Talking to Our Sons—and Daughters—about Rape

I just read an article by Carina Kolodny called The Conversations You Must Have with Your Sons. I found it so good that I wanted to excerpt it here and then open the floor. None of the ideas presented here are particularly new to me, but I thought Kolodny pulled them together quite well.

To the Parents of U.S. Teenagers,

(An open letter.)

Remember that intimate conversation you had with your son? The one where you said, “I love you and I need you to know that no matter how a woman dresses or acts, it is not an invitation to cat call, taunt, harass or assault her”?

Or when you told your son, “A woman’s virginity isn’t a prize and sleeping with a woman doesn’t earn you a point”?

How about the heart-to-heart where you lovingly conferred the legal knowledge that “a woman doesn’t have to be fighting you and you don’t have to be pinning her down for it to be RAPE. Intoxication means she can’t legally consent, NOT that she’s an easy score.”

Or maybe you recall sharing my personal favorite, “Your sexual experiences don’t dictate your worth just like a woman’s sexual experiences don’t dictate hers.”

Last but not least, do you remember calling your son out when you discovered he was using the word “slut” liberally? Or when you overheard him talking about some girl from school as if she were more of a conquest than a person?

I want you to consider these conversations and then ask yourself why you don’t remember them. The likely reason is because you didn’t have them. In fact, most parents haven’t had them.

By contrast, here are some conversations you might have a better recollection of. I’ll give you a telling hint: they probably weren’t with your son.

“Be careful with the way you act and the way you dress—it’s easy to get a bad reputation.”

“That’s just the way boys are—you can’t give them any excuse to behave that way towards you.”

“You need to be safe! When you dress that way, some people read it as an invitation.”

“Never go out alone, never walk alone at night, never drink from an open beverage.”

These are conversations often had by loving parents like you. They come from a place of care, they come from a place of concern but most notably they come from a place of upside-down, cultural indoctrination that is hurting, stifling and punishing young women.

The cultural indoctrination that I’m speaking of goes something like this: It is a young woman’s responsibility to safeguard herself from rape, assault, harassment, stalking and abuse because boys will be boys and some of them just can’t help themselves.

All of this I’ve thought many times, and I’ve touched on these things in numerous blog posts. But whenever I do, one response I get is that it only makes sense to teach one’s daughters how not to be raped—after all, you don’t want them to be raped, do you? Why not teach them to take precautions? Of course, there are a couple of problems with this idea. Telling a woman not to wear short skirts does little good when a woman’s clothing choice actually has little to do with whether she is targeted by a rapist, and carrying mace or a whistle does little good when most rapes are committed by people one knows, not by strangers in back alleys. But Kolodny doesn’t even bother with such explanations. She tackles objections in another way entirely.

As a writer on issues of sexual health, I’ve talked to a fair share of parents who are more than aware of this screwed-up reality but don’t really know what to do about it.

“It’s unfair and it’s horrifying,” one mother admitted to me, “but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. I can’t change the fact that there are creepy men out there behaving badly. I have to help my daughter protect herself.”

So let’s take a quick look at these “creepy men.” Who are they, really? Who are the creepy men that are making it unsafe for your daughter to go solo to a party on campus? Who are the creepy men that are catcalling her or slut-shaming her or intimidating her with their words? Who are the creepy men that are stalking her? Harassing her? Attacking her?

Who are these “creepy men” and where did they come from AND who in the hell raised them?

The answer, unfortunately, is YOU.

We have too much information to continue blaming the anonymous man lurking in the shadows. We have more than enough data to conclude that the majority of perpetrators aren’t “others,” they are peers and classmates and ex-boyfriends and friends.

They are young men your daughter probably knows and interacts with. You cannot build a wall up around your daughter to keep these men from entering her world—they are already inside it.

This is the heart of the campaign aimed at teaching men not to rape rather than teaching women how not to be raped. I think that too often we want to imagine those who do ill as an “other,” somehow foreign and intrinsically different from us. I think this is behind some of the fascination with Hitler. When we focus on the ultimate evil, it is easy to excuse the wrong we ourselves do or are capable of. Even so, when we imagine rapists to be sociopathic strangers in dark alleys, we minimize the capacity for rape that resides in the young men close to us—our sons, brothers, friends. That is not to suggest that every young man is a rapist, or that every young man should be viewed with suspicion. Rather, it is to suggest that if we imagine that rapists are some sort of evil other, we risk overlooking the importance of teaching our young men not to rape.

And here is where I want to open the floor. My children are still young and I have not yet completely formulated what I shall tell them about rape, although obviously whatever I say will be rooted in concepts like consent and respect. But what about the rest of you? What have you taught your sons and daughters about rape? What do you plan to teach your sons and daughters about rape? In your ideal world, what would you want parents to teach their sons and daughters about rape?

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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