Heartbreaking accounts of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been flooding social media news feeds for the past few weeks.
Some of these accounts share details, but many more are simple declarations of a shared experience using the hashtag #MeToo. The sheer volume is sobering and points to a horrifying truth: Sexual harassment and assault are everywhere.
It has been interesting to see the reactions of my guy friends to #MeToo. Many felt shock and horror when their daughters posted #MeToo. While it is horrifying, it didn't surprise me at all. Most of my female friends have jumped onto Twitter or Facebook with a #MeToo as well. These abuses are endemic among women, but remain a hidden issue for many men. As the weeks go by, more and more women are coming forward with their own #MeToo stories and struggling with the memories unearthed by this movement.
Yes, sexual harassment and sexual assault can happen to both males and females, and it's wrong no matter who is harmed, but the facts reveal that females are disproportionately targeted. In large part, this is due to the way our young people are socialized into prevailing gender roles and norms that support males treating females as objects for personal gratification. If we are going to make real, lasting change, it is important to learn new, healthier ways of relating to each other.
Sadly, many of the #MeToo reports point to abusive incidents that occurred in adolescence. This means we need to show children how to avoid sexual harassment and sexual assault long before we think they are ready to learn about these topics. But, teaching children what they need to know can be done in gentle, positive, and age-appropriate ways.
We can prevent more children and young people from abusing and being abused, but it will take hard work.
Here's a start.
Promote respect for diversity.
Prepare children to appreciate the normal, natural changes that will take place as they develop into adults. Having repetitive talks about puberty and sexuality, and answering the many questions children have about these topics, will help remove the silence and stigma that surrounds puberty and sexuality. In doing so, we reduce the likelihood that children will feel shame and keep secrets if they experience unwanted touch or coercion.
Model healthy relationships.
Children watch the adults in their lives and accept what they see and hear as normal. This is our opportunity to show our children the way to treat one another with respect and enjoy a healthy, consenting relationship. In conjunction with relationship modeling, teach the skills needed to communicate assertively, listen actively, voice personal boundaries, and request adult help.
Schools can provide ideal conditions for students to learn and practice these vital skills with their peers in a safe classroom environment.
Teach about consent.
Consent is a clear, voluntary agreement to do something and involves asking someone for what you want and accepting their answer, no matter what. It involves saying yes or no in response to someone's request. Consent can be taught and practiced in everyday situations, such as asking to use a cell phone or borrow a pencil. Through practice, consent will become a natural part of all aspects of relationships.
Explain sexual assault. I know, no one wants to have to have this conversation with their child, but given the staggering numbers of children and youth who have been assaulted, this is a vital conversation. Amaze.org created the video, "What Is Sexual Assault?" to help adults talk to 10- to 14-year-olds. Try it out.
If something does happen...
Finally, in spite of every effort to prevent sexual harassment and sexual assault, some young people will be targeted for this abuse. It is important that we adults forge trusted, respectful, and supportive relationships with the children in our lives so they can turn to us if they need help. When a young person tells you they have been sexually harassed or assaulted, it is important to respond supportively.
Tell them ... I believe you. It is not your fault. I will help you get some help.
And then follow through on that promise.
It is vital to teach young people the topics and skills needed to avoid or respond to sexual harassment and assault. This includes communication, sex roles, expectations, and stereotypes, as well as sexual media literacy and the characteristics of a healthy relationship. Remember, we are not alone - and our kids shouldn't feel like they are either. #Metoo lit a fire, but it's our job to keep it burning.
Wendy L. Sellers is author of Puberty: The Wonder Years and president of Health 4 Hire, Inc. Sellers is a registered nurse and coauthor of the Michigan Model for Health, the state of Michigan's nationally recognized health curriculum. This article was originally published on rapidgrowthmedia.com and reprinted with permission.