December 15, 2014

Teaching Through Trauma: Sexual Violence and Sex Positive Parenting

You may recall that over the summer I caused a bit of a stir with my article, "Sex Positive Parenting, or, We Don't Touch Our Vulvas At The Table." In that post I talked about sex positivity and not shaming children for exploring their bodies, and how honesty empowers and protects children.

I've done a lot of talking about this in the months since. I've spoken at conferences, gone on the radio, interviewed on podcasts... it's been a wild ride.

But part of what I've been doing has been very quiet. And that's what I'd like to talk about now.

Since that article came out, people have been writing to me to ask advice on how to talk to their children about sex, with massive caveats.

Parents who were victims of childhood sexual assault.
Parents with children who were born from rape.
Parents with adopted children who came from a foster system that permitted gross sexual misconduct.

I had advocated honesty, total honesty, about sex and biology. I talked about explaining IVF and cesarean sections to children.

So what about these questions? What do you tell a child, honestly, when the honest truth is both horrible, and unacceptable?

I spent a lot of time thinking about this.

I always told those parents at least one thing, "Whenever you are ready to talk to your child about this, make sure you know that it is not their fault. Make sure you let them know that, no matter what happened to them, or to you, they are not to blame, and they are not diminished by having this as part of their personal history."

I recognized as I wrote these words, in endless variations, over and over again, how little they could do to heal the gaping wounds their parents have.

But as more and more parents wrote me, I felt more and more the need to discuss being sex positive with children in the context of a world filled with sexual violence.

You see, in addition to talking about sex positive parenting, I'm a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau. I talk to groups of teenagers about rape culture and sexual violence. I talk a great deal about consent and power dynamics and the reality of rape versus the popular mythology.

And I always explain, when talking about sex positivity, that this is a way to protect children from rape culture. That when you empower children with the correct names for their organs, and an understanding of what is and is not appropriate, you can protect them from becoming victims. And more importantly, you can stop them from becoming predators.

This is little comfort to children who are already, in some way, victims.

So when speaking to a child about human biology, about how a sperm must meet an egg, and how that sperm usually comes out of a penis when it is inside of a vagina, is that the time to talk about rape?

As much as I, as a parent and a human being want to say no, it's not the time, I can't. I think that it is the time.

I think sooner is generally better, within reason. I wouldn't attempt to explain rape to two year old, but when a child is able to intellectualize human reproduction, I think it's not too soon to come clean with the facts.

And the facts are this- reproduction is beautiful. It is intimate and loving, it is a way to show that you care, and that you don't want to hurt somebody. Just like a hug, or a pat on the head. But sometimes, people do violent things that look like nice things. You can hug somebody too tight and hurt them. You can hit, instead of patting. These are things nobody should do, and that all of us must learn not to do. But sometimes, people do these things. And sex and rape are like that. Rape is not sex, it is turning sex into a violent act. The way a slap and a pat on the cheek are not the same, however closely they may seem to resemble each other in their mechanics.

These are comparisons a child can understand. And so long as the explanation of what rape is, and how it is related to the reproductive process, blame and shame for the child can be minimized or eliminated.

The problem is, rape is shameful. Not for the victim, but for the rapist. It is a shameful, awful thing to do to another human being, and yet people do. And because of the profound shame and discomfort regarding sex we share in our culture, the shame and blame is often misplaced onto the victim. This happens not because it is shameful to have been raped, but because as a culture we are all so afraid of sex that we cannot distinguish between an act of affection and an act of violence.

Telling a child that they are the product of a rape is never going to be easy. It should never be easy, because talking about sexual violence shouldn't be easy. But we still need to do it.

We desperately need to do it. Especially with children.

I've heard the advice, especially among adoptive parents, to associate the rape with the birth mom. To make it about her, not about the child. I understand this impulse, but to me it reeks of victim blaming. We should never associate a crime with the victim, always the perpetrator.

I have a confession. Until I began working on writing this post, months ago, I had not talked to my five year old daughters about rape. Not explicitly. I had done it obliquely, in terms I thought they would understand. I explained rape culture in terms of "hurting" rather than "sexual violence," because explaining to my children what rape is was something that I thought could wait.

I don't think it can anymore. Not as I've forced myself to sit down and read letter after letter from parents who can't wait. Who don't have the luxuries that I do.

And so, I told my daughters about rape. The five year olds, not the two year old. We read "Where Did I Come From?" and I paused after we finished the page that describes sex.

"You know," I said, "Sometimes people do that to hurt each other."

SI looked at me like I was insane. "They do. Sometimes, one person will want to do that, and the other doesn't, and it hurts them. The book says it feels good, and it does, when both people want to. The way hugging feels good. But it doesn't feel good if your sister chases you and pinches you, right?"

"I don't like that when RH does that," DD agreed.

"Yeah. So sometimes, people try to do that to other people who don't want to. And that's not okay. That's not the same thing as sex, it's something else entirely."

And we moved on.

I didn't use the word "rape." As I've discussed before, it's a hard word to use. I've gotten better at writing it down, the more and more and more I practice at it, but it's so much easier to write "rape culture" than it is to write "rape." And it is infinitely more simple to write than to say.

I did not use the word "rape," and I did not say that it had happened to me. Although I know if I'd let the conversation linger, the question would have come up, and I honestly don't know if I could have answered it.

I really, truly, genuinely don't know.

But this is important. It is vital that our children know what rape is, and that it is fundamentally different from consensual sex acts.

I can't recommend my script, because it is still full of holes. I still have no idea how I will one day tell my children that I was raped, twice no less. But it's something I've known since before I became a parent that I must do.

I, and all parents who have survived sexual violence, need to be the face of survival for our children. Not because we choose this, but because we are and always will be their role models. Because what we say and do is what they believe is the right way to say and do anything. And if we maintain a silence about being assaulted, we teach them that what is right and proper is to be silent. But it is not easy. It is never easy.

And if I cannot tell them this without the constant weight of my own misplaced shame, what would I tell them if they were born because of rape?

I know I would tell them that it wasn't their fault. I know I would tell them that I love them, and that nothing that anybody did to me before they were born has anything to do with who they are now.

And I know I would try to have those conversations now, while they would simply inform the facts of their existence, rather than complicate their already difficult adolescence when they must somehow correlate the facts of their burgeoning sexual identities with an understanding of the nature of the act that created them.

This is not easy. This is not simple. This is not fun. There is no solution to how to teach your children something traumatic. Ever.

There is no easy way to explain death. To explain that yes, someday mommy and daddy will die. Yes, someday they will die.

There is also no easy way to explain that human beings are capable of profound suffering, and worse, inflicting it upon each other.

The one question a parent asked me that truly haunts me is this, "There was a line in your blog about how only your daughters have the decision to have sex, but obviously that is not true in the case of rape. I know someday I will have to explain that women are supposed to have the right, but they don’t always. Any thoughts from you in this case?"

My thoughts are these- rape is not sex. The act may look similar, but it is not the same.

There are many ways for a baby to come into the world. They all begin the same way- sperm meets egg. But that can happen in so many ways.

Sex. IVF. Intrauterine insemination. Rape.

None of these are the same.

It is not your doing if your were born thanks to IVF. It is not your doing if you were born as the result of rape. You do not carry the weight of that act. You are loved. You are so loved. And when you are old enough, you will know the difference between what is affection and what is abuse, and in that way you are more than anything that came before you. You are empowered and precious.

This is what I would say, my thoughts.

To those parents whose children came from sexual assault, I would say I have no idea how difficult this conversation will be. I cannot begin to imagine how painful it will be. But remember, the fault always lies with the person committing the crime. Not you. Never you. And not your child.

We can be honest, even if it hurts. We must be honest when it hurts.

Especially when it hurts.

Because children are not obtuse. They see us struggling with our honesty, and it teaches them something important. It teaches then that no matter how hard honesty is, it is essential.

When we are uncomfortable, or in pain, and continue on- it teaches them about bravery.

They are watching us all the time, and they are always learning.

Let them learn the unspoken. Let them learn how utterly horrifying rape is by watching us struggle to even say the word. Let them learn how important it is not to use reproduction as a weapon by seeing how repulsed we are by it. Let them learn how much we love them by holding them and loving them through our own pain and trauma.

Let them learn bravery by watching ours.

I will keep trying. I will keep trying to do better.

And keep sending me letters. I will read them. I always read them. And if I think I can help, if I think there is anything I can do to lesson your burden, I will.

I hope someday, that is a lesson I can pass along, too.


  1. When I read "We don't touch our vulvas ..." it was like a light bulb went on. After my experiences regarding sex and nudity I knew this was something I needed to address with my daughter. Reading that post really helped me. This post takes that up a notch. I teach my two year old that she should not be ashamed about her naked body and that there are boundaries for touching others and what is acceptable for others about nudity. I think that helped us lay a good foundation when it comes time to talk about sex and everything that goes along with it, including rape.

    1. I'm so glad it helped! I agree, it is so important to lay a solid foundation for sex ed and especially an understanding of consent.

      Good for you, talking with your toddler! Keep up the awesome work!

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  3. Thank you for writing this. My husband and I recently adopted our 8-yr.-old daughter through foster care. We have wondered how to address sex with her, as she has had various negative experiences with it in her past. Your article is very helpful.



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