READER POST: A few years ago, my daughter had a lesson in school about early American history. In it, the teacher mentioned (but did not detail) the rape and abuse of the native peoples on a mass scale and taught that such terrible acts have been used in war and oppression in all of history. He taught his students that we learn about these things so we can recognize the evil in them and fight it. Because he comes from a culture that has experienced a great deal of violence and persecution, he wanted to be honest about history.
When my daughter came home, she asked me several questions about war and rape. I felt physically ill. I was horrified that her teacher had torn back the curtain on our broken world and revealed it in all its ugliness—revealed that rape isn’t limited to isolated violence behind closed doors, but, throughout history, has been used on a mass scale as a weapon of war, subjugation, and torture.
I felt angry that he had opened this wound under the cold daylight when I had hoped to peel back one layer at a time—one skinned knee, one bruise, one tiny ache—until she understood. I was utterly heartbroken for my daughter because she now understood that her gender has taken the brunt of the some of the worst cruelty our species can muster, and that it was that much more prevalent if a female has the “wrong” skin color, country of origin, accent, or religion.
The truth is, I wasn’t ready for the soft, warm, safe world I had knitted around her to unravel. I stifled the desperate urge to frantically tie all the loose threads back together so quickly that I could pretend they hadn’t come apart. I fought the desire to conflate ignorance with innocence and protect the latter by keeping the former in place.
And then I felt the calm. I felt the moment wherein I realized this opportunity was a gift. I want my children to help make a world that is safe, not exist in world where they have a false sense of safety that actually puts them in danger. I don’t want them to live in fear; I want them to live empowered in knowledge.
I sat with my daughter and openly, calmly discussed everything. We talked about how she and I stood arm in arm with each other and all of our sisters throughout history—survivors by birthright, strongest together, responsible to stand and fight and lift each other up.
We talked about consent. We talked about safety and abuse and communication and worth. We talked about the things no one can take from you. We talked about healthy, intimate relationships and contrasted it with coercion. We talked about living with the ability to see both the beauty and the ugliness in the world and the ability to find joy in the one while battling the other.
The moment a group decides there exists an “us” and a “them,”or that “we” are somehow more righteous or special or chosen or human than they are is the moment to begin battle. My fumbling attempts weren’t perfect, but it was age appropriate and enough. I might not have been ready, but she was, because the truth is that:
1. It is possible to teach about rape from an early age in an appropriate manner.
2. Children have a right to the words to explain what is happening to them. Choosing other words to explain the same concept doesn’t protect them and may hurt them.
3. Open discussion of this helps remove some small measure of the shame and pain survivors feel as they discuss their experiences with others. We are all stronger together, but we cannot join together if everyone remains silent.
4. We don’t live in a safe world and we need to discuss these things with our children. We should discuss rape right alongside fire safety, earthquake safety, and first aid. We sometimes forget how privileged we are to live in a society that can shield its children from crimes children around the world face on a daily basis—from hunger to war to illness to, yes, rape.
If we were asleep at home when a fire started, we’d be grateful for the stranger who banged on the door and shouted “Fire!” even though that moment scared our children, even though we hadn’t wanted to teach them about house fires because it would make their world feel less secure. If we were in city where someone had placed a bomb, we’d thank the person who sounded the alarm, even though we hadn’t discussed terrorism at home.
We can’t wait to have these conversations because, no matter where we reside, we live in that home and that city.
I think these conversations hurt because we don’t want to have our children face a world with fires or bombs or war or rape. But we live in it every day, no matter how well we try to block it out. While I originally wanted to shield my children and introduce every difficult topics on my own schedule, I realized that the world has its own terms and time.
Hurt because we live in world with cruelties. Hurt because the fire is at the doorstep and our children need to know while they can get out. Hurt, and let that hurt drive change.
That year my daughter learned about rape from a history lesson is the year we learned that a little girl a little girl we knew—a girl my daughter’s age—was being raped on a regular basis.
McKenna Denson cried “Fire!” in a calm voice at the podium in an LDS meetinghouse, letting the congregation know a sexual predator worships among them. No child is too young to have an age-appropriate conversation about sexual assault, and for those parents who had not done so, Denson’s warning may be the greatest gift anyone has ever given them.
Ashley is a lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a mother of four, and a psychology graduate. Ashley aspires to help alleviate the pain of those who are hurting when she “grows up,” although she hasn’t quite worked out the details just yet.
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