The #MeToo movement and the ongoing trend of “outing” sexual harassers has redirected our attention to the disturbing fact that sexual assault most frequently occurs in intimate and familiar settings: on dates between friendly parties.
My 17-year old son had read scores of Reddit posts about the Aziz Ansari incident back in January from both men and women alike. Some supported the actor and felt that he had been wrongfully accused. Others lashed out against him, criticizing his behavior as downright Neanderthal. I hadn’t read the details about the incident, so I wasn’t prepared to dive into a full-on discussion with my son about who was right or wrong here. And frankly, my bigger concern was not who should be blamed, but rather what he and my teen daughters needed to take away from the whole mess.
And here’s what I came up with: It takes two.
I don’t mean that the blame rests on both parties. Not at all. I mean that we have to address this situation and others like it with our kids in two ways: from the perspective of both genders.
Talking to Girls About Teen Dating Violence
Girls need to understand first and foremost that they have an absolute right to live free from harassment and abuse. Too often, girls get the message from popular media that they should be flattered by unwanted sexual advances, or that this is simply “how things work.”
Furthermore, girls need to be taught to speak up for themselves, protect themselves, and if necessary, to defend themselves in situations where they’re feeling threatened.
Girls also need to know that it’s okay to express their desires, and to make their desires clear. And if they don’t want to do something when they’re on a date, they need to say “no.” That “no” may not always come across as “no” to some, so they need to be crystal clear in their response, shouting “NO!” if necessary.
In the worst case scenario, when a clear “NO” doesn’t stop an aggressor, it helps for a girl to have a backup safety plan—to know who she should call or text for help.
Girls are often socialized to want to please others, and in the formative teenage years, they crave acceptance from others. It’s vital that a girl understands that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want to, no matter how much her date may plead or cajole. No matter if that means he won’t like her very much or anymore. No matter if the whole school will know. She needs to know that this applies to someone she’s dating for the first time, or the fiftieth time. She needs to know that anyone who wouldn’t like her very much anymore is not worth her anyway. At the moment, that might not seem like a lot to go on, but in the end, she needs to know, it’s everything to go on.
We also know that beyond social acceptance anxiety, there are extreme situations where a girl may be afraid to say “no” because of the threat of violence. If a date is acting aggressively or threatening to escalate a situation, a girl needs to know how to navigate herself to safety and who she should turn to for help, both immediately and in the long term. That means that family members, school staff, and other mentors have an important role to play here in ensuring that a teen’s concerns of dating abuse are taken seriously and addressed.
Talking to Boys about Teen Dating Violence
The burden of preventing dating abuse and sexual violence cannot fall solely on girls. We also have a responsibility to educate boys in healthy relationship standards, and to push back against trends of popular masculinity that insist boys can assert their desires at the cost of others.
Boys need to understand that “no” means no. What’s more important—and this is a hard one—that sometimes, the “no” might come about in a way that’s not so clear to them. It might be a slight hesitation, or it might be a shake of the head. Whatever it is, if there’s any indication that the girl is having second thoughts or that she just doesn’t feel comfortable, he needs to stop. “No” is not a challenge for him to try harder.
Parents are probably used to approaching the topic from this principle of “No means no.” But this leaves a gap where failing to say “no” may mean “yes.” It suggests that consent is assumed until it is verbally refused. A better form of consent education focuses on “Yes means yes.” It eliminates that gray area where if a girl is too drunk to say “no,” it becomes her fault she was assaulted. “Yes means yes” also teaches sex positivity, that sex should be entered into only when both parties consent enthusiastically.
Parents need to know that this is something we should address with our teens early on. It’s something that we can’t assume they’ll learn on the playground, in the gym, on YouTube, or on Reddit. And as the Ansari incident and subsequent fallout prove, it’s something that they won’t automatically understand as adults.
The fact is, dating violence among teens is a reality that can’t be ignored, although the overwhelming majority of parents (80%) continue to do so. One in three adolescents has been abused by their dating partner, with 20% of girls having suffered sexual or physical violence on a date. Although dating violence covers all forms of abuse—emotional, physical, and sexual—the urgency is the same: we need to help our kids now.
If you haven’t already, now is the time to start a conversation with your kids—boys and girls alike—to arm them with the tools they need to respect boundaries, to value themselves and others, and—in the event that they do get hurt—to speak out and ask for help.
As adults, we also need to be able to recognize the warning signs of abuse, because one-third of teens will never tell their parents what’s going on.
Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream.org to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.