The Talk (About Sexual Harassment and Assault)
Editor’s Note: To continue with last week’s theme of self-defense and preparedness, we’re sharing the story of Renaissance Woman reader and psychotherapist Lisa Wolcott.
The summer I was 13, I was sexually assaulted in a hotel lobby. My little sister sat in the booth across from me as we colored. The hotel clerk, who’d chatted my family up the day before, came over to our table and asked if he could show us how to draw something. He slid into the booth beside me. A minute later he ran his hand up the inside of my bare thigh.
This wasn’t the only time I was sexually assaulted. But it’s the one I told my 12 year daughter about. When she gets older, I’ll tell her more.
I told her this part of my past when I had The Talk with her about sexual assault.
The phrase “The Talk” usually refers to the one that many black and brown parents have with their sons, teaching them to be polite, to keep their hands on the steering wheel, to minimize risk of getting killed by the police. It’s The Talk that addresses the frailty of the African American male body, so disturbingly and beautifully described by Ta-Nehisi Coates here.
We need to have The Talk with our daughters too. About sexual assault and harassment. This became abundantly clear to me during the 2016 presidential race.
The Access Hollywood recordings ignited a powderkeg of outrage, shame and humiliation far too many women have lived with in silence for far too long. Including mine. Between ages 10 and 23, I was sexually assaulted, groped, and harassed several times physically; verbally more times than I could ever count. The harassment continued later in life. And I’m not alone.
Why talk with my young daughter now? Because the majority of American sexual assault victims are young. While 1 in 6 American women has been the victim of attempted (2.8%) or completed (14.8%) rape in her lifetime, the age group with the highest rate of sexual assault is age 12-24, and 66% of those victims are age 12-17. One in 6 girls (and 1 in 9 boys) will be sexually assaulted before age 18. The US Department of Justice states approximately 1.8 million adolescents have been the victim of sexual assault. And 82% of all juvenile victims are female. Underreporting is widespread; these numbers are likely much higher.
How can we parents send them out into the world as if sexual assault is not going to happen?
The toxic statements we heard on the Access Hollywood recordings this fall enraged me, and re-ignited feelings of powerlessness and fear. But the outpouring of truth from women around the world empowered me. And that’s when I knew that simply crossing my fingers and hoping my daughter won’t have the same experiences I’ve had was not an option.
Every day, I see the walking wounded in my therapy office. I know what to do as a therapist. I help people heal. But how does a mom talk with her daughter about this?
I had to find a way, even if it wasn’t perfect. I wanted to at least protect her from the shame and isolation that so many girls and women experience. I wanted to plant the seeds of healing. Above all, I wanted to protect her emotional self.
And it went better than expected. Ever since, I’ve thought what a huge difference it can make if parents everywhere began this conversation with their girls.
So how did I do it? See below.
1. Begin with an “in” — the news.
Sexual harassment and sexual assault became part of our national conversation last fall. Take advantage of this.
“Honey, tell me what you’ve been hearing about the things Donald Trump said about women. What have you heard?”
Yes, she heard about the Access Hollywood recording, even if she didn’t know the exact wording. She thought Trump was “dumb” and “mean.” “He thinks he is better than all girls,” she said. “He doesn’t treat people nice. I feel sorry for those women he hurt.”
My heart sunk, because I know what she doesn’t yet know. “Those women” may well be her, in the next decade.
I wanted to gently help her make the connection between what she’s hearing and her own life.
2. Be specific and personal about sexual assault.
We started by discussing unwanted touch. I told her I hope it never happens, and it should never happen…but it does happen to many girls and women, and it may happen to her. And I talked about my own life, the summer I was 13, in that hotel lobby.
Other assaults impacted me more than this (as bad as it was). But for now, this one allowed me the emotional equilibrium to have The Talk.
I told her about her aunt, who was at an outdoor high school party when a boy she knew peripherally from her high school class, out of nowhere, shoved his hand down the front of her pants, touching her private parts. She was walking to her car, with others nearby, and felt totally safe until that moment. (As a side note, I never heard this story until I told my sister I was writing this article.)
My girl was really paying attention now.
I told her that my friends and my clients share stories of assault in places they didn’t expect — at a city park in broad daylight, in a train station, at a music concert when they were with their friends, by a family friend on a camping trip, or at a sleepover. It can, and does, happen anywhere.
3. Ask questions, listen, and assess.
When I asked my daughter what she would do if something like this happened to her, she said “I would punch them and get away from them fast!”
(Oh baby girl, I thought. We have to talk about what usually happens. Freezing is the most common response.)
But first I said that I loved her response and that she had every right to defend herself. “Would I get in trouble if I hurt them?” she asked. No, I answered, you absolutely can defend yourself. I told her about the self defense class I took in my late 20s, DC Impact, and told her I’d like her to take a self defense class (like this one) too.
Assess her capacity to handle the conversation. During The Talk, I frequently stopped and checked in with her to see how she was feeling and what she was taking in. For as long as she seemed calm and attentive, we proceeded.
4. Educate her and reassure her.
I didn’t quote statistics, because I didn’t want to alarm her. I just laid the groundwork for awareness and shame protection.
“It happens to lots of people,” I said. “It can happen in public, and it can happen in private. In the daytime or in the nighttime. It can be a stranger, but a lot of the time, it’s someone you know and may not expect.” (In fact, 71% of perpetrators are known to the victim.)
“Most women I know have had some kind of experience like this,” I said. “But many men are good and kind and respectful and would never ever hurt girls or women.” We talked about all the men and boys she knows who respect and empower women and girls. We talked about how they demonstrate love and respect, kindness and support.
Right now, she’s entirely sure she knows who to trust. Her confidence, and general high self esteem, give me confidence she’ll avoid sexual assault. And I hope this talk will give her the awareness and presence to make her a less likely target.
But if she is a victim someday, I want to lay the groundwork now to help her avoid the shame and isolation that follows.
5. Talk about common reactions, guilt and shame.
I went back to her confident statement that she would punch an aggressor and run away. As a therapist who works with shame and trauma, I know this is unlikely to happen.
“I love that you’d protect yourself, honey. And I want you to whenever you can. But I want you to know that a lot of the time, when people get SURPRISE ATTACKS on their body, they freeze. They feel like all the power drains out of them. Their mind does one thing, and their body does another. Sometimes they can’t even remember what exactly happened. Then they get mad themselves for not reacting differently.”
My daughter nodded, taking this in. I told her I have clients who feel ashamed, and never before told anyone they’d been assaulted. That almost all the time, they feel guilty, and they are mad at themselves for being paralyzed, for not doing or saying the right thing — the thing that would have made it not happen, or the thing that would have made it better.
It’s normal to freeze, I told her. “Your brain and your body don’t work together, in part because you can’t believe it’s happening. So if that ever happens to you, I want you to remember: it’s not your fault if you freeze, and I don’t want you to feel guilty about it.” In this way, I hope to preemptively disable the landmines that get buried in sexual assault, described so brilliantly by the writer Craig Childs here.
Then we talked about what she would do. Her list: tell a friend, call me or her dad, talk to someone she trusts. I told her I will always be here for her and help her, no matter what. I said that because even though she knows I love her and will always be there, I wanted her to know that it would still be true if she were a victim of assault, and it would still be true even if she felt ashamed.
6. Model your strongest moral position; lay groundwork to heal trauma.
The rest of the world has strong messages, but you as her parent have the strongest and loudest voice of all. Use it.
Some things may seem self-evident but need to be said, loud and clear, to your child.
“No matter what,” I said to her, “No one has the right to touch your body without your permission. Ever. Ever. And if they do, I want you to know that it is wrong, it is illegal, it is a crime, and it is not your fault.”
I told her that even though she’s nodding now, it’s possible that if it happens to her, she might not react the way she expects to, and that’s normal. “If it happens to you, you might freeze. You might feel like it’s your fault. I’m telling you now, it’s not your fault. You might feel ashamed. But it’s the other person who should be ashamed, not you.”
I told her if it happens to her, I hope she would tell someone right away, and get help. I told her I would like to be one of the people she tells. I told her I would understand what she’s going through, and that I would help her.
7. Model your strength and healing.
If you’ve been in therapy, share it. If you’ve done sexual harassment training, share what you learned. If you’ve taken a self defense class, talk about it. A former boss of mine once hired an expert on sexual harassment response who met separately with the women and men. In our session, she modeled specific ways to respond to street harassment, something that was really life changing for me.
My daughter loved hearing my stories of calling out harassers on the streets of Washington DC when I lived there. (“Making kissing noises at me as I walk down the street is sexual harassment. I don’t like it; no woman likes it. Stop harassing women!”) Just knowing one smartass or assertive comeback is a great tool to have in your pocket; I’ve felt safer and more empowered ever since. I want that for my daughter; I want that for all girls.
She loved hearing about DC Impact, the full-impact, “model mugging” course I took. I told her about RADkids, and she’s all fired up to take it now. Classes like this take advantage of adrenalin-fueled learning, with realistic fight scenarios and fully padded martial arts instructors. Developed by a woman black belt who couldn’t believe she was raped even though she had mad martial arts skills, it utilizes situational learning, patterning responses into your muscle memory, like riding a bike. These classes are physically and emotionally empowering. And if you’ve been the victim of assault, they are particularly helpful in making you feel strong again.
8. Remind her of her rights (and share your anger).
Our daughters have the right to be blissfully unaware of sexual assault, but this right is not yet fully realized in our society. I told her it makes me so mad that we even have to talk about this. That it’s not fair. I told her I love her very much, and that part of me wishes I could be with her all the time to protect her, but another part of me knows she has every right to be carefree, without her mom hovering over her as she’s developing into a young adult. I want her to be independent and silly and have fun and feel free. And I want her to be smart (although it pisses me off to no end that I have to add that in.) We talked about the balance of fun and carefulness.
I hope you, too, will have The Talk with your daughter. If you’re like me, coming to terms with the idea that more than likely, your daughter will suffer assault, unwanted touch, and/or harassment in her young lifetime, please have The Talk with her. If you want to protect her, have The Talk with her. If you want to safeguard her mental health and protect her from the predictable shame, the silencing, and all the somatic symptoms that accompany carrying a horrible secret, please, have The Talk with her.
The Talk may or may not protect my daughter’s body. But I’m confident that it has already protected her psyche.
I’m more hopeful for my daughter and our girls now then I ever could have been for myself. Social media allows us to witness for each other on a massive scale. Serial abusers — despite being famous, wealthy, and intimidating — no longer can hide behind the shame and silence of individual victims. When we talk, we connect, naming behaviors and empowering survivors. Predatory contempt doesn’t have to scare us in the same way anymore. As awareness grows and shame decreases, our tolerance for sexual abuse plummets. The personal does, indeed, become political.
Lisa Wolcott is a psychotherapist, writer, feminist, business owner, voracious reader, wife and mother of two. After starting her work life in journalism, her path merged into personal wellness, recovery and therapy. When she’s not attending middle school band concerts and soccer games, she runs a thriving private practice in Gainesville, Florida where she sees individuals and runs therapy groups. She also provides workshops on themes of courage, mindfulness and creating the life you want to lead. She is passionate about helping people recover from relationship trauma of all kinds and reclaiming their full lives! You can follow Lisa here and here and here.