How can we help prevent sexual assault in the future? Teach every child not to rape. Zach Rosenberg and his son are starting early.
“Because that’s rape,” I answered, matter-of-factly.
“What’s rape?” my four year-old son asked as he lined strawberries along the edge of his plate, the breeze outside pushing through our windows as the blinds scratched against the window sills. We could hear the sounds of his cartoons pouring around the corner from the living room. My son never looked up as I explained, in simple terms, why it isn’t right to force yourself onto someone else.
I always wonder if I’m speaking over my four year old’s head. My wife used to tell me that I spoke to my god daughter, and then our own son, like they were teenagers—no baby talk, no funny voices. Real talk. We now attribute that as one of the reasons our son forms oddly complex sentences and ideas, but hey, we’re also just proud parents.
But this was the first time I’d breached the topic of rape with my son.
It wasn’t rape that we were really talking about per se. By definitions, it was probably sexual assault, but I strangely felt more comfortable using the R-word than the S-word with my son.
Here’s how it all started: you know how preschoolers think they’ve got a girlfriend or boyfriend at school? And if the families know each other, it becomes the (*cough*) moms’ obsession to get them to hold hands, hug and kiss? Well, our son has always been very physically loving to his mother and I, which we adore. Nothing’s better than my son hugging and kissing me. But I never really like the idea of kids kissing each other. They’re playing house; they’re copying what they see everywhere. And sometimes, they’re fulfilling the wishes of parents who scramble for their iPhones to take adorbs Facebook photos. Innocent, right?
Before lunch that day, my son told me that his girlfriend was no longer his friend. It was her idea, he insisted. I let it go for a while, as he told me about his new friend (another girl) and how they were going to get married. I told my son to just be friends. We sat down at the table and as he eyed his strawberries, holding each one up in the midday light, he said again that his girlfriend didn’t want to be his friend.
“Why doesn’t she want to be your friend?”
“She didn’t like that I kissed her,” my son says, pushing his index finger into the middle of a strawberry.
“Well, did you ask her first? Or did you just try to kiss her?” He looks up and takes a bite, nonchalantly saying within a shrug “I just tried.”
“Oh, well, dude, you can’t do that,” I say, thinking this will end here.
That was when I dropped the R-word.
After I explain, the world is still the same. The cartoons are still on, the strawberries are still lined up on his plate. My wife is still out doing an errand. Nothing’s changed, except I’ve started a meaningful conversation about rape with my son. He’s four, but he understands right and wrong. Kids just want to mimic their parents; my son sees me kiss my wife whenever I get it in my head to do so, and sees that she welcomes it. So, he, in turn, thinks that he can kiss the girl that the whole school staff had confirmed one day to my wife and I was his girlfriend.
Later, I know, we’ll be having deeper conversations about sexual assault and rape. Part of being a man is respecting women. This isn’t a feminism thing or a men’s rights violation. My son is already interested in girls as girlfriends and wives (no, really, he dropped this one on me later that day). He doesn’t know about sex, but he knows about kissing and hugging. And that’s our entry point into the conversation. Glen Canning recently made a statement about his daughter Rehtaeh Parsons. She was a Canadian teen who was raped and bullied until she hung herself. She lived through it, but was hospitalized and died Canning’s letter, “Rehtaeh Parsons Was My Daughter” is a tough read. He mourns a wonderful father-daughter relationship, cut short. He wonders how the Canadian police can’t find enough evidence for the case, while the perpetrators have traded photos around the school that prompted other boys to send lewd texts to Rehtaeh and girls to call her terrible names.
Canning says his daughter was disappointed to death; “the court system in Nova Scotia,” says Canning, “was just going to rape her all over again with indifference to her suffering and the damage this did to her.”
My heart hurts for Canning and Rehtaeh’s mother. And as a father of a son, I don’t know how I could raise a daughter and have to tell her one day to “be careful” as she left for a party or a friend’s house. I don’t know how I could understand why I’d be buying her pepper spray “just in case,” knowing that if if it came down to it, it would likely be turned on her by an attacker. I’m not cut out for raising a girl with headlines like the ones telling Rehtaeh Parsons’ story.
Rape has been all over the headlines lately, and because of that, on my mind lately. During the long and arduous Steubenville rape case, a mom blogger friend of mine had written an article I was sure I’d hate based on the title alone. Eve Vawter’s piece, “It’s Official, Rape Is No Longer A Girl Problem, It’s A Boy Problem. So Shut Up About Girls ‘Preventing’ Rape,” discusses the dystopian reality we’re in where men rape but we educate women on how to not get raped.
While the reported and accepted statistics show that men are more often the aggressors in sexual assault, we see few classes for men about, frankly, not raping. We see plenty of women’s self-defense and rape prevention classes. When I first read Vawter’s piece, I was infuriated. As a dad blogger and a mild nightwatchman for men’s rights, I immediately take offense to sweeping generalizations and dogmatic misandry. But as I read more, I got past my own feelings. I thought back to the last time I was in an organized group that was telling men, directly, not to rape women.
It was part of the then-evolving “Becoming a Man” class at my all-boys, Catholic high school. A mix of religious, morality and sexuality topics rolled into one class, it fielded the topic of respecting women, and the decisions to make if you were to ever have doubts about a woman’s willingness to engage in sexual activity. My best friend actually ended up teaching the class years later, and now at a different (charter) school, says he still fields the rape topic with his male students. “Ethics should be taught across the board,” he told me, adding, “rape is a crime of power not passion—so we teach it as a manifestation of tyrannical behavior.”
Now here’s something that will really bake your noodle: three priests from my old Catholic high school were accused of sexual abuse. At least one admitted guilt, and another had been arrested years later for assaulting a boy at a bus stop. I’ll just leave that there.
Convicted Steubenville rapist Ma’lik Richmond’s lawyer is planning to appeal the guilty verdict because – he says – at 16 years old, his client’s brain isn’t fully developed, and as such, he might not understand that rape is wrong.
My son, all of four years old, is chewing his last strawberry mouthful as I finish my definition of rape and sexual assault, and my explanation of why forcing himself onto a girl—even his “girlfriend”, even just a kiss—is wrong. He gets it. His brain is far from fully-developed, but he nods as my sentence trails off and my hands fall back down to the table. “Okay, daddy. I won’t do it anymore,” he says. He slides off of his chair and gallops back to his cartoons.
I know my son didn’t rape his preschool ex-”girlfriend.” And in all liklihood, he didn’t sexually assault her either. But when she let him know that she didn’t like him kissing her, it opened up our first conversation on the topic. And though I’m not completely sure I’m speaking on his level, I know I’d rather speak to him now so he knows that this is a topic between us. The rougher road lies ahead, but I’ve paved the first block and that’s what matters.
Photo courtesy of the author