How A Sexual Assault Advocate is Raising Boys
Waves of discussion and debate regarding sexual assault have arisen in the past few years, thanks to high profile accusations and investigations like those involving Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics, Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein, and Jeffrey Epstein (among others). As hashtags such as #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport circulated across social media in support of sexual assault survivors, a corresponding hashtag also appeared: #SaveOurSons. And as a #boymom, I have some thoughts.
I have grown up in a culture where the responsibility for avoiding sexual assault lies with me. I am the one who was told not to walk alone to my car at night after work; told not to jog with headphones or a ponytail in order to protect myself; instructed to always keep my drink within sight at a party; and who regularly received ads for self-defense classes and pepper sprays. I watched friends accept the burden and responsibility for being assaulted, as others often tell them they should. I have witnessed those who do report being belittled, re-traumatized, and failed by the justice system. I have seen the impacts of trauma firsthand.
And professionally, there are other things I know to be true. I know that sexual violence is sadly common. I know that the risks are especially high if you are a teenage woman, and that its very rare to be raped by a stranger. I know that the long-term impacts of sexual assault can include PTSD, increased anxiety and depression, increased risk of substance abuse, as well as a multitude of physical health problems including hypertension and an increased risk of autoimmune disease. I know that those who have experienced sexual assault frequently consider suicide, and I know that those who do report very rarely get justice.
And I know that I love my boys. Though I don’t consider myself either a “helicopter” or “lawnmower” parent, I am deeply involved with them and do whatever I can to ensure they have happy, comfortable lives. They test my sanity at times (many times), but I would protect them with my life. Which is why, in a way, I can understand some of the thought process behind #SaveOurSons. Yet I also believe the intent is misguided.
Let me preface any further thoughts here by acknowledging that I do realize false reports of sexual assault occur. I fully and completely agree that there are men and boys (and women and girls) who have been falsely accused, and who truly are innocent of any sexual crimes. But my knowledge of the facts also tells me that they are a (very) small minority. Myths alleging that false reporting are a common occurrence with sexual assault are often grounded in unreliable data. False rape accusations are actually not common, and certainly not frequent enough to justify automatic assumptions regarding a lack of credibility. Furthermore, as a mental health professional who works with trauma, I also know that often-cited reasons for incredulity – a perceived lack of consistency in the victim’s story, unknown timelines, strong and sometimes odd emotional reactions – are not necessarily an indicator of falsehood. They are also consistent with the unique impacts of trauma on the brain.
So with all this in mind, how do I – a woman, an advocate, a #boymom, and a mental health professional – find the balance between protecting my children and protecting the survivors of sexual assault that I serve?
1. I teach my boys about consent, starting early. These lessons start with simple concepts of physical boundaries, personal space, and respecting the word “no,” and will evolve over time to include frank discussions about what consent should look like in a sexual encounter.
2. I raise my boys with the understanding that relationships, sexual or otherwise, should be thoughtful, and built on mutual respect. Additionally, a sexual relationship should only be undertaken if both parties have thought through the decision and feel equally ready to pursue it. The potential for a false report (already very small) decreases even more if there’s little to no reason for regret.
3. I educate my boys about empathy, and how to consider the perspectives and feelings of others in their interactions. They know that their choices and actions don’t exist in a vacuum, but rather have impacts far beyond themselves.
4. I affirm for my boys that all decisions have consequences, and they are responsible for those consequences – even if the action was a mistake, or an error in judgement. And I will teach them that these consequences can include physical, psychological, emotional, legal, and criminal impacts that can be very serious in both the short- and long-term.
5. My husband and I model healthy boundaries and healthy relationships for them.
6. I message the truth that sex is not an entitlement. Sex is never owed to anyone. Ever. Period.
I realize it’s not a perfect system. I know that they are their own individuals and are free to make any choices and decisions that they want. I also know that they are and will continually be exposed to so much information about sex and relationships that may be counter to what I am trying to teach them – particularly with increased access to pornography. But those things are not always within my control. The things I can control are modeling healthy relationships for them, and consistently messaging the above information with love and sincerity.
Of course, I hope that a sexual assault allegation is never something that impacts any member of my family. I hope that my actions as a mother, woman, and advocate make a difference. And I deeply hope that my boys are able to hear and internalize the things I know to be true about sexual assault, and will take on their own responsibility for ensuring sexual violence never occurs within the limits of their control. I have done my part to #savemysons, and the rest is up to them.