How To Talk To Young People About The Kavanaugh Story

Sep 21, 2018
Originally published on September 22, 2018 2:40 am

Young people around the country are among those joining the debate over Christine Blasey Ford's accusation of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh in 1982, when both were teenagers.

What are teens learning from all this? And how should adults be handling this conversation?

One night during the summer of 2017, a teenager named Francesca in Virginia was assaulted by a classmate: "I was pinned down and he fondled my breasts and sexually assaulted me." We're only using her first name because she's 15 years old.

Francesca says she struggled at first with coming forward, but eventually became an activist and public speaker on consent and survivors' rights.

Jules Spector, meanwhile, is an 18-year-old graduate of a private high school in Brooklyn, now taking a gap year before attending Wellesley College.

Spector is also a survivor of sexual assault, and it took her years to come forward. She says she's willing to use her full name because she is a feminist activist who feels the importance of raising public awareness.

The accusations against Judge Kavanaugh have reminded her of parties she's attended, and boys she knew in high school.

"A lot of boys that I've grown up around have the thought that they can do anything," Spector says. "And these decisions that they make, whether inebriated or not, won't follow them later in life because they can just forget about the horrors that they caused people and move on with their lives and become successful."

She says she admires Christine Blasey Ford for confronting the issue.

"The amount of strength it takes to come forward is unparalleled. And no one does it for attention, because it's the most painful thing you could possibly do, but also the strongest thing you could possibly do."

For too many young people like Spector and Francesca listening to the news right now, they're not learning about sexual violation — because that's already happened, if not to them then to someone they know.

What they are learning, educators say, is whether the adults in power will take these claims seriously, and whether speaking up results in harsher consequences for survivors or for those accused.

So how are we supposed to talk to our children about all this? Here's some guidance from experts:

1. It's your job.

"As parents, you are the primary sexuality educator of your children — whether you're saying anything or not," says Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit that works for honest sexual health education. Francesca works with the organization.

When something like this is in the news, as it has been all too often lately, Hauser adds, it's "a great teachable moment." Talking about a situation that doesn't personally affect your kids or someone they know can be a less threatening way to open up the topic.

2. It's not too soon.

Hauser says conversations about consent and bodily autonomy can — and should — predate any discussion of the mechanics of sex.

"You see two 4- or 5-year-olds, where one wants to borrow the other one's crayon and they just grab it," she explains. "And the response that you have is, 'You have to ask for it. And if that other child says no, you have to respect that and find another way to get a crayon.' That's the very beginning of consent education right there."

3. Give them the information.

Karen Rayne is a sex educator with a nonprofit called UnHushed. She also has a daughter in middle school and one in high school. She says giving kids the facts they need is especially crucial for younger teens. "They're going to hear whispers and not really have access to full information or the skill set to find that information."

4. Be the "askable" parent.

In other words, Hauser explains, be the one that your children can come to with questions. She says that, by bringing up tough topics even when they make you uncomfortable, you increase the likelihood that your child will do the same.

Francesca says she confided first in her friends about her assault. It took her awhile to share the story with her mother.

"My mom was surprised and very upset as any mother would be, but she was very very helpful," Francesca says. Her mother, sadly, had her own experience of sexual violence to draw on. "She knew the process and the importance of reporting the crime to the police."

5. Or designate someone else they can talk with.

Each year, on their birthdays, Hauser would tell each of her children (who are now grown) to name a trusted adult outside of the family to share hard things with. Things they might be tempted to keep secret because of a fear of punishment, a fear of disappointing a parent, or for any other reason.

" 'Let's agree on a couple other adults that you respect that you could go and talk to,' " she told them. " 'And we'll go together and tell them that we have this agreement.' "

6. Talk to potential perpetrators, not just potential survivors.

When talking about sexual assault and consent, we often focus on victims, and primarily on girls.

But, "it's the people who are doing the sexual assaulting that need a different kind of education and a different kind of support starting from a very young age," says Rayne. "About things like [what to do] when they're attracted to someone or interested in someone and that person rejects them."

With the right education, says Rayne, a young man might be able to say, " 'Oh, you know what? I've been drinking too much and I feel like my capacity to make wise decisions is failing me.' Or, 'Hey, you know, when someone's trying to push me off of them, that's something that I should take as a cue to get off.' "

Hauser says the landscape of consent is shifting for this generation, and not only with the #MeToo movement. Guidance issued under President Obama has led to a greater emphasis on sexual misconduct prevention and enforcement on campuses under Title IX. And, several states are working towards adding consent to their high school sex education standards.

But, Hauser and Rayne say, there's a lot more work to do.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

There can be no doubt that this has happened to a lot of parents lately. They're in the car with their kids, and the radio is on, and a story about Christine Blasey Ford comes on that radio. She accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault when both were teenagers. How do you talk about that story with teenagers? We should warn you that some people may find the next 3 minutes or so disturbing. Here's NPR's Anya Kamenetz.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: In 2017, a teenager named Francesca was assaulted by a classmate.

FRANCESCA: One night during the summer, I was pinned down, and he fondled with my breasts and sexually assaulted me.

KAMENETZ: We're only using her first name because she's 15 years old. She struggled with coming forward, but eventually became an activist and public speaker on consent. For far too many young people like Francesca who are listening to the news right now, they're not learning about sexual violation because it's already happened - if not to them, then to someone they know.

What they are learning is whether the adults in power will take such claims seriously and whether speaking up results in harsher consequences for survivors or for those accused. Debra Hauser is president of Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit that works for honest sexual health education. She calls this moment...

DEBRA HAUSER: A little bit of a, I think, battle for kind of the soul of our nation and whether we'll have equity for young women or not.

KAMENETZ: So how are we supposed to talk to our children about all this? Hauser says the reality is...

HAUSER: As parents, you're the primary sexuality educator of your children, whether you're saying anything or not.

KAMENETZ: But, Hauser says, when something like this is in the news...

HAUSER: This is a teachable moment, so to speak, that a parent can use.

KAMENETZ: She says your goal is to be someone your kids can turn to in a tough situation.

HAUSER: The most important thing is to try to be an askable (ph) parent.

KAMENETZ: In other words, a parent who is open to being asked about anything.

HAUSER: And so, in this situation, I think, having a conversation about what happened, why it happened, what's going on right now, what your child might think of the situation.

KAMENETZ: Sexual assault is one of the hardest topics to bring up. But as a parent, you don't have to have all the right answers. You don't even have to have any answer.

KAREN RAYNE: You just need to engage in the conversation.

KAMENETZ: Karen Rayne is a sex educator with a nonprofit called Unhushed. She says we need to think about what we tell potential perpetrators.

RAYNE: You know, it's the people who are doing the sexual assaulting that need a different kind of education and a different kind of support starting from a very young age about things like when they're attracted to someone or interested in someone and that person rejects them.

KAMENETZ: With the right education, says Rayne, a young man might be able to say...

HAUSER: Oh, you know what? I've been drinking too much, and I feel like my capacity to make wise decisions is failing me. Or, oh, hey, you know, when someone's trying to push me off of them, that's something that I should take as a cue to get off.

KAMENETZ: For Francesca, the 15-year-old survivor, she's worried about the lessons this moment in history will teach.

FRANCESCA: People already do not take kids seriously, and when survivors' needs are ignored after sexual assault, they suffer even more.

KAMENETZ: She says, no matter what happens, teenagers and their parents need to come forward and break their silence.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.