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.