This is a link to a Statscan study on sexual assault in Canada. You’re free to read the whole study, but I want to zero in on one disturbing finding which was just brought to my attention. If you look on page 13, you’ll find that the most common age range for pepetrators of sexual assault is 12 to 17 years.
12 to 17
These perpetrators are not the creepy middle-aged strangers we were warned not to take candy from as children. We teach children, especially girls, how to protect themselves in order to decrease their likelihood of becoming victims of sexual assault, and maybe that’s ok as far as it goes. Certainly, in a world which is broken and violent, self-defense and self-protection can be useful skills. But it’s not enough. Maybe we’ve focused so much on trying to keep children from becoming victims that we’ve forgotten to teach them not to be perpetrators. Maybe we just thought they could figure that out on their own. Unfortunately, it looks like far too large a number of 12-17 year-old boys have not figured this out.
So what can we do, then? How do we keep our sons from hurting our daughters in such a devastating way? With the caveat that I am neither a parent nor an expert on child psychology, I have a few suggestions. I propose that we can teach boys to start respecting girls long before sexual assault even occurs to them. From the time they are little, boys interact with female peers and authority figures. They can–they must–be taught as soon as possible that they have to listen to those women. Is your little sister telling you to give her back her teddy bear? Give it back. Is the neighbourhood girl telling you to stop pulling her hair? Then stop pulling it. They also need to be taught to ask a girl’s permission before invading her personal space in any way. Do you want to borrow your classmate’s pencil? Ask her permission, Do you want to give your soccer teammate a high five? Watch her to see if she’s comfortable, and ask her permission if you’re not sure. This may seem excessive when the stakes are so low, but the stakes get higher before you know it.
Particularly if you are a man, be a model for your children when it comes to respecting women. Never undermine their mother in front of them. Solve disagreements in such a manner that both parties are treated respectfully. If any of your actions do become disrespectful, apologize in front of your children. They need to be able to see that it is ok–good, even–for a man to admit when he is wrong, make amends, and be willing to change. If you are given to spontaneous displays of affection with your wife, you may want to take the opportunity to explain to your children that “Daddy is only allowed to come up and surprise Mommy with hugs because Mommy has given him permission.” Seize teachable moments as they arise. If your children overhear a story on the news about domestic abuse, take the opportunity to talk to them about how sometimes men hit their wives or girlfriends, and this hurts them and is not ok.
I’m sure there are things I’ve missed. As I said, I’m not a parent. However, I firmly believe that respect for women is a crucial value for parents to instill in their sons. As they hit puberty, new conversations will need to occur, but the core of these values can be instilled long before sex becomes an issue. Perpetrators of sexual assault start young, parents and role models of children need to start younger.