During a crowded bus journey, my daughter’s shrill four-year-old voice piped up clearly and succinctly above the hum of the ongoing conversation: “I want to have sex with [insert classmate here].”
A silence, not unlike the one pervading the moment before the conductor raises his baton, fell in anticipation of my reply. And on behalf of all the sex-positive parents, I swallowed my embarrassment and responded, seemingly unperturbed, “Really! And what does sex mean to you then?”
“It means we’ll be related!” answered my daughter happily. Everyone let their breath out and resumed their discussion of the Swedish weather using their twenty different words for snow.
My talk about the the birds and the bees started rather earlier than I thought it would. That’s a dicey tightrope to walk between fearmongering and living in love. Too little information and we won’t have protected her; too much information are we will have harmed her.
She’s eight now, and her little brother is six. Four years after that bus ride, these are seven important things we’ve covered when it comes to sexual consent, assault, and harassment.
1. My Body, My Rules
Bottoms are a thing, as Dirk Gently would put it, when you’re a kid. For some reason they’re hilarious. Making jokes about them is hilarious. What comes out of them is hilarious. Patting them is also hilarious. But “My body, my rules” for us means that you cannot pat anyone’s bottom without permission (or indeed any other body parts).
As a general rule, no one should touch my children non-consensually, and they should not touch anyone else’s body either. That includes no forcing hugs from grandparents (even though it’s meant challenging their views –they were brought up in a different era) and enforcing boundaries about Mummy’s boobs (although asserting my own privacy after breastfeeding was hard).
More Radical Reads: 7 Reasons Why You Should Never Force Your Child to Hug Anyone
Still, there are obvious exceptions under the label of health and safety, which include washing, vaccinations, and medical examinations.
2. Safe Words Are Required
I would love “no” to have more power, and I have tried — oh how I’ve tried! — to instill the power of this little word into my children’s psyches. Yet it’s still used within playtime context as a joke, and more often than not, they laugh when saying it seriously. So when “no” is ignored, as it all too often is meant to be during their role-playing games, we’ve resorted to safe words that mean “stop play now.”
Simple words, I said. Seldom used, I said. They were going through their dinosaur phase at the time. Saichainia Poo, they said. Well, at least it’s memorable.
3. Being Believed Is Sacred
This is easier said than done, especially when the chocolate coins disappear from the sweets cupboard and your small son swears solemnly with chocolate stains round his mouth that he has no clue where they are.
Luckily, my son is not as practised at keeping up deception, but I’ve had to learn to get at the truth in such a way that doesn’t undermine my children’s perception that I trust them. Because if they don’t feel that I trust them, they’ll be less likely to confide in me.
I’ve made a concerted effort to play the long game, knowing that the small lies they tell as part of their development are less important than the help they may never get if they think I won’t believe them when it counts.
4. Using Correct Names for Body Parts is Expected
Words have power, we’ve often said to our children. Of course, it doesn’t just apply to words for body parts. But most predators will not use words like “vagina”, “vulva”, or “penis” with children. Children who are clued into their body parts, and the words to name them, will have a greater awareness about precisely what is going on if something does go on.
Yet calling a vagina a vagina only in the context of assault also associates it with violence and potentially shame. We merrily chat about vaginas and penises. How wonderful they are, as well as being highly practical.
There is one rule, though: we don’t talk about them at the dinner table.
5. We Must Recognise Coercive Tactics
About two years ago a six-year-old boy, my daughter’s classmate, threatened to take nude pictures of another female classmate and post them online because she rejected his invitation to play. These things happen far earlier than we ever dreamed possible.
To know these tactics and their power is to be forewarned. But children cannot properly comprehend blackmail, especially when it’s used as a last desperate attempt by desperate mothers to get the little darlings to do what you want them to. It’s true, I have used ice cream to reward eating vegetables (health and safety, health and safety). Yet I take the opportunity to discuss how very wrong it is to threaten non-consensual use of another person’s image to diminish their agency. It is to treat them like an object, which leads to a greater conversation about…
6. Don’t Treat People Like Oranges
You can throw an orange. You can juice an orange… because the orange has no power and no responsibility (even when you imbue it with power by kicking it into a goalie net). Is it the orange’s fault if it hits you on the head? No! Did the orange score the goal? No! Finally, a conversation about objectification that dissolves into giggles.
We don’t treat people like we treat oranges because people are not things. No one can treat you like an orange. No one can take your juice, that is, your power. No one is allowed to make you do something you don’t want to.
7. Sex is Great (But Only When You’re Ready and Everyone is Fully On Board)
Part of the sex conversation in my childhood was that I was responsible for resisting men’s advances and then succumbing at the right time. It was a game of cat and mouse where if I played my cards right, I would lose my virginity on my wedding night. My pleasure was never the focus of the conversation, and it took decades for me to lose my shame about my own sexuality. So with my children we’ve covered sperm meets egg, but we’ve also covered that sex is between two people who are attracted to one another and who want to feel closer (any gender, different body parts).
More Radical Reads: 4 Ridiculous Questions People Asked Me When my 11 Year-Old Came Out as Gay
Great sex is about respect, agency, and mutual pleasure. It took me more than thirty years to learn this, and I cross my fingers they will enjoy great sex sooner than I did.
[Featured Image: A child with long brown hair looks into the camera, their hair hiding part of their face and their pointer finger visible as if they’re holding the camera to take an impromptu selfie. They are wearing a blue, white, and yellow top. Blurry trees and dirt are visible behind them. Source: Pexels]