Raising Silence Breakers in an Age of Sexual Empowerment

Mom and daughter sitting on a grass in the park and talking.Sexual assault and harassment is in the news and has us on the verge of a revolutionary new stance on the subject of power, violence, and the sexual dance between humans. We see a dramatic change underway in the operations and culture of businesses, government, and the entertainment industry. Many of us feel triumphant for this change, as it is long overdue. Others feel chagrined and terrified, wondering if we are next in line to be held to task for past transgressions. Many men and women are having a hard time coming together right now—even as we may agree on the general direction we are headed.

This may be an optimal time to turn our attention to the next generation. How can we best protect our children from being victimized by (or becoming participants in) sexual assault/harassment? Taking as our cues the hyper-privileged denials and uncapped outrage revealed in the headlines, how can we play our part as parents to revise the fearful sexual climate of our society? The answers should be more in focus now than ever.

The following represents sample parental discussions with middle school-aged kids. It attempts to address head-on the specific challenges presented by our country’s brave “silence breakers” regarding the behaviors of Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Louis CK, Kevin Spacey, et. al. It’s an awkward subject, to say the least, and not one most 12-year-olds would be eager to initiate. Still, if we don’t create these awkward moments as parents, we in effect hand over our responsibility to the media in their pockets and the peers in their midst. We can clearly see where that has been taking us.

This talk is not crafted as a script—every parent is charged with designing their own messages, spoken or unspoken, on the topic of sex—but as an icebreaker. How would you attempt it differently? What house rules and values need to be weaved in based on the temperament of your child and the culture of your child’s school? Talking out loud about our sexual values can be excruciating since many of our deepest insights may have come through heartbreak. So, take courage, parents. Be patient with yourselves. Be forgiving. And let’s imagine ourselves in the shoes of the average parent as they attempt to revolutionize our world.

Driving Bill and Jen to Middle School

Monday

Unplug yourselves for five minutes, kids. I’m turning off the radio. This week I’m going to tell you what I think about sex. Yeah, that’s what I said. Give me five minutes each morning while I have you trapped in this car. I may get it wrong, but let me give it a try. I’m not going to ask you any questions at the end, no tests. Just give me a break and hear me out. Okay?

The only thing I want to say today is this: Your beauty is your own to have.

I’ve been telling you how beautiful I think you are your whole life, but now, as you get older, it’s up to you to own your beauty. You get to decide what you most love about yourselves and be that. That’s your true inner beauty and it’s kind of a “sexual” thing. What I mean by that word is it is super, super private. So private, you can share it with others only if they can really see it. Like when you made that perfect game-winning goal last week, Jen, and the whole team saw it. They were screaming and hugging you, and they put you on their shoulders, and it was just so exciting. Or Bill, when you watch The Avengers Infinity War trailer with Kim and Sam. You’ve seen every one of those 12 movies that led up to that finale. Kim and Sam saw them all too, so they know the same details and they’re sharing the same excitement. It’s an amazing feeling when super private parts that you love in yourself get shared. Sometimes people really can tap into your own private beauty. The whole sharing experience feels suddenly bigger than you are.

But here’s my main point this morning: Nobody can take away the beauty of that goal from you, Jen. Even if nobody saw your sweet side scissor kick or if the ref tried to disqualify it. You would still get to own the beauty of that perfect goal. And Bill, even if you end up watching The Avengers by yourself. Or had to sit next to someone who knew nothing about those other 12 movies. You would still get to feel your own awesome, detailed love for that movie. Other people are not in charge of the beauty you find in yourself. You are.

I think I’m going to stop there for today. That’s it. Your beauty is your own to have.

Tuesday

Okay. Sex talk part two: Your body is private.

Basically, everything I said yesterday about beauty goes for your penis and vagina. And not just those parts of you, but your breasts, ears, lips, and hands as well. Any and every part that feels sensitive. The older you get, the more private those parts might feel. That’s why something as simple as holding hands with someone you like could feel way more awkward now than it did when you were in kindergarten. Certain parts of your body are probably going to feel more and more private or sexual over the next few years, and you may not know what’s okay to share with others.

Taking as our cues the hyper-privileged denials and uncapped outrage revealed in the headlines, how can we play our part as parents to revise the fearful sexual climate of our society? The answers should be more in focus now than ever.

This may be totally confusing for you, so my advice is to “play the long game.” Give yourself about 10 years or more to explore and figure out what feels good and what kind of person you might want to share those parts with. Who knows? Maybe it will take 20 years, or maybe you’re happiest keeping those parts of your body private forever. You get to take as long as you want to discover what brings pleasure to those sensitive parts of you, what makes your body feel beautiful, what you want to look like, and who you might want to share yourself with. Go slow. Take your time. And change your mind as often as you like. You deserve to feel safe even when you want to try new things.

Here’s my main point on this subject. Your privacy is super precious! I’m here to help protect you every step of the way. For now, here are some house rules: The internet is not the place where you’ll do any sexual sharing. Even private messages are never really private. So, keep your selfies and text talk above the neck. Also, if you’re going to talk about sexual stuff, do so with people your own age. They may seem way more dumb and immature when it comes to sexuality, but that helps keep you all the more in charge of your own feelings. You don’t need anyone older, cooler, or more powerful than you to teach you anything about your own sexual beauty. And you don’t belong teaching anyone younger than yourself about their bodies.

Enough rules for now. We’ll make more as you get older. I want you both to have your own say on future house rules, so I expect you’ll be teaching me things you learn from your friends. I know their opinions are going to matter as much as mine.

Wednesday

I wish I could just talk more about rules to protect your bodies because that’s pretty much my biggest job on earth. I’ll do my best to respect your privacy from me, too. Just remember there’s nothing too embarrassing for you to talk about with me. I will just try to listen without giving big talks like I am this week.

Okay, big talk topic number three. Today the message is: You can be an animal and still be smart.

We are animals. The sexual parts of our bodies can take us by surprise and make us want to act like the animals we see on TV. Unfortunately, maybe for boys especially, the whole instinct to get what you want can show up as an urge to grab and invade another person’s space. An instinct to be the strong alpha male can also show up as an urge to be cruel to other boys. So, Bill, as your sexual animal self begins to wake up, don’t be surprised if you get some aggressive thoughts that come with them.

Your animal may show up in some pretty shockingly stupid and selfish ways. That’s why people love to express it through humor. It can be so ridiculous one second but then super threatening the next.

Eventually, though, if you manage it well, especially by being sensitive to others and respecting their feelings, you can bring out the best parts of your inner animal. Real animal energy, when it’s tamed, can be fun and exciting and gentle all at the same time. First, you have to recognize that aggressive urge when it shows up. If you’ve done something stupid or hurtful, apologize right away, repair any damage you caused if you can, and learn from your mistakes.

It’s not like the animal self in girls can be any less aggressive, right, Jen? Some girls at your school can be just as cruel or crueler than the boys, for sure. We could talk more about that, and we will. But this is a super important time when women and girls are starting to stand up together against sexually aggressive men. For a long time, our culture has made women be silent about men’s sexual aggressiveness just so they might get some of the power already automatically given to men. This is all changing right now and you both get to be a part of that change.

More on this tomorrow, but today I’m ending with this: We are smarter than our animal selves.

Thursday

All right, let’s go back to Monday’s main point: Your beauty is your own to have. That’s clear. When it’s related to your body, we’re calling that your sexual beauty and it’s all super private; only you get to decide if or how to share it with anyone else. Clear as a bell? Good. Next, sexual beauty has an animal side to it, but that’s okay because you are smarter than your animal selves. True that? Yes.

All this connects to one very big idea: Your beauty is not up for grabs. Obvious, right? Actually, as you try to succeed and connect with others, this idea can be surprisingly tricky. For example, seeing someone else’s beauty and hoping to be seen as beautiful in their eyes can create a very tricky situation. Having someone see your sexual beauty when you never really invited that kind of attention from them, that’s tricky too. Learning that you can pretend to see someone’s beauty just to get something else you want from them, that’s trickier still. Just watch. There can be a bunch of pretending that goes on at school, even while you are hanging out with people you respect. I really wish you would never have to deal with tricky situations and could just be honest about how you feel all the time. Aim for that.

In the meantime, if romance games are being played that get you stressed out, or if pressure is building for you to pretend you like someone more than you really do, or if someone is assuming you owe them something just because they have something you want, I want to give you this free pass to get out of that situation right away. Just say the words out loud, “My body is not up for grabs.” If a real friend is hearing you say this to them, they will be glad you’re saying it.

Like I said, you are part of a new world. More people are saying this than ever before. Maybe someone nearby will be listening and feel empowered that you are saying it. If the one you say it to doesn’t listen, just repeat this to yourself as you walk out of that tricky situation: “My beauty is not up for grabs. It’s no one’s business but my own.”

This is about saying “no” to every situation that makes you uncomfortable. You get to say no as often as you like. You get to do that! In fact, there’s no such thing as truly saying “yes” until you’ve proven it safe to say no.

This magic pass isn’t just for you two. You are going to see friends of yours who feel trapped or tricked by their need to have their beauty seen. You are also going to see people using jokes that become really hurtful because their animal selves are running wild. Be silence breakers. Don’t be afraid. Tell an adult. Or tell them yourselves, “Dude! Her body is not up for grabs.” Even if the response isn’t great, you’ll know you didn’t just stand by. It’s part of making this world a safer place.

Friday

Very short message today, folks, then it’s back to the radio.

What happens when you and someone else feel sexually attracted to each other? You got your animal energy down to a gentle purr and it’s clear you both feel the same. If that magic ever happens, it’s going to feel way different than being popular or cool and it’s not going to be like anything you’ve seen on TV. The only thing that is going to be super clear is you want the other person to feel safe. You each have gotten a chance to be in part of each other’s private world for a while. It’s not like you need to do anything, really. Everything that’s confusing about touching or what you should say to each other takes a back seat to the other person’s comfort. Saying “no” or “let’s wait” should feel easy because you have all the time in the world. Questions that come up will be between you and the other person. As you get smarter together, you’ll likely find the trust to ask more private questions because getting permission before touching will be more important to you than ever.

That’s where I’m stopping for now. Saying “yes” to someone else can feel magical. But being comfortable enough with yourself to say “no” comes first—that and helping others to make this world a safer place.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jonathan Bartlett, MA, MFT, therapist in Campbell, California

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Felix F

    Felix F

    December 13th, 2017 at 10:48 AM

    This is a good talk. Wish more parents did this. That said, I’ve never seen a mixed gender sex talk that didn’t end in hysterical giggling. You have to do the daughter and son separately if you want any hope of them paying attention.

  • Tracy

    Tracy

    December 13th, 2017 at 1:11 PM

    Great article. Would love to see the elementary school version of this talk. Thanks for posting :)

  • girlpower

    girlpower

    December 20th, 2017 at 12:57 PM

    This is good suggestions but really the focus should be on teaching boys about consent and preventing men from becoming abusers. It’s not the victims responsibility to avoid being abused… They aren’t the bad guy

  • Jonathan Bartlett

    Jonathan Bartlett

    December 21st, 2017 at 5:12 AM

    Girl Power, you are right and I wish I would have used more of your words in my article.
    Invasions on young women’s sexual boundaries happen all the time and it is not their fault.
    It’s fine for me, as a father to daughters, to remind them to hold positive views about their bodies.
    But when negative interactions happen, the focus on accountability should always be on the aggressor.

    Here’s an amendment to the part in Wednesday’s talk that focuses on the abuser:

    “First, you have to recognize that aggressive urge when it shows up. If you’ve done something stupid or hurtful, apologize right away, repair any damage you caused if you can, and learn from your mistakes. Never blame who you hurt for what you did. Don’t bother justifying yourself. Just stop doing it.”

  • Joanne

    Joanne

    January 6th, 2018 at 6:11 AM

    Such empowering information for women.A long belated type of discussion that gives women valuable insight about their bodies.

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