Sexual harassment, consent, and hugging grandma
Yesterday in my middle school class we talked about sexual harassment. The students had a general notion of these as bad things, but little in the way of details. The problem is generally that people misconstrue sexual harassment with sexual assault. They don’t realize that harassment can be verbal, can be directed at someone else entirely, and is really dependent on how it makes someone feel. Teasing apart these nuanced issues – including the problems with encouraging someone to smile – helps young people understand for the first time why they have felt uncomfortable, gross, off-put, or discomfited in so many situations.
This particular class jumped into the discuss with great gusto, and we teased apart when it’s okay to hug someone and when it’s not. How do you respond to unclear signals around physical contact? What do you say or do when it’s your grandmother hugging you, and maybe you wanted the hug initially, but then it goes on for too long, and you start to feel uncomfortable? And how does that response translate to a same-age peer or a boyfriend or a girlfriend? These were all questions my students asked me yesterday, and they pinpoint the issue quite beautifully.
I was recently asked by a parent of young children how he could help his young daughters learn about consent so that they would feel strong in themselves as young women who were being physically sought after by boys and men. I don’t think he liked my answer, but it was the same one that I gave to my middle school students yesterday:
It’s okay to decline a hug from your grandmother. Hopefully you and your children have relationships with each other and other family so that a hug is welcome. But it is in these very young years, when children are taught that they must give someone a hug out of duty that begin to ignore their own inner voice about physical contact with another person. This is a vast disservice to young people everywhere!
The same issue applies to tickling. How many children are tickled until they scream, hysterically laughing, “Stop, stop!” and then the parent continues? The parent figures the child is laughing, and so they’re enjoying the game. But tickling (much like sexual contact) invokes a physical response that can be entirely separate from desire or consent. The word ‘stop’ becomes a game. It no longer actually means a withdrawal of consent. Children learn to ignore it when their partners say it and expect their partners to ignore it when they say it. But what can they say instead? When ‘stop’ and ‘no’ have become part of the game, how do you make it clear to a parent/parent/friend/grandparent that you’re actually, really, completely done?
This is such a great topic… sometimes I find myself not knowing when to draw the line as a parent, between teaching my kids how to be civilized and sociable people and at what point it’s ok to risk being seen as rude or unkind when you just don’t feel comfortable with something. Ie, if I have a shy child why doesn’t want to look at anyone or shake hands, say hello, etc, is that ok? Or do I keep encouraging her to do so? I’m comfortable with my kids refusing hugs (my mom was ok with this too), but tickling is tricky with my Dad. He has a hard time listening to “no” or “stop” with my kids and did the same when I was a child. It’s such a touchy (ha!) subject and I’m not sure how to broach it with him in a way that won’t totally hurt his feelings (we have a history of sexual abuse in some distant family, and I worry that he might feel like I’m implying something like that).
That is very hard, Nikki! I’ve found two ways to approach this with adults: First, you can try breezing by it: “Oh, (child’s name) just isn’t feeling very huggy today!” and change the subject. If that doesn’t work, you can fall back on saying your child has had a hard time remembering when you’ve said no to something, and so you’re all putting a lot of effort into listening very carefully to anyone saying no about anything. Both of these approaches let the adult know that it’s not a personal issue – and hopefully diffuse the situation – while supporting the child’s authority to decline physical contact.
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