Words don’t hurt.
Whoever said this quite possibly never walked through the halls of a high school. Because the atmosphere at schools can get pretty ugly. Nasty. Mortifying. And destructive.
Every time I express concern over an inappropriate book, movie, or television program, my daughter reminds me she sees and hears worse from her peers on a daily basis. Most of the time, she ignores it, pretending those crude, inappropriate jokes and comments don’t affect her.
But every once in a while, when it’s just her and I, she lets me know, sexually offensive comments pierce her tough exterior. They hurt, intimidate and devalue.
“There’s a certain profile of guys you expect this from,” she says. “They’re the guys that will make comments about your butt, or talk about how they plan to sell prostitutes to people when they get older so they don’t have to go to college. They act like this is the funniest thing ever. It’s like girls are something to be bought in a store, like a candy bar. People buy it. It’s nice, but it doesn’t really last long, and when they’re done, they throw it away.”
Our society appears to be giving our teens this very message. From MTV, to Jersey Shores, to popular music, our teens are bombarded with sexual content. The more they listen to and watch sexually explicit material, the more they think about sex, and they can easily begin to expect real life to play-out like the media portrays it. What happens in the movies or on TV when a man is overly aggressive with a woman? He roughs her up; she resists, then suddenly caves and becomes the aggressor.
Many of our teens are confused. Others are intimidated. And it’s important to take note: guys aren’t the only aggressors. Girls can be just as offensive, following guys around, making lewd jokes and comments, blatantly crossing physical boundaries. To be honest, I don’t have all the answers, but I believe actively and consistently teaching our teens respect is a big part of the solution. Respect for themselves, respect for others and respect for healthy sexual relationships. Because sexual harassment is anything but respectful.
“Last year this guy told me he ‘would tap that,’ which meant, have sex with me,” my daughter shared one day. “It made me feel disgusting. Like he thought I was the type of person who would do that.”
In other words, instead of recognizing the guy was behaving inappropriately, she internalized the comments and assumed something must have been wrong with her. I believe it's important we, as parents, help our teens recognize this isn't the case. Sexual harassment is not their fault nor is it about them. It's about another teen who either wants to bully and dominate or who is greatly confused about sex and healthy male-female relationships.
It’s vital to keep the conversation open. We need to teach our teens to respect and stand up for themselves. We need to help them recognize sexual harassment and it’s negative impact, whether it comes from or is directed at them. Then, we must discuss what healthy boundaries and relationships look like.
I suspect some of you might be asking: Is this a topic I must really broach? My teen seems fine and has never indicated a problem with this. Truth is, our teens might be reluctant to initiate these types of difficult conversations on their own, even if they’re an issue. We can help make this discussion easier by asking them non-threatening questions or referring to something.
Get the conversation going.
Encourage your teen to discuss their typical day and the types of things they hear or encounter. Let them know this conversation is always open, should they ever encounter a harassing, uncomfortable, or frightening situation. And check back in with them periodically.
If you learn your child is being or has been harassed:
Let them know, in no uncertain terms, this is not there fault nor a statement on their value or worth. Let them know they have a right to say, “No! Stop! Leave me alone!” They have a right to get help.
Saying no can be tough, especially if the offender is one of the “popular kids.” Because of this, you might want to practice role-playing or talking about all possible scenarios. Not only does this make boundary setting more natural, it will also help your teen plan out what they can or might say ahead of time.
If your teen seems unable to stand up for themselves or the offending teen appears unresponsive, you may need to seek help. This can be a difficult decision to make, especially if this upsets your teen. They might fear retaliation or ostracization. If this is the case, talk with them about the best way to handle the situation and what steps you can take to ensure their privacy and emotional safety.
Sexual harassment is a big deal. It’s not cute, funny, or harmless. And it’s something our teens face daily. But by teaching them respect for themselves and others, keeping the conversations going, equipping them to establish healthy boundaries, and working with them to establish plans of actions, we can help them stand strong and confident in a sexually hostile environment.
*photo credit: Digital Vision/Getty Images