The Integrity Of My Son’s Body: Consent, Respect, Touching and Teaching

As the mother of a young, affectionate son who has been taught about consent and respect of personal boundaries, it is upsetting to me to hear the number of people (mostly women) who feel an appropriate response by a girl to an unwanted kiss/touch is to physically assault a boy in his genitals.

One of these things is not like the other.

If we are demanding respect for the integrity of our daughter’s bodies, then so too must we do the same for our sons. My son’s body is just as precious to me as my daughter’s. Both deserve respect, as do your children.

I have taught my children the only reason that you would ever assault someone in their genitals is if the situation presents imminent bodily harm and that is their only means to get away. Assaulting a male in his genitals is not the correct response to a troublesome or annoying behavior that does not leave you in physical danger. In teaching our children to do so, we teach them that the easiest way to solve a situation and degrade someone is to violate a person’s body in their most private part.

I don’t want my children raised in a generation where cunt punts and racking nuts are the way we handle unwanted affections, even if it is repeated and even if it is bothersome or out of line. In fact, this horrifies me.

This morning I posted the story of the Colorado boy , six year old first grader Hunter Yelton, suspended for kissing a girl’s hand. Knowing the story was not as simple as this, I waited 24 hours after first hearing of the story to post anything because what has struck me in the past is that the offended parent of the perpetrator goes quickly to the media to cry foul and what we don’t accurately hear is the story from the victim (cc: the Town of Steubenville). I read no less than twelves links on the story from various sources and watched several videos, all featuring or quoting the boy’s mother. Because I searched by the boy’s name and the school’s name (the victim’s name obviously has been withheld), I did not come across this article which as of this morning was the only media piece featuring the voice of the family of the girl (the victim). But because the article talking about the girl didn’t use the boy’s name, it didn’t hit my radar.

And here is the problem: This story is about how consent and respect weave together, not about she said/he said with stories so opposite that the other party’s information is not included in the same piece. Maybe we need to change the way we report and talk about sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault in our culture.

The story has now descended into threads about who was right or wrong, what is the real history, what the appropriate punishment should be, etc. Yes, it is important for the boy to learn his repeated behavior is unacceptable and that he needs to respect the personal space of his peers and that “no means no”. The boy may or may not have some underlying behavioral issues that prevent him from learning this on the same curve as other children. The girl’s family seems to have done a good job teaching her how to establish boundaries and seek help.

What concerned me was that there was no representation in the media of the girl, and that we were only hearing the boy’s side which was being chalked up to a cute school yard crush and an innocent kiss. The boy’s name and the institution were all over the media, yet there was nothing of the girl. And isn’t that usually the case? Granted the girl’s mother came forward with a statement much later than when the story broke, and I would imagine she wanted privacy for her family. The problem is, none of these media outlets questioned what her side was or that her point of view should be taken into consideration. MOST IMPORTANTLY: I didn’t hear any media question whether or not the touching was consensual.

The media downplayed it, and in so doing they played a card from Rape Culture each time they talked about how cute the boy was, calling him a Don Juan or charmer or Casanova, saying the girl’s mom overreacted, and excusing his behavior as “boys will be boys”. The boy’s mom excused it because she said the children were “boyfriend and girlfriend”, it was an innocent crush, and the girl was okay with the kiss. The important question is: Was she?

The other concern I had was that in being suspended the boy and his mom didn’t seem to be taught the lesson they needed about consent and respect. They were taught punishment and isolation. The school followed policy, and whether or not a six year old is capable of sexual harassment isn’t really the issue. The issue we should be discussing is how do we teach our children the concepts of body integrity, consent, and respect.

As the conversation unfolded in the PPBB community I was contacted by my friend and colleague Dr. Rebecca Hains who had written a piece this morning on the subject. In her piece Hains questions why we are getting lost in the trees and not seeing the forest:

But it really bothers me that no one is talking about the bigger picture: the fact that we need to teach our children—even very young children—about bodily autonomy and consent. Shouldn’t that be the takeaway from this case? We should be having a cultural conversation about how to raise boys who know that girls’ bodies are not theirs for the taking—who respect both themselves and others.

Girls bodies are not there for the taking and boys bodies are not punching bags when they get annoying. Girls and boys have the natural born right to have their small bodies respected. So how do we teach consent, respect, and body integrity (Hains calls this bodily autonomy) to our kids?

We start by teaching them that this concept begins with them self. Teach them the appropriate words for body parts. Teach them who are the trusted circle who can touch their private parts for toileting, bathing, or medical reasons. Teach them they have the right to say “No” at any time. With both of my children we had instilled these lessons by age two.

Next – we teach our children that affection is a wonderful part of a friendship, but we need to ask before we give it. I love this example from Hains’ piece linked above:

My five-year-old son loves to hug and kiss his friends. He is sweet and affectionate, and when he first sees a friend or when it’s time to say goodbye, he wants nothing more but to wrap his arms around that friend and give him or her a big kiss. Sometimes, his friends reciprocate, but sometimes, they clearly don’t want the physical contact. So, since about the time when he turned four years old, and he seemed old enough to understand, we’ve told him that he needs to ask his friends for permission first. We taught him to ask, “Can I give you a hug and a kiss?” We’ve also told him he needs to respect their answers, even if it’s disappointing, and I’m glad to see that this is now his usual approach. He gets their consent.

The other side of this coin is that we should not expect our children to want to return affection just because someone wants to give it. Whether it is a peer at school or a rarely-seen uncle or the neighbor lady you bump into at the store, your child is not required to hug or kiss or cuddle anyone. If the child declines, no means no. The child is a person, not a teddy bear. Included in this is tickling or play wrestling — when the child says enough, that means enough, not continue playing and teasing.

Then we need to teach our children how to establish boundaries and that at any time they are made to feel uncomfortable they can turn to a trusted adult to share their concerns and that they will be taken seriously. Phrases like “My body belongs to me” or “That is my private part” or “This is inappropriate” are concepts preschoolers on up understand. As the child is older, you can teach them “Your words/touch are making me uncomfortable and I am telling you to stop” or “This is inappropriate and you need to hear me telling you NO”.

Sometimes, I feel like teaching advocacy is the easy part. Teaching our children to hear it – to respect another – is sometimes not as easy. Our children need to be taught that it isn’t funny or cute to pressure someone into physical contact, even if that contact is (in their mind) affectionate. Our children need to be taught that when someone says no, that means hands off or walk away. Our children need to be taught that when someone uses their voice, it is our responsibility to hear it and honor it. Our children need to be taught that when they see harassment, they seek help for the victim and not remain silent and blind for the perpetrator.

Body integrity (bodily autonomy) means that every human body is sacred and comes with a voice and that voice deserves respect. It means that we do not cause harm to the body of another person. It means that every human has the right to their body as their own and the right to their personal space. Full stop.

I hope the conversation around this story shifts and that we get out of the he said/she said mentality and instead focus on what the take away should be: Consent, Respect, Touching and Teaching.

 

July 16 Shoot 044 Special thanks to Rebecca Hains for discussing this topic with me in a way that creates meaningful change.

 

 

 

Comments

  1. Excellent, as I always expect from you. Respecting yourself and your body cannot start too early. Setting boundaries and being empowered to keep them is something we all deserve. For many years one of my daughters would not hug anyone. Her affectionate greeting was to touch index fingers with someone and that was that. It was her right to set that limit and she made sure everyone respected it. Bravo, Melissa!

  2. mistakesweremade says:

    I appreciate someone wading into the grey areas of this story, but I find myself resisting your conclusions, especially when you ask whether the kiss in question might have been consensual. I’m not sure there can be such a thing as consensual kissing between five-year-olds. I have reservations about how much a five-year-old girl can understand the difference between what she wants, which may not be clear to her, and what she is expected to want, which is damn near crystal clear to her.

    At five years of age, most girls believe that they will someday be married. This message has been delivered to them, exclusive of all others, since infancy. For all the girl culture out there in which the main character lives happily ever after with her prince, how many times are girls told a story in which the princess just doesn’t want physical attention from the prince? I know Brave tried to go there, but the message still seemed to boil down to, “Hold out for the right suitor” (you know, the handsome charming prince who will surely show up someday), and that message allows girls to continue to labour under the misunderstanding that heterosexual romantic love is a compulsory part of adulthood. I really want to stress that word: COMPULSORY. I’m not even sure it’s possible to convince a five-year-old girl how optional romantic love is. I tried many times, and I’m pretty sure I failed.

    So, while your heart goes out to the little boy who may have been misguided about the appropriate way to show affection, mine goes out to the little girl who almost certainly views her relationship with the boy not as something she wants for her own happiness, but as external validation that she is performing girlhood correctly. At some level, girls understand that saying no to romantic love is tantamount to saying no to growing up to be a woman. It’s implied to them that falling in love and kissing boys is what girls do, it’s a natural part of growing up, and it’s expected of them.

    My argument is that it’s practically meaningless to teach consent to someone who has been taught that it is her job to be prince-worthy. How can you ask her to evaluate whether she likes being kissed when being kissed makes her just like Pocahontas, Mulan, Ariel, Jasmine, Belle, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel and Anna, just to name the Disney heroines? Five-year-olds are notoriously heavy on aspiration and light on reason.

    I might be wrong about this, maybe too deterministic. Maybe I have an unusually gender-compliant kid. Maybe other girls chafe under this type of expectation, and are more likely to defend their true wishes against it. Even if that’s true, though, it doesn’t change my position, because then my kid is exactly the one a no-sexual-aggression policy is designed to protect. It’s the adults’ job to set the limits on our kids until they are ready to set those limits for themselves, and I just don’t agree that even the best understanding of body autonomy and consent is enough to prepare a five-year-old to set those limits for herself.

    • Mistakesweremade –
      I think your comments jump to a lot of conclusions, so let’s clear those up. I don’t think your comment gives little girls a lot of credit. In fact, it feels like you turn them into victims just for being female. Your outlook does not mesh with a lot of the little girls I know.

      First, young children can share a consensual peck on the cheek or kiss of the hand and that is very age/developmentally appropriate. Second, I understand what you are saying about girls being conditioned by our culture at large to grow up to be marriage material, but you are making a lot of assumptions about how immersed in Princess Culture this little girl was and what she may or may not have been taught by her family about boundaries, expectations and respect. Your comments would not fit my daughter at all, for example. We don’t do princess brain washing in our house and my daughter knows that marriage is a choice and not an expectation for her, and she would have been able to articulate this at age five. From everything I read from the girl’s mom, it sounds like her family was doing a great job teaching her to advocate for herself. When I think of the girls in my daughter’s second grade class (one year older than the children in this story) I believe 2/3 of them would have no problem telling a boy not to kiss them or back off and have seen them do so during the two and a half years that we have been in school with them. And it was, in fact, the second grade girls at our school who were the sexual aggressors on the playground this fall initiating the Kissing Game.

      I’m not sure why you would say my heart goes out to the boy as a way to devalue my post and my points. It is rather clear that my heart goes out to both children and families involved, and that was the point of this post. It is not he said/she said, who was right/who was wrong. That fails to see the forest through the trees. The bigger issues are consent, respect, and body integrity.

      Also, it is erroneous to think that once you have taught a young child about consent and body integrity you then wash your hands of it and say, “All done here!” This concept is something you revisit and continue to develop in a child. Why you think that is not worth teaching to a child, especially because of her gender, concerns me. There can be policies in place so thick they fill a binder, but that won’t protect your don’t if she is incapable of advocating for herself and using her voice.

      • mistakesweremade says:

        I don’t think I articulated my point as well as I tried to. What I’m trying to emphasize is that policies like the one the school in the article has adopted are meant to protect children from being in situations that we as adults have decided they are too young to make their own judgements on, and that I agree (with the school) that five years old is too young to be making decisions about having physically affectionate romantic relationships. That doesn’t mean every five year old girl is too young to make her own decisions about her body, but I do think (meaning it’s my opinion) that most are too young. You state it as a fact that it can be appropriate for kids that age to hold hands or kiss, but it’s my opinion that it’s really not — or, at the very least, that it’s worth the price of limiting the behaviour of some kids who are ready in order to protect those who aren’t.

        My point about girl culture was that the messages our children receive are more about ensuring that every single girl goes down that path than they are about helping girls figure out whether or not they are ready. I appreciate that you managed to sidestep that problem in your household, and that’s one of the reasons I read your blog, for inspiration and renewed strength. But, I have to admit I wasn’t as successful in our household. Barbies came in as gifts from others, Disney movies were watched and gushed over at other people’s houses, princessy songs and dances were learned and copied, etc. I don’t know if this is the reason why my daughter wants to be a married person or when she grows up (before princesses hit, she wanted to be a doctor), but I’m sure it didn’t help. I talk with her about female scientists and engineers and doctors and world leaders to how great both boys and girls can be at math, but it’s clear that she doesn’t find any of it inspiring, at least not at her current age. But, like I said, maybe that’s just her personality?

        I’m also not trying to say that we shouldn’t try to teach our children about consent just because that’s not the whole story. Of course I want them to be able to say yes when it’s for the right reasons and also to be able to follow through when they say no. What I am trying to communicate is that I just don’t think the vast majority of five-year-olds are weighing the various parts of that decision like a teenager or an adult would. There’s a lot of decisions I wouldn’t have wanted to leave up to my daughter at that age, and if crossing a busy street alone is one of them, I really feel like getting physical with a boyfriend is too, and for many of the same reasons.

        I don’t think I was making assumptions about the girl in the story, or her parents, so much as about the appropriate way for a school to react and the reasoning that should go into making that policy. I was trying to get at what kinds of things influence five-year-old thinking, and how much we should trust the personal choices of people that young. And for me, if I found out that my daughter’s boyfriend was kissing her at school and the school was fine with it, I would be very upset with the school’s judgement.

        I take your point about me not giving little girls a lot of credit, but I think the question is really about what kinds of decisions to we hand over to our kids and when. And, while of course every child is different, I thought it was entirely appropriate for the school to adopt a conservative policy when dealing with the entire five-year-old population, regardless of how ready one couple might be.

        I didn’t mean to devalue your points, and looking back that line could be read in a trollish way. I should have reworded it. I respect your opinion and I think that for children who are more assertive and more clear about what they want, your position is the best one. If you trust your child’s judgment enough that you don’t think you have to interfere, then obviously you shouldn’t. I don’t think I can do that with mine, who, when she was that age, commonly did things she didn’t want to to please others (she is much better about that now, due to maturation and repeated conversations about how she doesn’t have to do anything just to be nice, and she should stand up for herself if she’s not comfortable, and she can always come talk to an adult if she doesn’t feel up to that). I guess I can see it going either way for the girl in the story, and I hope that the adults in her life would be able to tell the difference between a girl who really wants a boyfriend and a girl who has agreed to go along with it — I’m not always sure I can.

        I honestly think if we were having this conversation face-to-face we would find ourselves in agreement more than disagreement, really. It’s just that one point, about whether a five-year-old is ready to make decisions about having a boyfriend or girlfriend, that we would disagree on. But, you know, I could be wrong, and you’ve definitely given me reasons to rethink my beliefs.

        • I think this time around you did a much better job explaining your thoughts. It is okay if we don’t agree on all points. I do think it is age appropriate for kindergarteners to hug, hold hands, give a peck on the cheek if it is consensual because those are age appropriate displays of affection. BUT — that does not mean I think it is appropriate to do at school or that children that age should have boyfriends/girlfriends. All I am saying is that it is developmentally appropriate.

          I think ultimately you and I are after the same thing: Girls and boys who understand the important of consent and respecting each other and each others bodies.

  3. mom of a son says:

    I don’t think that Melissa is saying that teaching children to understand and speak up for their body autonomy is a complete and adequate solution in itself, as if the adults, having done their job, can simply ignore the situation. But if we don’t teach the kids — boys and girls alike — to respect each others’ bodies and get consent, then the situation you are complaining about, Mistakesweremade, will never, ever change.

    But I’m the mother of a sweet and affectionate small boy too, who loves to give and receive kisses (and has a female “best friend” who is quite capable of telling him she does or does not want a kiss, thank you very much). He’s not thinking about romance, let alone sex; it hasn’t even dawned on him that he could kiss anything other than a cheek — or the cat. I’m teaching him to ask and respect the answer. Melissa’s original point, that he does not deserve to get kicked in the nuts if he forgets, is an excellent one. I too was appalled by the number of mothers advocating such a violent reaction toward a child. Surely we can come up with more constructive responses than that.

  4. As I commented on your Facebook post yesterday, it seems that many people forget that children are still learning how to fit into their world. Yes we need to teach them the concepts of consent and body integrity. But teaching is a process and we wouldn’t kick someone in the groin just because they didn’t learn their ABC’s in time, would we?
    As for the kissing, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the concept if romantic love. My 6 year old kisses lizards that she catches and i’m sure it’s not because I have conditioned her to marry a when she grows up. It’s just because she likes them and thinks they are cute. I’m sure i’m at fault here though, because I kiss my children constantly even though I don’t have romantic feelings for them so they probably learned that from me.

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