We recently spoke to a teacher friend who said this is the first year she wasn’t recommending her 10 year old students watch the presidential debates. Trump’s language has changed the scope of expected behavior and vernacular during a presidential debate, and it’s no longer entirely appropriate for children. But kids hear things, so what do we do when they overhear adults discussing Trump’s behavior? We went to the professionals and asked. Laurie Berdahl, MD & Brian D. Johnson, PhD are the authors of Warning Signs: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression, and they had a lot to say on the subject;
How to Help Your Kids Understand That Sexual Assault Isn’t “Locker Room Talk”
You might find yourself reluctant to talk to your kids about what former Miss Universe pageant owner Donald Trump said about women on an Access Hollywood bus and Howard Stern’s radio show. You may be thinking, “Ugh . . . do I really have to go there?” Yeah, we think you do, for you and your kids’ sake.
You may fear that bringing it up will make your kids aware of what you hope they don’t know about. You may not want to subject yourself or your kids to the offensive words and phrases uttered. But teens connected to the Internet and social media have most likely heard all about it, so we recommend finding out what they know and turning the news into a valuable teaching opportunity about sexual assault.
First, some brief definitions:
Victims of sexual assault suffer long-term physical and psychological harm, including fear, depression, anger, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal thoughts and actions. They are much more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, and are highly vulnerable to being victimized again.
There’s also an underlying dangerous societal trend to be aware of when discussing sexual assault. This is called sexualization, which reflects the belief that the value of females is based only on their sexual appeal or behavior and a narrowly defined, unrealistic standard of physical attractiveness, and that they aren’t people but objects (things or body parts) to be evaluated and used by others for sexual purposes. This less commonly applies to boys, particularly when they’re sexually abused. Unfortunately, both boys and girls increasingly believe this dangerous fallacy about females.
What Trump’s statements have to do with sexualization and sexual assault
When Donald said, “I did try and f— her. She was married. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the p—-. You can do anything,” and “Oh, it looks good (referring to the woman standing by the bus door to greet them),” he was bragging about objectifying, preying upon, and harming women by committing sexual assault against them. These words clearly indicate his belief that consent isn’t needed to attempt or engage in sexual acts with women and that he views them not as people, but as objects to be used for sexual purposes.
When Trump spoke about women over many years on Howard Stern’s show, he spoke about them in terms of breast size and ratings based on body type, again showing his belief that females are sexual objects. When he described his daughter’s body as voluptuous and allowed Stern to call her a piece of a–, he sexualized his own daughter.
Objectifying women is a warning sign of being or becoming a sexual perpetrator: it indicates acceptance and approval of sexual violence. Minimizing this language as “locker room banter” attempts to normalize sexually predatory behavior. It also mischaracterizes this talk as “boys will be boys,” sending the malicious message that it’s normal for males to commit sexual assault, or to promote and laugh about it.
But this type of predatory talk is not normal—it is amoral and endangers the health and safety of all women and girls. Professional athletes are speaking out to defend their character and denounce the association between their professions and sexually aggressive behavior, saying it is not typical or acceptable “locker room talk.”
Role models including parents, mentors, and presidents greatly influence the behavior of children who look up to them. This unfortunately also applies to boys who look up to and admire men who model aggression against women. Research shows a concerning trend in our young men toward acceptance and commission of sexual violence including assault and rape. Buying into this belief can ruin relationships, jobs, and lives of boys vulnerable to these messages, as well as their victims’ lives.
How to take advantage of these news events to teach and protect your kids
Here are suggestions for turning offensive incidences into teaching moments for your teen and young adult sons and daughters. Use a relaxed approach when they seem to have a few minutes to spare. Say, “Hey, I want to chat for a minute about something. Did you hear about what Trump said on that bus or on the radio about women?” Find out what they know and ask what they think about what they heard.
While discussing Trump’s words with teenagers, you can say “the p-word” or “f-word” if that seems more comfortable, after which you can replace them with more appropriate medical terms like genitals, breasts, and intercourse. For preteens, ask what they know and proceed with a less detailed, brief conversation if they heard something, while saying you’d like to answer any questions or concerns they have.
After listening to what your kids think, state your disapproval of what you heard Trump say: objectifying women by talking about them as objects to be pursued for sexual use, using degrading terms for their body parts, and indicating that consent isn’t necessary for sexual activities including kissing. Simply say, “These comments are very harmful to women because they make it seem like sexual violence is OK and even funny. Strong and noble men respect women and don’t talk this way about them.”
Expect and don’t be discouraged by grins, eye-rolls, and even hearing, “Geez, Dad (Mom), I know!” as normal teenage reactions to talking about sex, and the uncomfortable subject of sexual violence. Teens, who naturally have immature minds, are allowed to have immature reactions that we don’t expect or accept from adults. Praise kids for any indication that they agree with what you are saying.
A simple protective message for both boys and girls of all ages is, “It’s never OK for someone to try to touch or touch your private areas without your permission and I want to know if it happens.” For teens, you can expand to disapproving of talking about people as body parts to be used for sex, and of frightening, pressuring, or forcing people into having sex. Also, when someone says no to any sexual activity, it means no, regardless of the circumstances.
As parents, we can also protect our kids from being victims or perpetrators of sexual assault by counteracting sexualization. Research shows that sexualization of women leads boys to feel entitled to sex without consent and to accept that hunting women for sex is normal male behavior.
We can fight sexualization by building our girl’s self-esteem, value, and power based on things other than their physical appearance and sexiness, and by helping our sons and daughters reject sexualized beliefs.
Bragging about sexual predatory behavior and assault isn’t manly, funny, or “locker room talk”—it blatantly challenges freedom of women that comes from equality while promoting violence against them.
For more information on fighting sexualization and protecting kids from predators and sexual assault, see the authors’ new book, WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids from Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression and website warningsignsforparents.com.
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