Parents Join Schools In Starting Early Dialogue On Sexual Assault

Aug 9, 2016
Originally published on August 9, 2016 6:47 pm
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Colleges, high schools and even middle schools are changing how they talk to students about preventing campus sexual assault, and so are parents. Many say they're starting those conversations with their children earlier and making sure they happen often. NPR's Tovia Smith has been looking at sexual assault prevention efforts in schools and out.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's no longer just about the birds and the bees. These days parents are stammering through much more fraught and nuanced conversations with their kids about sexual assault.

KASIE HUDSON: I don't want my son to be one of those guys, and I don't want my daughter to be one of those victims. So I'll do what I have to do (laughter).

SMITH: Kasie Hudson says she's disappointed that her kids' public school in Virginia doesn't tackle the issue at all. Only about half the states require some sort of sexual assault prevention education, and most that do usually steer clear of some of the thorniest issues like what counts as consent.

HUDSON: I think it's kind of a cop out to just say, well, parents should be handling this. But I guess I'm going to need to do this myself (laughter).

SMITH: Hudson says she improvised a bit and then got some help from videos she found online, like one that tells teens to imagine instead of asking about consent for sex they're asking about a cup of tea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You say, hey, would you like a cup of tea?

SMITH: If the person says yes, then bring it, the video explains. But if not, don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: They just don't want tea, OK?

SMITH: The video, produced by Blue Seat Studios, goes through several scenarios, like what to do if someone wavers about having tea or, somewhat absurdly, if you're offering tea to someone who's unconscious.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You should just put the tea down. Unconscious people don't want tea.

HUDSON: It was cute and funny, and my 13-year-old son thoroughly enjoyed it (laughter).

SMITH: Hudson says she wondered how much was actually sinking in but was heartened when about a year later they were talking about the Stanford swimmer who'd sexually assaulted a woman who'd passed out after a party.

HUDSON: And my son goes, if the person has passed out, they don't want tea (laughter). And I knew it had sunken in.

SMITH: Experts say the sooner parents broach the subject the better. College, they say, is usually way too late. Laura Rice works at a sexual assault prevention program in New Hampshire called WISE and is a mother of two.

LAURA RICE: I think it's reasonable to think that parents, even when they have babies or toddlers, they start using language like, I'm going to change your diaper now. Is that OK with you? And obviously it's OK, but it's reinforcing the concept of consent really from a very early age.

NAN STEIN: Boundaries are something that kids understand and talk about.

SMITH: Nan Stein, a violence prevention researcher at Wellesley College, says it's best to cast the conversation with young kids in terms of their right to draw their own lines.

STEIN: This is about your entitlement to declare boundaries. This is not about sex. This isn't deciding whether to go to, you know, first base, second base or however it's formulated, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Nice rip, Ryan.

(APPLAUSE)

SMITH: At a recent town-league baseball game on a field just west of Boston, most parents say this is a conversation they can't afford to skip.

LOUISE MCCARTHY: You know, you can't be too careful.

SMITH: Louise McCarthy, a mom and a lawyer, says she talks to her 13-year-old son a lot.

MCCARTHY: Part of the problem is consent is in the eye of the beholder.

TAMMY HOBBS: As a mother of three boys, I worry about that.

SMITH: That's Tammy Hobbs, who says she warns her oldest, who's 15, to never mix sex and drinking.

HOBBS: I worry that he could make a mistake. I worry that even if he didn't think he was making a mistake, that he could later be accused of having made a mistake - yeah.

SUZANNE FREUDBERG: Good thing you're talking to me. I should probably have some sort of conversation with him (laughter).

SMITH: Suzanne Freudberg says she hasn't approached it yet with her 13-year-old son or her 19-year-old, but she did talk to his twin sister, for example, during the trial of a prep school student who sexually assaulted a girl up in an out-of-the-way mechanical room.

FREUDBERG: You know, what did the girl think she was going up there to do? And you know, don't put yourself in situations where you're leaving yourself vulnerable.

SMITH: That's a tricky one for many parents to navigate. No one wants to suggest that where their daughter's going, what she might be wearing or drinking would make a rape her fault. But as to Techiya Levine, a mother of three, put it, she felt she had to warn her daughter anyway.

TECHIYA LEVINE: Just because it's the right of way for the pedestrian to cross the street in the crosswalk, you still teach your kids to look both ways - doesn't mean that you tell your kids, you just walk down that crosswalk. Cars might be coming, but it's your right of - you know, that really does assume that we live in a perfectly fair world, and we don't.

SMITH: Levine and her husband often drilled their daughter with what to do if she was ever in trouble, even teaching her some martial arts. Turns out it's what saved her when then-17-year-old Nava Levine narrowly escaped an assailant near her Atlanta high school last year.

NAVA LEVINE: I just clicked right into, now you scream, and now you run. You know, I actually - I started screaming fire because I once learned that people respond better when they hear fire rather than rape. So all those little things - they started kicking in 'cause - and I had it ingrained in me just so many times.

SMITH: One thing experts say all parents should be talking to kids about is stepping up to help someone in trouble. University of New Hampshire prevention researcher Caroline Leyva likens it to the massive shift in societal views toward drunk driving.

CAROLINE LEYVA: We have to change the culture around whose responsibility is it, that it isn't just that person's private business or that person's problem. It does have an impact on the entire community, and everybody has a role to play.

SMITH: Schools, too, she says, but the message won't stick if it doesn't also come from parents. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this report, we mistakenly say that Laura Rice is a mother of two. In fact, she has three children. We also did not make clear that WISE has other programs besides one aimed at preventing sexual assault.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.