Turn on the news and you’ll no doubt hear or read something related to sexual assault or abuse. Between the advent of various anti-rape hashtags and the more recent congressional hearings revolving around Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and now-Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh, these harrowing accounts and stories have been impossible to ignore. As a result, moms are sharing the stories of their sexual assaults with their children (or, at the very least, laying the groundwork to do so). At a time when the political discourse can be triggering for sexual assault survivors and confusing for children, mothers who've experienced systemic sexual abuse first-hand are choosing to steer the conversation in a productive direction at home.
(Trigger warning: this post contains descriptions of an alleged incident of sexual assault that some readers may find troubling.)
My son is in preschool and, as a result, is far too young to know what sex, rape, assault, or systemic gender-based violence is. But I know that won't always be the case, which is why it's so important to me to instill in him a strong understanding of consent at a very early age. I want him to learn how to speak up for himself and others, especially if he continues to identify as a cisgender man and, as such, has an amount of privilege that women, trans, and non-binary individuals do not.
I'm not quiet about my experiences, though, and especially on the internet. I’ve written about my date rape, and about the time a cab driver assaulted me, and about the harassment I’ve endured since I was in elementary school. And one day my son will be old enough to understand the complexities of assault, and at that point we will have one of several important talks that will, no doubt, include my personal experiences. Because, in the end, I want my son to know how insidious sexual violence is, and how gender-based violence is about power and never about love and intimacy.
As parents, how we choose to discuss these topics with our children is entirely up to us, and what we decide to share about our own pasts is a personal decision that only we can make. But across the country mothers are making the decision to disclose their own sexual assaults to their kids, in age appropriate ways, so their children better understand what so many individuals face on a daily basis. So with that in mind, here's how a few moms are deciding to use their past trauma to help shape their children's futures:
“When #MeToo started gaining traction, and the news was more upsetting, I made sure to mention statistics and real world stories, to give my 12-year-old room to absorb and react on a more philosophical level. Puberty had started early though, so she was quite familiar with objectification, consent, and the unbridled desires of boys and men.
After showing my daughter some of the testimonies of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, I realized I wanted to make it more personal. I needed to explain the phenomenon of women openly weeping in airports, and why I didn’t leave my desk much for eight straight hours, glued to the hearing.
But my kid is private and uncomfortable with sex and body talk. I simply said, ‘Have I ever told you about the time it happened to me?’ She shook her head no. ‘OK. When — if — you’re ever ready or curious, I can share with you. We don’t have to now, but I’m always open.’
I didn’t want to volunteer too much, or flood her with information and feelings she might not be ready for. I only hope that she might feel safe in knowing I trusted her enough to tell her, but cared for her tender heart enough to leave the details be.
What I haven’t yet shared: I was molested by a grandfatherly stranger at a park near my home at age 8. I rushed home, and my mom believed me. We filed a police report, but at the end of the interview (alone with no parents) the officer snapped his notepad closed and said, ‘Maybe you should make sure your parents know where you are.’”
“My situation is perhaps less traumatic than many. I was propositioned by two different friends of my father when I was a teenager. One came from behind while I was sitting at a dining room table, kissed my neck and whispered a very obvious comment on my body, then licked my ear. The other asked me to babysit his kids overnight so he and his wife could go to a football game in their college town. Then, when she left, he came over and whispered that he'd prefer to send the kids and the wife away and stay for the weekend alone with me. They were both adults who I had trusted and who were friendly with my parents.
When I talked to my daughters (13 and 16) about these experiences, I told them that while the experiences themselves were upsetting, my parents' lack of outrage was far more upsetting. That they continued to have a social relationship with these men felt like a betrayal to me. I told my daughters that they should never worry about telling us if someone — anyone, whether we knew them or not — had made them feel uncomfortable or had touched them in a way they didn't welcome. I told them that their dad and I would always have their backs, would always stand up for them, and would always believe them and support them in whatever they wanted to do about it. I also said that they should feel safe telling someone else if they didn't want to talk to us — that I wanted them to feel we were available and wanted to be the people they trusted, but that I knew realistically that they might prefer not talking to us about some things, and they could go to any of our close friends and trust that they would give good advice and comfort, too.
Mostly, I wanted to normalize feelings of anger around having their personal space and bodies invaded. I wanted them to know that I was angry, and that it wasn't OK. I think I got that across. I sure hope so.”
“My stepfather sexually abused me from the ages of 6 through 16, and I have had a conversation with each of my children (11 and 16) about it. Both conversations were prompted by them noticing the self-harm scars on my thighs and being horrified and demanding answers about what happened to me. I had the conversation with my daughter last year, and the conversation with my son five years ago.”
“I have three daughters (ages 11, 8, and 8) so I have not yet shared my assault stories with them. But I do plan to.
I was in a situation in college where I moved in with my boyfriend — he did a thorough job of alienating me from my friends and family — and when I no longer behaved as he wanted, he started sleeping with another woman, even bringing her back to [the] home we shared. When he would go out and get drunk and she wasn't available, he would come home and force himself on me.
I never told anyone, but the day I threatened to tell his new girlfriend he threatened to beat me up. I attempted [to end my life by suicide] later that day by driving my car into a telephone pole on a winding, back country road. I swerved at the last minute, and while I totaled my car on an embankment, I survived with minimal injury.
I finally reached out to a friend that day and told her what had happened (except for the ongoing sexual assault part), and she convinced me to call my mom. I had just graduated a few months earlier, so she came and moved me out in one day, and I went home feeling like a failure.
Why didn't I report? [My abuser] filled me with stories all through our relationship about how he had a fourth degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and how he and his Sensei used to break legs for the mob in Pittsburg. He also told me all about how he trained all the local police in martial arts.
To this day I have only told one person the whole story. I don't know if I will tell my girls all the details, but I absolutely want to prepare them for dealing with dangerous men who mentally abuse as well as physically assault.”
“My daughter is 9. We haven't talked about my experiences in detail, but she knows boys and men said some inappropriate things. Again, did not go into detail. But, we have talked about rape, consent, and what each of them mean.”
Dr. Toni, 42
“Being divorced, [and a] solo parent with two sons, make for a very interesting dynamic when the mother is a survivor of three sexual assaults and domestic violence. After having my first son, I made up my mind that I would not be bitter or hateful toward men. After all, how could I raise health, happy, and productive sons to be men if they sense my pain and loathing?
The second attack was physically and emotionally more painful than the first rape, but the first rape changed my life the most. I was 12 when I invited two male friends (around the same age) to come over to our apartment to play video games. There was no reason to believe that I was in danger. In fact, my mind could not fathom anything happening to me, especially not rape. Rape was not even something I understood enough to consider it as a possibility. The two early-teen boys took turns assaulting me with a knife to my neck. I knew boys were interested in girls at that age, but this opened my eyes to the violence of sex before I felt the pleasure of sex.
When I first became a mother, I had to come to terms with the fact that some day my son would be that age. He will one day be physically capable of raping a girl or woman. I had a choice to either treat them as blank slates or treat them as potential criminals. Perhaps there were other choices, but to me, those were the only two. I chose to view them as a blank slate.
I was 13 at the time of the second rape. It happened in me the boys’ bathroom of my high school. The level of violence involved in the attack gave me floating feeling — as if I were outside of my boy watching it happen to me. The first rape was two boys, and with this subsequent attack there were three teen boys. As a mother, I could not bear my sons doing such horrific acts to another person. I had to make them understand ‘no’ and ‘stop’ early on. I used terms like ‘no means no’ for defiant acts and ‘respect his/her body and his/her space.’ The goal was to instill these terms in them before ‘the talk.’ I did not want to wait until it was too late or too awkward.
I told my older son, now almost 20, when he was 9 or 10 years old. As an outspoken advocate regarding sexual assault issues, it made me nervous that he would find out before I told him. So, I simply said, 'When I speak at all of these places, I talk about things that happened to me like the domestic violence, which you know about, and sexual assault. I gently explain that is when one person forces another person to do bad touches with their hands, privates, or something else.’ I purposely chose not to make it a part of the sex talk. I did not want him to think that violence and sex belong in the same category. The sex talk was about mechanics, love, choices, freedom, and responsibility. The sexual assault talk was about using sex to hurt people.
My younger son, now age 18, has a severe mental illness. So, I did not directly talk to him about my experience until he was almost 13. Now, it was mentioned that I was going to speak on my experiences with domestic violence but I left the sexual assault portion open to interpretation. I told him in a very matter-of-fact way when he told me of a boy who was victimized by another peer. ‘You know mom has been through a lot, including sexual assault and domestic violence. So, I understand what [he] is feeling.’ I embedded the issue in another conversation.
As he grew up, I made sure be understood the importance of boundaries, respecting people’s physical space, and choosing appropriate relationships. It was more important for me to focus on the positive aspects of relationships and sexuality than on the violence. That said, I worked with his clinical team to make sure he understood what it meant for people to make choices that violate someone else. My approach was to make ‘the talk’ an ongoing, open dialogue. Often we talked while in the car or while playing video games. My boys were not like the boys that raped me, or the man that raped me when they were 7 and 8, or their father that abused me. They were clean slates.
I had the talk as a way to empower them and protect themselves. I chose to help them understand boundaries in all areas of life — not just sex — and consider choices in all areas as well. To add, it was important that they knew my limitations early so they understood why mom does not like to use public bathrooms and other quirks. In order for them to feel free to tell me their deepest hurts, they had to know that I was human. That I experienced hurt. That my childhood was marred but I was resilient, and god never let me down. There was no one talk that really detailed all of the details of the rape. They know bits and pieces. My older son read my book when he turned 18 — giving him much of the details. My rape was a part of my life, so I chose to discuss it slowly so it can fade into the background of their lives, rather having some kind of traumatic awakening about what happened to their mom.”
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.