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How Parents Talk To Children About Consent


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In late 2011, four teenage boys at a party allegedly raped a 15-year-old girl in Nova Scotia. A picture of the incident circulated among classmates and then went viral. In a Facebook post, the girl's mother said she'd been shunned by her friends, bullied and called a slut. She moved, transferred schools, made new friends, started therapy, but a week ago Rehtaeh Parsons hanged herself. Her family took her off life support this past Sunday.

In a note, Rehtaeh Parsons wrote: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends. Her parents also blame school authorities and the RCMP, the Canadian equivalent to the FBI, which dropped the investigation, citing what it called a lack of evidence.

Cases like this and the ongoing investigation in Steubenville, Ohio, prompt many questions, among them, along with biology: Do parents tell their sons and daughters about sexual assault and the meaning of consent? So parents, what do you tell your children about consent? And kids, what did you hear? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, medical emergencies at 40,000 feet. But we begin with Shannon Colleary-Bradley, a mom and blogger who writes for her own site and also for the Huffington Post. Last year she wrote a post called "It Happened to Me: A Letter to My Daughters About Date Rape." And she joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Good of you to be with us today.

SHANNON BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Thank you, nice to be here.

CONAN: And you called it "A Letter to My Daughters About Date Rape." Why did you feel the necessity to send that message?

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Well, it's interesting. When the date rape was occurring for me, the one person that I thought of immediately was my mother and the concern that she would never know what happened to me. And so as now being the mother of two young daughters, the idea that they would ever be in the same circumstance that I found myself in is intolerable.

And my hopes are that as they get a little bit older, they're only nine and 10 right now, but I would say by the time they're in middle school, I'm planning to read the letter to them. And I also thought it might be helpful for other women who have children, both boys and girls, to read this letter to their children.

CONAN: The incident that happened to you, you were a student on vacation in Italy.


CONAN: One of the interesting things about the letter is you said almost immediately after it happened, you started to blank it out, and that if you had not written down notes about the incident, you would never have remembered it.


CONAN: Or the details of it, in any case.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: No, not the specific details. In fact, there was one thing that really stood out when I re-read my journal that I had completely forgotten, which was I think that when we travel abroad we feel that we're anonymous and somehow insulated from the reality of the place that we're in.

And I think as a young college student in Italy up for spring break, I really felt that I could - that I was protected by the fact that I was not from there. And so after I managed to get away from the boy who was attempting to rape me, I was screaming. I was actually screaming rape. But I was also screaming this isn't funny anymore, which was indicative of my state of mind, which is this is real, this is happening.

CONAN: At an earlier point, though, you are unable to speak.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Uh-huh. Well, they say that one of the issues that women have - I'm not sure if this is the same for when someone leaps out and grabs you - but in date rape scenarios they tend to progress in a way where you're uncertain if this is really happening to you. And women have a tendency to actually - their vocal chords freeze, and they don't actually engage their vocal chords.

What I discovered when I finally screamed after 20 minutes of struggling with this young man was that I had not been vocalizing. I had been whispering.

CONAN: Whispering no, no, no, no, stop.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Yes. No, no, no, stop, let me go. Uh-huh. And it wasn't until I broke free of him that I found my vocal chords.

CONAN: Interesting. Let us...

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: My voice, actually.

CONAN: Your voice, exactly. Let's bring another guest into the conversation, Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the 1999 young adult novel "Speak," about a teenager who survives a rape. The book has sold over three million copies. She now travels to schools to speak about her book, consent and rape, and she joins us from member station WRVO in Oswego, New York. And nice to have you with us today.

LAURIE HALSE ANDERSON: Oh, thank you so much, it's a real pleasure to be here.

CONAN: And that issue of speaking, this is a central element of your book.

ANDERSON: Absolutely, that's the hardest thing, I think, any victim of sexual assault has to figure out, is sometimes even in the middle of the assault, as we've just heard from Shannon, or after the assault, finding the courage to speak up and reach out to someone, to get some help and hopefully to get the perpetrator arrested.

CONAN: And now you are speaking about another difficult issue, speaking with kids about the issues of consent, the issues of rape that are raised in your book. It's taught in schools, and you go around to talk to people.

ANDERSON: I certainly didn't set out to become that woman who shows up at school and makes everybody squirm in their seat talking about sex. But you can't talk about sexual assault without frankly discussing sexual intimacy and consent. What does that mean?

One of the things that stunned me when I first started going to schools was the lack of information both on the part of our girls and boys. They know what sex is, they're inundated with it in the media, but very few parents have had the courage to sit their kids down and talk to them about the law regarding sexual assault and the morality.

CONAN: And you say ignorance. How does that manifest itself?

ANDERSON: It manifests itself in one out of six women in the United States being the victim of sexual assault. Forty-four percent of the victims of sexual assault in the United States are under age 18. Whenever I talk to parents about this, I point out how easy it is to teach your children to look both ways before they cross the road, and that leads to not many kids getting hit by cars.

Parents have to find the same courage when it comes to talking to their children about the realities of sexual assault to protect our young women and also to protect our sons. There are plenty of rapes that occur out there by boys who really don't even realize that they're committing rape. Nobody's more surprised than they are when the police show up.

CONAN: Wait a minute, don't even realize they're committing rape?

ANDERSON: Yeah, absolutely. I've had conversations with grown men and teenage boys, and when they look back - usually it's because they were drunk and/or the woman they were attacking was drunk. And when they find out that they didn't get informed consent, when they look back and they realize that she was, as Shannon said, whispering no, or they didn't ask, they just went ahead, or they look back and go wow, she was almost passed out, and then when you point out to them, dude, you belong in a jail cell right now, they're horrified. They're horrified.

CONAN: Shannon Bradley-Colleary, I wanted to ask you: In a sense, by writing this open letter, by publishing it, did you set yourself up? You are now committed. You have to tell your kids.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Oh, absolutely. I recently read a wonderful book to them about sex, and I know a lot of my friends were kind of shocked that I was reading, you know, pretty - you know, a very detailed account of what sex is, and part of that book - forgive me, I don't remember the name of the author - but part of that book deals with date rape and consent.

And I had to kind of skim over some of that, but I think that, you know, protecting the innocence of childhood is overrated. Information is power for children, and they have to be aware, cautious but unafraid, hopefully.

CONAN: We wanted to hear from those of you in our audience who have talked to their children about sex, to your sons and your daughters. What do you tell them about consent? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Amanda's on the line, calling from Salt Lake City.

AMANDA: Hi, Neal, thanks for taking my call. I was just telling your screener that my - when I heard the story about the girl yesterday who they finally took off life support, my heart sunk because my daughter when she was 14 went through a very similar situation. However, it never turned viral. She was not shamed. You know, it never came that far.

She told me about it. We went to the police about it. But she was never - you know, that's really as far as it went. So she has her own demons that she deals with, but that could have been so easily my daughter, and she could have had that same situation.

So I've decided very strongly to talk to my kids much earlier. I now have a 10-year-old daughter, and I also have a 13-year-old son, and we speak very openly, more openly about it than I ever did with my 14-year-old. Well, she was 14 at the time. She's 20 now.

CONAN: And how's she doing?

AMANDA: She's incredible. She's married, actually got married very young still, but she's very happily married. She still has some demons. When she sees a couple of these people around, we live in a small town and a religious town, and she - when she sees these boys, she has a very, very hard time for a few days afterwards. But she's got a very supportive husband, and we're all very open about it now, like I said.

ANDERSON: But it was - it could have been easily the other way. It just happens more often than anybody thinks.

CONAN: And how do you approach this subject with, for example, your 13-year-old son?

AMANDA: Well, definitely with my 13-year-old son it's a different situation. I'm a single mom, and like I was telling - it's - we speak really openly about respecting women and about making sure that he knows that their boundaries are their boundaries and that, you know, with my daughter it will be kind of a different, kind of a different take. It will be more your boundaries are your boundaries, and whether a boy likes you or not, you know, cannot have an effect on your boundaries.

I want her to know before she's ever in the situation what her boundaries can be. You know, I think my daughter was in the situation before we had ever even discussed what she could set her boundaries at, you know.

CONAN: Thank you very much for sharing your story.

AMANDA: Thank you.

CONAN: We wanted to ask Laurie Halse Anderson, the young women you speak with when you go to high schools and middle schools, kids who are reading your book, do the girls there understand that there are boundaries they can set, that they have power?

ANDERSON: You know, it depends on the age of the child and the background that she's coming from. Some girls who are in households like Shannon's grow up pretty strong and being very clear about, you know, what they have permission to do in terms of enforcing the sanctity of their body.

Other kids don't know. It's so bizarre. We're so good in America at putting sexual behavior on television and the media on the computer, and we have too many parents who just, you know, frankly they're failing their children if they're not talking to them about it.

I think part of it comes from this misconception, a very old one, that the rapist is that strange guy in the bushes with a gun. We have to be careful of the language we use. I heard Shannon talk about date rape. Today we just talk about sexual assault. So many women and girls are assaulted by people that they know. It's not the stranger in the bushes with a gun, and that's an important point to get across to everybody.

CONAN: Far more often somebody that they know. Parents, what have you taught your kids about consent? And kids, how have your parents explained it to you? Give us a call, 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. In Nova Scotia, 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons killed herself more than a year after allegedly being raped by four boys. In a post on his own blog, Rehtaeh's father, Glenn Canning, calls our her alleged attackers, the people who shared a photo of the attack, and the investigators who decided there was not enough evidence to make a case.

He writes: Why is it they didn't just think they could get away with it, they knew they could get away with it? They took photos of it. They posted it on their Facebook walls. They emailed it to God knows who. They shared it with the world as if it was a funny animation. How is it possible for someone to leave a digital trail like that yet the RCMP don't have evidence of a crime?

What were they looking for if photos and bragging weren't enough? A bit later he continues: My daughter wasn't bullied to death. She was disappointed to death, disappointed in people she thought she could trust: her school and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too. For the love of God, do something.

Blogger Shannon Bradley-Colleary and Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the young adult novel "Speak," are our guests. And Laurie Halse Anderson, I wanted to ask you: Of course all of us know that most teenage boys, most are wonderful, they're fine. And this behavior is aberrant. This is a very small minority. Yet there's an experience that you've described amongst some of the boys who read your book. They say it's wonderful, I enjoyed it. But then they tell you why was the girl so upset.

ANDERSON: Yeah, the first dozen times I heard that, I wanted to call the guys' mom and say what the heck have you taught your son. But I get this, and it's actually a wonderful question because it's honest. It's coming from a genuine place. Fifteen, 16-year-old boys, 18-year-old boys, they - most of them don't understand the long-term devastating emotional effects that a sexual assault can have. That's the bad news.

The good news is when you talk about it, especially if the message is coming from somebody that they trust and value, most teenage boys understand, and they go oh, now I get it. You know, of course I wouldn't want that to happen to my sister or my mom. And it's been fascinating to watch some young men shift from the position of ignorance, where they can cause great harm, to a position of what I consider to be real manhood, where they want to be that defender, where they want to make sure that other guys understand the rules.

And it just proves to me: A) teenage boys are awesome; and B) they are hungry for somebody to speak up to them about this.

CONAN: And Shannon Bradley-Colleary, let me ask you a question in following up. Your daughters are very young. How do you speak to someone as young as six or eight or nine about sexual assault?

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: You - in my case with my daughters, I try to speak to them as though they were contemporaries of mine. I try - I sort of imbue them - I believe that they're capable of understanding what I'm talking about and taking it in and processing it.

I think children are amazingly astute and can surprise us when we expect more from them. It's funny, I'll talk to my children about something, and I'll think. well, that just went way over their heads, you know. And then a few days later, just in the car driving somewhere, they'll start talking about the topic again, and they've obviously thought very deeply about it and come to conclusions that astound me. I think that we underestimate our children.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Monica, Monica with us from San Antonio.

MONICA: Hi, Neal, how are you?

CONAN: I'm good, thanks.

MONICA: I just wanted to share an article that I actually saw on everydayfeminism.com yesterday, and it talks about teaching kids consent. And it really surrounded about - around the issues of boundaries, reading body language, facial expression, creating empathy for your children, really teaching them how to follow their gut if they feel like something's wrong because a lot of the times these kids will witness rape occurring, but they don't have the courage or - or you know, or they're too scared to act on their gut feeling of, you know, this is wrong, I need to stop this.

So I just wanted to reiterate that the article in Everyday Feminism really, really focused on those very basic things that parents should be teaching their children at a very young age.

CONAN: Monica, did your mother or father teach you any of that?

MONICA: No, my mother really - she taught me about self-esteem and how to respect my body, but she didn't really teach me in how to react when someone else crossed those boundaries. And actually I was a victim of rape three years ago. And, you know, it took me two years to tell my family that happened to me.

But when I did (technical difficulties) my mother and the rest of my family, it turned that she had (unintelligible) experience rape in her marriage.

CONAN: And that's - Monica, I'm so sorry that happened, and yet when you talked to your mother, you shared an experience - obviously everybody's situation, incidents are different, had she talked to you about it? Did she talk about that?

MONICA: She didn't go into the details, but she thanked me for sharing. And she was very understanding. There was no shame whatsoever. I think the important part about my conversation with my mother is that I included my 14-year-old sister in it, and I thought it was very important to share my experience with her as well, because she's going to be going on to high school soon, and she's going to be confronted with the same types of issues.

And if we don't teach our young women how to protect themselves, and also it's very important to teach the young men how to respect women and what it means to value a person in their humanity, not to view women as objects of sexual pleasure and just to be human with each other and to respect each other I think was very important.

CONAN: Monica, thank you very much.

MONICA: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Ken in Sugarland, Texas: To achieve his Eagle Scout, my son was required to get a badge that involved discussing sex with his parents. My husband, his stepfather, told him it was important to always ask a girl what she wanted before he proceeded, and that further, if he saw a situation in which it seemed a girl was being taken advantage of, he should try to intervene.

My husband walked the walked. The first time we went out, he asked me if he could kiss me. That's why I fell in love with him. Whatever the politics of Boy Scouts of America, they did an invaluable thing by precipitating this discussion. And I wonder, Laurie Halse Anderson, that raises the question of where it's appropriate to talk about this.

Obviously in this case, the Boy Scouts prompted a discussion at home. I wonder: Do you get criticism for talking about, well, explicit stuff in schools?

ANDERSON: Oh, goodness, yes. I've been called a pornographer, of all things. You know, and my books have been challenged and banned many places, which I think is an outgrowth of fear. For the most part I think the people who try to challenge or shut me up are doing so because they don't know how to talk to their own children about these things.

Kudos to the Boy Scouts for bringing this up. One of the most useful things that I've found as a parent of four kids, as a way to introduce topics like this to my family, was not only through books like mine, obviously, but sitting down and watching MTV with my kids, you know, and then having a discussion about what we're seeing onscreen, which is usually the kind of behavior that I didn't want my kids doing.

But that allowed us to have a conversation instead of being - you know, me being the heavy mom wagging her finger in their face, it allowed us to share the common story that we were reading or watching. And then I got to hear what my kids thought about it. And that's a pretty useful technique.

CONAN: Here's an email from Molly: I'm the mother of five- and a seven-year-old boy. Often the boys will roughhouse together or with an adult. But when child asks another stop or says no, I remind them the touching must stop. Though I think it's too early to speak with them in regards to consensual sex, I feel I'm preparing them to understand their bodies belong to them, and they don't have the right to continue to play or harass another person after they've been told to stop.

Let's go to Scott; Scott is on the line with us from Austin, Texas. Scott, go ahead please.

SCOTT: Hi, Neal. I just wanted to let you guys know, I'm 25 years old, and I don't remember under any scholastic situation having a conversation about boundaries or about rape in general. And nor do I remember having any conversations with my parents about it. I remember the sentiment mainly being if a woman, a young woman, gets herself into a situation, it's generally her fault.

And that's - and that was the sentiment in my high school. And I know it's a tired subject, but I think a lot of these young rapes are tied to binge drinking.

CONAN: Yes, I think there's certainly an element of that, and drug use as well. But Scott, how do you change that culture in high school, where the blame goes to the victim?

SCOTT: That's a very, very hard thing to have. I've been wondering not to take it (unintelligible) guys. And I think that objectifying women is a big issue. I also think that just teaching abstinence to a certain age or abstinence, yes, alcohol to a certain age because we, clearly, have way too much - excuse me - I'm not articulating myself the way I wish I could. But...

CONAN: Don't worry, Scott. Those of us who have been on the radio for decades, we often have that problem too. So don't worry about it.

SCOTT: I just - I remember one snowy night where in high school where one of my peers was very drunk and she got put into - someone took her up to a bedroom and another peer, who we would never suspected of trying to rape somebody, got caught up there trying to take her clothes off. And I remember the way that they all reacted to it, and it was - some people were very angry and some people wanted to beat his pants off of this guy. I just remembered being very surprised that someone that I knew had that in them, and it was definitely alcohol-related.

CONAN: Well, I'm glad you and your friends reacted in such a way that it didn't get any further than that. And Scott, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: And that, Laurie Halse Anderson, this case in Nova Scotia, the case in Steubenville, Ohio, those were cases where they didn't stop. And the social media part of it where it spread and snickered about, that seems to have done as much damage, almost, as the original incident.

ANDERSON: This is something that has kind of stunned me for as many times I've heard the story, the way that victimization can continue through social media, the way that victims are shamed. People use the phrase slut-shaming now when they're talking about trying to make a woman who's a victim of sexual assault, feel, you know, as she was asking for it which is about as wrong as you could possibly get. I think it points to a culture that is still so deeply uncomfortable talking about sex.

If we take the word sexual away from assault and just think about assault, the way, for example, if you're crossing a parking lot at night and somebody runs up to you and bashes you in the head, that's an assault. Nobody would ever think of victimizing that victim on Twitter because, you know, they got hit in the head. So it's appending the word sexual at the front that's clearly causing all of the issues.

I think my generation of parents has to grow up instantly, right now, admit that we have a hard time talking about this to our kids, and admit that if we love our children, we owe them our strength. We have to find a way to conquer our own fears, sit down and say, wow, this is going to be super awkward, you guys, but I have to start talking to you about sexual assault, what it means, what are the laws, how to protect yourself and what I expect from you if you come across this in your life, not only as a victim, but as a bystander. I think that we can change the culture tomorrow if we would all commit to it.

CONAN: Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the 1999 young adult novel, "Speak," at the Center of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network's effort this month to help raise money for survivors of assault. She's with from member station WRVO in Oswego, New York. Our other guest, Shannon Bradley-Colleary, writes the blog "The Woman," formerly known as "Beautiful." She also writes for Huffington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's an email from Luanne(ph) in Houston: I took a self-defense class for women a while back, and the instructor had to literally teach us how to yell rape. Most of the women had an issue with being that vocal and it floored me how hard it was just to belt out a scream, how it went against the grain of what we've been raised to do. And Shannon Bradley-Colleary, that goes back to your experience. And one of the lessons you derived from the situation you found yourself in is that, well, sometimes, even when you had the opportunity to do some damage and knee your attack or in the groin, you didn't.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Correct. I think one of the things that we don't think about when a woman is sexually assaulted is that she may actually give in to the assault because she's afraid if she fights back, she's going to get - actually be killed. In the incident that I had with the young man, when I had a moment to be able to knee him in the groin, we were in an isolated, deserted area. My concern was - went thorough my mind that, what if I missed? What if it doesn't have the desired effect? He might kill me because at a certain point, he did say he had a knife and that he would kill me. So I was actually going to go along and just get it over with simply to survive.

And I do want to mention there's a wonderful course, it's called model mugging courses where women actually get to beat up on men wearing pads because most of us, as women have not grown up roughhousing or being physical in the way that young men do, and those courses help women to know what it should feel like to fight. And that's definitely something that I'll take my daughters to when they're in middle school.

CONAN: It's been a while since your post went up. I wonder what's been the reaction to it.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Well, it's been interesting. It's been picked up and reposted by a lot of different websites, one being the Huffington Post, and a lot of the mom websites like Babble and BlogHer. And it's got nothing but positive reaction. In fact, my daughter's piano teacher didn't even know that I wrote the blog, but she found it, printed it out and gave it to her granddaughter who was going off to college. I do think it's a map of ways to protect yourself and how to avoid being in situations where this can happen. And it was funny. When I was writing this story, I actually went over to kidshealth.org and put in date rape and the signs of people - what they do to sort of isolate you and get you in a situation where you can be taken advantage of were all signs that happened to me during that incident that I wasn't - unaware of. Information is power.

CONAN: It's interesting. You wrote your blog, your story, as a series of lessons and then how what happened to you illustrated those lessons, for one of them that men are just a lot stronger than women for the most part.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Absolutely. The man who accosted me was my size exactly and when we began to struggle, I was shocked at how immobilized I was. I was incapable of budging him.

CONAN: We're talking about what parents should tell their kids, their sons and their daughters, about sexual assault. Our thanks to Shannon Bradley-Colleary, the writer of the blog "The Woman Formerly Known as Beautiful." Thank you so much for being with us today.

BRADLEY-COLLEARY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: She joined us from NPR West, our studios in Culver City, California. Laurie Halse Anderson is the author of the 1999 young adult novel, "Speak." And she joined us today from WRVO, our member station in Oswego, New York. Thanks so much for your time as well.

ANDERSON: It's been an honor. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And thanks to everybody who called and wrote. We're sorry we couldn't get to everybody's message. Flying is even more challenging for our next guest than it is for most of us. He's a doctor. When a passenger falls ill onboard, she responds. What happens at 40,000 feet when there's a medical emergency? TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.