I’d have a few concerns. But I’m not a mom of a girl going away to school, I just teach personal safety skills to girls whose moms are concerned as their girls are growing into independence.

Recent headlines tell us about a young man at one of America’s elite prep schools who engaged in the school tradition of “senior salute.”  How that particular encounter turned into non-consensual sex and a rape charge.  The young man was convicted by a jury of one count of using the internet to have sex with a child, and three counts of misdeameanor sexual assault and child endangerment.  He was acquitted of the more serious charges of felony rape.

According to CNN’s legal analyst Sunny Hostin, “the jury did not appear to believe the former prep school student’s claim that there was no intercourse, but it also seemed to dismiss his accuser’s testimony that it was against her will.”

My focus, as a self-defense teacher, is less on the legal issues and more on what we’re teaching girls, explicitly as well as implicitly.

This article from the New York Times details the young woman’s testimony.  She describes a mixture of emotions during and after the assault — of politeness and pain, then secrecy versus standing up for herself.

“I didn’t want to come off as an inexperienced little girl,” she said. “I didn’t want him to laugh at me. I didn’t want to offend him.”

Afterward, she said, she felt physical pain and utter confusion, and blamed herself for the events; it took several days for her to tell anyone, in full, what happened.

“I feel like I had objected as much as I felt I could at the time. And other than that I felt so powerless,” she said, adding, “I was telling myself, ‘O.K., that was the right thing to do, you were being respectful.’ ”
This girl’s feelings of powerlessness are common among teens in this sort of situation.  Girls encounter a host of contradictory messages.  They should be polite, nice, and certainly not rude — while at the same time keeping themselves safe.
I believe respect is a very important social grace, and it should not trump safety.
My concerns include:
  • The jury’s verdict indicates that many adults still don’t believe girls could be telling the truth about rape.  These jury members are also community members, and could very well be among those from whom a girl seeks advice and help.
  • The girl not being aware of other tools at her disposal to discourage and perhaps prevent the rape.
  • The girl’s feelings of powerlessness over her own body.  As noted sexual health educator Amy Lang says, she should be the boss of her body.

Not only should any girl expect to have her “no” respected, she should have other options in case it is not.  That’s what I teach, and in self-defense classes we practice skills when unfortunately “no” isn’t enough.

Attention Parents of Tweens and Teens: wishing all of you a wonderful holiday season with your children. During this school recess, between visiting and feasting and caroling and skiing, make some time to have one or more meaningful conversations about sexual consent (and sexual assault) with your children.  Make it your New Year’s Resolution to keep on engaging in conversation

Perhaps you remember “the talk” from your own youth, and you’re cringing. For some help, take a look at  P.O.P!, a project of King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, and their 100 Conversations programs.

P.O.P! (Power of Prevention) is a group of young people who reach out to other young people in their communities by incorporating social media, video, written material, and face-to-face conversations. Their goal is to create healthier communities and end sexual assault by dispelling myths, encouraging positive attitudes and behaviors, and increasing access to resources like KCSARC.

I particularly like two features of their conversation lists. First is the emphasis on understanding what boundaries are, how to find yours, and how to communicate them to others. Second is the social nature of behavior, how others affect what you do, and activating bystanders to do something other than stand by helplessly. BTW, these are two essential topics I cover in my self-defense classes.

As with any other meaningful topic, safety and consent and sex cannot be a one-time conversation with those you care about. Check out the list of 100 topics on the P.O.P! site to help you keep it going, and not fall by the wayside as do most New Year’s Resolution.