Raising a Daughter in Rape Culture: Promoting Body Autonomy
On our way into the city — or on our way down south to my alma mater, even—I cringe as I see the billboards in plain view of my seven-year-old in the backseat. So far, she hasn’t mentioned any of them; she’s more into the music playing in the car or the book in her lap. But someday soon, she’s going to want to know why women are displayed like that.
I tell my husband that if I were an alien from another planet just arriving, and all I had to go by to learn about these earthlings were billboards, I would not think that women were a part of the dominant species. I would believe that they are prizes — as indicated by the pictures of old men gleefully posing between two women that they apparently won at the casino — or perhaps pets or baby-machines, as evidenced by the anti-abortion ads.
And if I were to happen upon any newspaper, television show, courtroom, or general living room discussion among adults, I might even believe that females are temptress demons, succubus beings that lure men to have sex with them even if they claim they don’t want it. Why else would they be to blame for being raped every 90 seconds?
I already know that my precocious kiddo picks up on everything. After overhearing one relative talking about dieting, she thought her legs might be fat — even after I have worked hard to promote positive body image in our home from day one! It takes seconds to plant an invasive seed of doubt in a young child’s mind, which is why it’s so important that we spend a lifetime nurturing the native garden already within our children as well as giving them the tools to weed it themselves. With that thought in mind, here are just some things I am consciously making an effort to do to raise a strong, confident daughter in a culture that is already stacked against her in many ways.
Give her ownership of her own body. Every chance you get, whether it’s making decisions about clothing or hair or earrings or temporary tattoos, let your daughter choose what she wants. You may not like it — especially her haircut — but it truly is her body. As she gets older, you may feel as if you need to set some limits with some items of clothing or makeup; if you do, continue to let her have as many choices as possible and teach that her body is hers. It does not belong to anyone else and no one else has a say about what she does with it.
Enforce a rule that she never has to hug or kiss anyone she doesn’t want to. I felt obligated to do this as a child and I started to do this when she was little, too. “Give hugs and kisses!” I’d say, and she’d frown and do it, obviously not wanting to. Then I realized that I was pretty much telling her to go against her own instincts and force herself to let someone have physical contact when she didn’t want it! What a great way to prepare her for unwanted physical advances, Mom.
So now I make sure to tell her she doesn’t have to give hugs or kisses if she doesn’t want to. Relatives still ask, and sometimes I can see in her face that she does it to be pleasing. We talk about it on the way home afterward and she assures me that she chooses to do so, but I do feel this is an area I must reinforce since I have already done damage with previous conflicting information.
Give her the tools to make her own decisions. It is not your daughter’s job to learn how to fend off rapists a la Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A survivor of rape is a survivor, not a criminal, and I don’t care if a woman was running down 5th Avenue in her birthday suit singing, “I Touch Myself” — if she didn’t want to have sex with someone, then it’s rape and the rapist’s fault, period!
That said, it is our job as parents to teach our daughters how to respond to anything, from tax season to a carjacking to what to do in a fire. You might have an exit strategy for the fire, for example, but that’s not the end of it. You talk about fires together. You answer her questions, you run through “stop, drop, and roll,” and you discuss important facts, like how smoke rises.
Does this mean your daughter needs to be a black belt to fend off rapists? Of course not — unless she wants to be one. It just means that you need to have these discussions and help her become informed about the kind of world she lives in. It’s a wonderful world, full of friendship and love. It also has some bad seeds in it, along with plenty of unfortunate hostility toward women. As she gets older, let her know about some of the dangers out there, like date rape drugs, just so she is aware of them and can make her own decisions when she’s out.
Teach her to trust her gut, and to follow her own instincts. Give her plenty of opportunities to exercise her own judgment, from selecting her own room décor to picking out her own books, projects for school to life situations in general. If you talk about the evening news or local happenings, discuss what each of you would do in such a situation. Ask her what should happen if she breaks a rule in the house, such as no hitting, or what should be done when the pizza is delivered missing toppings or an exterminator leaves mud in the carpet. Give her things to think about every single day that help her become a critical, creative thinker.
Explain about how people hurt others — you may have already had a “stranger danger” discussion at some point — and tell her that what anyone does to her is not her fault. Stress how her body is hers, and she doesn’t have to let anyone touch it if she doesn’t want to. Don’t stop there, either; discuss everything from catcalling to stealing to bullying and ask about what she would do in these situations. Teach her how you make decisions, whether you make lists of pros versus cons, write about things in your journal, or discuss it with a friend. Let her know she can always tell you if someone does harm or try to harm her — and that she can talk to you about anything. But you have to demonstrate this every day.
For example, you may want to choose your battles to fully show how willing you are to listen without judging or punishing. When my daughter confessed recently that sometimes she gets up early in the morning to watch cartoons while I’m asleep, for example, I did not fly off the handle. (That would be silly, anyway!) I told her thank you for telling me, and we talked about why she did it—she enjoyed the peaceful time watching her movie, sometimes it helped after she had a bad dream — very calmly and naturally. Had I been angry, it may have been an example of a reason why you shouldn’t go to mommy when you have a “secret,” which is what she called it, instead of another opening to demonstrate how it’s okay to do so.
If you feel like a self-defense class would be helpful in empowering your daughter, give her the option — but don’t do it just because you are afraid of something happening to her. Do it together for fun, to build strong bodies, to feel even more in control of your own body. Do it to help her build the mind-body connection our Western world just doesn’t seem to have. Or try another sport to foster these positive self concepts. But make it clear that no matter what happens, it’s never a rape victim’s fault for being raped — whether the local news implies it is or not.
Avoid shaming. As a young undergraduate training to be a teacher, I served as a mentor for many young women and teens in a variety of environments — from my place of employment to the schools I worked at. When a young woman I knew as a friend came to be to confess she hadn’t used condoms during sex, I made a horrible mistake in conveying how disappointed I was. I saw the light go out of this young woman’s eyes. I wish I could go back in time and stop my idiot self from shaming her and instead offered her the support she needed. Shaming women has to stop now. Not only will it break the bonds of trust between us and our daughters — it also does nothing to help. Does saying, “I’m disappointed in you” reverse an STD? I think not.
With littles, this stretches to things like questions they ask or masturbation. When a child asks about sex, or body parts, or anything else that makes you uncomfortable, be casual instead of upset. If you catch your child masturbating, don’t make her feel uncomfortable about it. If she does it in front of people, explain that it feels nice but it’s a private-time activity when she’s alone in her room. She needs to have ownership of her own body, and yes, her own pleasure, if she’s going to make informed decisions about sex when she grows up. These first sexual acts should not be shamed in order to prevent her feeling ashamed of her own body.
Let kids know that you are open to any conversation, a safe zone in this world, and give them honest information without euphemisms. It’s not like you have to go into detail about what the fallopian tube does when you talk to a three-year-old, but you can give sufficient information such as, “A baby is made between two grown-ups.” You can get into more details about sex itself as your children get older and ask more questions.
My daughter knows that the penis goes into the vagina to make a baby. She learned this fact just this year when she continued to ask about the mechanics of sex. She screwed up her face and demanded, “You and dad did that?” I was calm and matter-of-fact about it all and she was not embarrassed to ask more questions. I have yet to see her get embarrassed asking me questions because I have always been open with her like this.
Talk about the media she digests. Those billboards I listed above do not exist in a void. Everything from magazines to music to movies, video games to TV ads to the shows themselves contain rape jokes, instances of victim blaming or slut shaming, and the idea that women are meant to be pleasurable objects for men. While my daughter is young, I have a lot of control over the media that comes into our home — but I certainly can’t control those billboards. And even though we might select movies like Brave or The Secret World of Arietty to watch, most children’s media is just as reflective of this culture as adult media. That makes it so important to talk about each cartoon, every comic book, that she experiences.
When you already talk about all of the books you read together, this is a natural extension, anyway. Find out what your daughter thinks about the presence of one female pirate among a ship of male pirates, or how the female chef, though the better cook, never gets recognized for her talents and simply ends up being a girlfriend to the head chef.
I would love to say, “For goodness sake, don’t let your teen read Twilight!” but for starters, I don’t believe in censorship. I read Cujo when I was nine or ten and that’s pretty much just as bad, for that age, anyway. But I also think that Twilight is an unexpected, perfect tool to use in what not to do in a healthy relationship. You can read the same literature your daughter reads and discuss it with her. Was it okay for a boy to follow a girl, watch her sleep, or make “deals” before “allowing” her to become a vampire like him or to have sex with him?
Was it okay for a boy in the books to scratch his girlfriend’s face because he became “emotional,” or for the girl’s friend to kiss her without her consent? What would she do if a boy kissed her and she didn’t want to be kissed? Explain how these are not normal healthy relationships, and that while it’s fun to read about creatures and fantasy books, it’s never okay for a partner to treat another partner like this. Of course, the best way to do that is to demonstrate it in your daily life, if applicable, as well.
I speak from experience as the mother of a daughter and the oldest sister of three, but honestly I think the above ideas for raising a child with full body autonomy are helpful for sons, too. It’s just as important for boys to be aware of rape culture as it is for girls; we can’t change it without participation everyone. I would love to hear about other mothers’ and fathers’ thoughts in raising their children to be in control of their own bodies and to make informed decisions in this culture we live in, too.
Written by Sara Schmidt
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