else, I tell them that I am always here for them no matter what, and that I won't get mad if they tell me they got hurt, even if happened after they made a bad choice. No one deserves to be harmed. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault. Those are the words I say to my daughters, and to myself.