This past week a court ruled that pop singer Kesha was obligated to honour her contract with record producer Dr. Luke, despite her claims that he’s physically and sexually assaulted. When verdict became big news when fans and supporters took over Twitter with the hashtag #FreeKesha. Celebrities including Lady Gaga, Lorde and Lena Dunham expressed public support for Kesha and apparently Taylor Swift has gone so far as to offer Kesha $250,000 to help cover her financial needs moving forward.
#FreeKesha, the Jian Ghomeshi trial, accusations against Bill Cosby and similar high profile stories have made sexual assault headline news and a major topic of conversation on social media. There’s a reasonable chance that our kids - especially if they’re older - have heard or read something related to these stories. If you have kids, you might be wondering what to say about it, or even if you should say anything at all.
The news cycle is forcing us to confront the realities of sexual violence as a big, ugly reality in our culture. But the thin silver lining for families is that we can use this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of consent and positive relationships with our kids.
Ultimately, it’s your call whether you think your child is mature enough to handle this information. Generally speaking, if you have tweens or preteens and who have already said something about these cases, you can definitely give a basic explanation of what’s happening. You don’t have to go into deep, explicit detail but something along the lines of “These women said that this person sexually assaulted them. Do you know what sexual assault is?” If you need to explain sexual assault, saying something like “sexual assault is when someone has sex with another person or touches them in a sexual way without their permission,” keeps it basic.
If you’re discussing this with a teenager, you can go into more detail if you feel it’s appropriate. Flirting, dating, relationship dynamics, sexual attraction and sexual communication are major interests for a lot of teens. Even if your kids isn’t into any of that right now, there’s a high likelihood they will be soon. Understanding consent is essential to positive and romantic relationships, so now is as good a time as any to dive into the discussion.
One of the best ways to start a conversation is with a question. If something comes on the news or pops up online about Ghomeshi, Cosby, Kesha or another high-profile cases, ask your kid “what do you think about this?” Some youth can be remarkably perceptive about what’s happening in the world. Inviting them to share their thoughts and opinions lets them know that we value their perspective. It also lets them know that what you want is a two-way dialogue and that you’re not just here to give them a lecture.
It’s also possible that your kids hasn’t thought much about sexual violence. The details in a lot of these cases are pretty harsh. If our kids catch some snippet of information, we might feel like the best things is to change the topic so we can protect our kids. But the reality is that this news is dominating the news cycle right now. If your kids are online, there’s a reasonable chance that they’ve either heard or read things directly, or that their friends have. Opening up the lines of communication with your child by asking a question like “have you heard about what’s happening with Kesha?” won’t shield our kids from the tough subject of sexual violence. But sometimes harder lessons are a little easier to learn when they’re taught by a loving parent or caregiver in a safe space like home.
The false reporting rate for sexual assault is low. Most studies estimate that somewhere between 2-8% of reported cases are proven false. These statistics tells us that false accusations are rare, but that doesn’t mean you have to determine whether anyone’s a guilty or innocent.
Kesha, Ghomeshi and Cosby all involve people who didn’t come forward about a sexual assault until long after it happened. There’s all sorts of speculation about why these specific women have come forward now. If your kid wants to know “Why didn’t they say anything sooner?” you can say “I don’t know,” or “I’m not sure.” And instead of speculating about what’s happening with these specific women, you take the conversation in a more general direction like, “Why do you think someone might hide something like this?” or “What do you think it would feel like to keep something like this secret?”
Like most parents, you’d probably hope that your child would tell you if (god forbid) someone hurt them. Asking questions like “What do you think would make it easier for people to tell if they get hurt? ” or even “What would make it easier for you to tell me if someone hurt you?” can give you valuable insight on how to build that trust with your kids.
This is also an opportunity to help kids think about what a positive relationship can be. It’s important to teach kids that sexual assault, harassment, and violence is wrong. But in addition to letting our kids know about what not to do, we can also talk to them about what they can do. Being with other people in sexual and romantic ways can feel great, especially when we feel safe, respected, and liked.
If you have adolescents, you can ask them: What do you think someone should do if they want to kiss/fool around with/have sex with someone? What would you do if you wanted to touch or kiss someone and they didn’t want to? What would you do if you were being sexual or romantic with someone and you weren’t sure how they felt? If you would you want a partner to feel about kissing/touching/having sex with you?
Again, you don’t have to talk about everything in one or two conversations. But asking the questions and listening to what kids have to say lets them start processing some of these big issues safely and over time.
I think it’s really important to talk about all aspects of consent with kids of all genders and sexual orientations. No matter who we are or who we may want to be with, we all have a right to our boundaries, particularly when it comes to sex and our bodies. And we all have an obligation to respect consent and treat our partners with care and respect.
The number of sexual assault cases in the news is depressing and scary. But it has forced us to start talking about sexual violence, maybe more than we ever have before. If we can learn from these tragedies and our children can learn from us, there’s is a chance that moving forward we can do much, much better.