As a seemingly endless stream of public figures are being fired for sexual harassment these days, the time is NOW to talk with our children about this topic. But how?
There are two conversations to be had here: we need to have the “What is sexual harassment and why is it all over the news now?” conversation with all of our children old enough to watch or read the news. And we need to help our older children (at least from middle school and up) answer the question of “What does sexual harassment mean to me, and how do I deal with it”? Tough but necessary conversations which, according to a recent Harvard study, parents have been avoiding. We can not afford to avoid them any longer. Thoughts and tips below.
The Culture Shift: Sexual Harassment in the News
We have to start any of these conversations by defining sexual harassment. If we ask our children, they are likely to know it in its most egregious forms, like sexual assault, but they may not know that sexual harassment goes beyond unwanted touching. In age appropriate terms, we can talk about the many ways sexual harassment presents itself, including the following:
Verbal harassment, including comments, rumors, catcalls or jokes
Cyber harassment, posts on social media, text messaging and email
Physical harassment, such as unwanted touching or kissing
Nonverbal harassment, including gestures, writing sexually explicit things about someone
Unwanted behavior, such as repeatedly asking someone on a date when they’ve said no, following or stalking
Once they have a sense of what it is, we can then talk about the current culture shift which seems to be developing on a daily basis. We can tell them sexual harassment in the workplace has only recently been prioritized as a problem that our society needs to address. It is not new, only newly recognized, which is why some of the claims are for events that happened years ago. Women have recently been gone public with stories of how men used their powerful position in the workplace to force these women into sexual encounters that they did not want. (We should note that while women are coming forward now, both men and women can be subjected to sexual harassment.)
In the past if women came forward with this information, companies would generally choose to keep the powerful men and pay off and/or fire the women. Now companies are believing the women and firing the men. Having a powerful position no longer insulates you from being punished for this kind of wrong doing. This is fundamentally a story of powerful people being held responsible for the consequences of taking advantage of others and hurting them, and we can relate it to our youngest children in those simple terms.
Blurred Lines: Combatting Sexual Harassment in Our Children’s Lives
We also need to talk to our older (middle school and up) children about how to avoid, handle and prevent sexual harassment. We know that adolescents and teens are focused on trying to understand their changing bodies and hormones, and figuring out boundaries and daring to cross (or not cross) them. They live in worlds that are filled with mixed messages: young women revere independent women whom they read about in the pages of Teen Vogue, and boast of having “black girl magic”, and yet girls and boys enjoy popular music filled with misogynistic references to women as bitches and ho’s, and male rappers/singers songs boasting about casual sex with women. A boy can announce to a girl within earshot of their friends that she is “sexy” with a “nice butt” and think he is complimenting her; when in fact she could be horrified and offended by his comments.
So how do we help them sort all of this out? The Washington Post article “Sexual harassment among teens is pervasive. Here’s how parents can change that.” offers a helpful framework to follow, to which we’ve added our GCP two cents:
1. Define and discuss the problem: Ask your children if they can give you some examples of the various instances of harassment described above that they have seen in school or with friends. As they describe these events, even if they dismiss them as “no big deal”, or where people were “just joking”, help them understand that harassment needs to be viewed through the eyes of the victim. The key question is: Could anyone (not necessarily your child) find the comments or behavior inappropriate, wrong, or could it make them uncomfortable? Let them know that both boys and girls can harass, and even if they mean their words or actions as a joke, they could be scaring or offending others.
2. Help them understand the importance of integrity: Integrity is knowing the difference between right and wrong and having the courage to do the right thing even when it is not popular, or when you can get away with doing the wrong thing. If your children are with friends who are harassing girls, and/or making inappropriate jokes/comments, how can they let their friends know not to do this? Thinking this through with you in conversation can help them know what to do if the situation arises. Let them know that it won’t be easy, but it is very important to do.
3. Focus on Empathy: Encourage them to have empathy and respect for their friends and classmates, and to stand in the shoes of the target of any harassment. We should encourage our sons to think about treating girls they way they would want their sister or mother to be treated. Empathy can extend to the person doing the harassing as well: help your children understand sometimes good people can do bad things, and people can and should learn from their mistakes. Not all mistakes should doom people for the rest of their lives.
4. Help them be critical media/culture consumers: Talk with them about lyrics of some of the more explicit songs which could be considered inappropriate. Don’t just criticize them for enjoying the song; ask them what they think about some of the more explicit lyrics and discuss whether (or not) they could be considered offensive. Explain how offensive words and comments have become normalized in popular culture, and the importance of understanding the potential harm of this. The goal is not to make them stop listening, but to make sure they listen more thoughtfully and critically.
5. Model good behavior: Parents, all this conversation is wasted if you don’t demonstrate the kind of behavior you are looking for from your kids. If you are referring to women as bitches, etc., or regularly making degrading comments about women or men, your children will do as you do, not as you say.
6. Let’s Talk About Sex: We need to have candid chats with our sexually active children. ( Ugh, we know, but we really do.) Find the right times and circumstances to have frank conversations with your sexually active children about:
a. Being sure that their partner wants to have sex and is comfortable doing so before they have sex;
b. Making sure that they are comfortable having sex before doing so;
c. Not pressuring someone to have sex with them;
d. Not continuing to ask someone to have sex after they have said no;
e. Not having sex with someone who is too drunk or high to make a decision about having sex.
This last one is very important to emphasize with your college aged and older children, especially our boys. With respect to your children who may have regular access to alcohol, we suggest two important rules: 1) the first no is the last no; and 2) try to have a designated sober friend at every party who can help them make the right decisions if necessary, about when to stop drinking and when to go home alone.
Whew! Tough but important conversations that we parents need to get comfortable having with our children. Thanks so much to GCP parent and contributor Anne Williams-Isom for her helpful advice on this post! We at GCP would love to hear your thoughts on this one.