When I was 19, I sat across from the Dean of Students at my university and told him about the boy who had raped me. The dean took careful notes on a bright yellow legal pad, and looked at me with kindness in his eyes.
But the boy had been my lab partner. He was a well-known, well-liked student athlete. According to my university, he had earned the right to sit in that chemistry class. So nothing changed.
For me, that was the moment when everything changed.
Our country needs to talk about rape. Not sexual assault. Sexual assault sounds cleaner. More benign. Less jarring. It’s a textbook word, a police report word, a word that therapists use. The boy in my chemistry class didn’t sexually assault me: He raped me. Rape is dirty, bloody, forceful. Rape is angry, entitled, and messy. Rape is the reality for more women than you think, and for many women you know.
When hundreds of Nigerian girls were kidnapped and used as political capital in a war fought by men, #BringBackOurGirls helped us remember that women's bodies are still being used as tools of war. Soon after, when Elliot Rodger went on a misogynistic rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., #YesAllWomen took off—a meme that gave us space to talk about what it feels like to live in fear of our power being stripped from us, of our bodies being hurt.
And then, this month, after sweet, brave Jada was drugged and raped by her teenage peers—and then raped again, symbolically and publicly, when pictures of her naked, brutalized body were traded around the Internet like baseball cards—#JadaCounterPose emerged. The hashtag was created to do just that: counter #JadaPose, a meme used by other teens to mock her violation by posting photos of themselves in positions similar to those in the images of her rape. #JadaCounterPose reminded us that when young people hurt and break each other, there are adults who will stand up to protect them. When they can. If they can.
Social media activism is strong. Our voices are being amplified and re-tweeted and hash-tagged and virally shared.
But instead of things getting better, they seem to be getting worse.
How do we turn our online outrage into real change? How do we make sure that our children grow up to be leaders, and healers, and change-makers? Are we too broken ourselves, to have any hope for the safety of our young people?
I was not really surprised when Elliot Rodger's hatred and misogyny—fueled by untreated mental health issues—exploded into a killing spree targeting women. Rodger grew up in the glow of Hollywood, where women's bodies are bought and sold, and we fuel that cycle by paying for the movies that objectify them. I'm not surprised that this young man, with severe mental health issues and easy access to weapons, felt that hunting and killing people was a good choice. Culturally, we raised Elliot Rodger to believe his self-worth is determined by someone else’s beauty, availability, love, and attention. We have raised too many of our sons to view women as commodities and sex as currency.
So I'm not surprised that yet another young man chose to feel powerful by hurting people. But I am outraged—that every time this happens, we act surprised. It's not like this is the first time it's happened.
When we act surprised, we have an excuse to sanitize and whitewash and explain away the dirty, disgusting, painful truths about rape and mental health care.
#YesAllWomen is powerful and thought-provoking and gut-wrenching in its honesty and raw wisdom. But it's not enough. If you are listening to the stories of "all women," then you have a job to do.
I have two young boys. They aren't even in elementary school yet, but if I am going to send them out into the world a dozen years from now, I need to start preparing them today. Because the world that they are entering is needy, weary, sick, and terrified. When #YesAllWomen have been hurt in it, it is my job as a mother to say #NotMySons. It's an obligation that goes beyond a hashtag. It is a responsibility to make sure they know how to keep their bodies safe, and how to respect the bodies of others.
How do you raise sons and daughters who respect their bodies, and know how to respect others?
1. You ask them to pay attention.
The conversation about respect, personal space, and self-confidence starts with toddlers. Small children can learn to set boundaries for their bodies by having the autonomy to decide who they kiss and hug. Instead of forcing an unwilling child to greet an adult with a hug, empower them to say hello with a high-five or a wave. Teenagers need to know how to ask questions of their partners, and then ask again.
Talk about what consent looks like, and sounds like, and feels like. Be honest about the power that they have in their own bodies, and how keeping someone else safe is the best way to use that power.
2. You help your children find role models.
Especially ones who are not just brilliant in their chosen field, but brilliant in their leadership skills. Foster relationships with strong, kind, empathetic adults, and talk to your kids about how those values serve a purpose. Celebrate the success and contributions of true heroes by thanking our servicemen and women or treating law enforcement officers with respect and appreciation. A kindergartner can learn the difference between someone who pretends to be a hero on TV, and someone who risks their life every day to keep us safe. Encourage your kids to thank the adults who give of their time and talents to make our communities better.
3. You're honest with your kids about sex.
When you teach your preschooler that he has a penis, teach him that it belongs to him. If he knows the correct term for it, you have given him the first piece of the empowerment puzzle. Don’t use cutesy words in place of real ones. How can I expect my son to have a conversation with a girlfriend about her vagina, and what she needs to feel good, if I call it a "pee-pee"?
A 5-year-old needs to know that he is in charge of his own body. He needs to know what it means to keep his body private, while understanding that others have that right too. A 15-year-old needs to know the truth about what sex feels like, so that he can make confident, safe choices about when it is appropriate to share his body with someone else.
Our kids are being inundated with sexual choices earlier than we think. Arm them with the knowledge they desperately need to advocate for themselves by giving them the right words to use.
4. You're honest about guns, too.
Yes. A statement about guns has everything to do with an essay about sex and power. A few weeks ago, six members of a family were gunned down in Houston in an act of domestic violence.
Domestic violence is born from seeds of misogyny, power, and control. Our media glorifies abusers and makes us think that domestic violence is sexy, that stalking is romantic.
We must change the conversation so that our children know the difference between expressing emotion and asserting power. Allow them to be angry and full of rage, and explore what it means to be out of control. These are natural, normal feelings that we teach our young men to stuff down.
But when released safely and respectfully, anger can be a teacher. Anger is a learning experience, a release. When young people aren’t taught how to safely express their anger and hurt—and are able to access weapons so that they can share their pain on a larger scale—we have failed them.
5. You put your money where your mouth is.
How can I teach my sons about respecting others if I buy them video games that encourage them to shoot people? If I pay for movies where women are objectified and victimized? If I dress my infant in a onesie that says "Hide your daughters"?
These small decisions matter. They create an environment for our children that illustrates what we value and what we desire. Show your kids what you expect by living up to those expectations yourself.
Talk about the movies your children are not allowed to watch, and explain to them why. Explore issues of early-sexualization with your daughters, and be honest about how the fashion and beauty industries make money off of convincing young women to hate their bodies. Point out double-standards in advertising, entertainment, and politics when you see them. Engage your kids in thoughtful conversation about why you make certain rules.
If you think they’re too young to be part of the dialogue, they’re not.
6. You're not afraid of mental healthcare, warning signs, and the need to ask for help.
There is a stigma around therapy and mental illness in this country, and it is especially strong for young men. Asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. The media spends too much time pondering whether we should medicate, vaccinate, and formula-feed our children. Our school districts are forced to cut mental healthcare services, all but abandoning the neediest of families.
It makes moms and dads uncomfortable to admit that a percentage of our children will need this care—not because we've done anything wrong as parents, but because some of our kids are biologically hardwired to think differently than others. And when left untreated, that wiring can cause our children to make dangerous, painful decisions.
Elliott Rodger was someone's son. The man who slaughtered an entire family in Houston was someone’s son. The boy who raped Jada and plastered her naked body all over the Internet could have been in your child’s algebra class. They started out as innocent, helpless, terrified little boys trying to make sense of this world. Did they get what they needed? Were they protected? Were they sent out into the world with the right tools so that they could make sense of the messages they were getting? Were they kept from buying guns, and guided into the right treatment with the right therapists?
7. You listen.
The only way to make it better is to listen to your children. I am not just asking you to talk to them. I am asking you to listen. Listen to what they are afraid of. Listen to what they aren't confident about. Teach them how to ask for help, and how to give it. Be honest with them about the pain that women are experiencing at the hands of men—#NotAllMen, but some men.
Teach them that if they are not a part of the solution, they are part of the problem. Ask them which group they'd rather be in. Show them which group youare in. Show them every day.
Don't wait for it to be your neighborhood, or your child's school, or the family from your church. It will be. Don’t wait for the conversation to happen between your child and the Dean of Students. Don’t wait for it to be your son, or your child’s teammate, or the family that lives down the street.
It will be.
Unless we promise to do better. To listen. To raise healers, and helpers, and heroes.
It might be #YesAllWomen, but I will do everything in my power so that it is #NotMySons.