How do we convey important messages about violence in society without paralyzing our children with fear? The serious, scary and awkward ongoing conversation about sexual harassment and assault is so important. So I’ve been speaking with my two teen daughters about it, because I want them to be strong and aware, not quaking in their boots. Many high school health classes, college orientation weeks and certain clubs and activities address sexual assault and harassment to some degree. But we must do more, and discuss this with girls and boys, whatever their sexual orientation, and however safe their high schools or colleges may seem. We should aim to structure the talks as discussions instead of lectures, and encourage our children to express fear, thoughts and concerns. (RAINN.org offers helpful guidelines for this.)

My conversations with my daughters is ongoing – but to start with, I provided advice that falls into five categories: Awareness, Self-Defense, Respect, Saying “NO”, and Strangers (and Not Strangers).

  1. Awareness. Stressing the importance of being aware and careful at all times (“healthy paranoia”), I encouraged my daughters to stay clear-minded, including avoiding alcohol and drugs that can impair judgment and awareness (especially in underage students). I reminded them to be cautious at parties with open-cup drinks – creeps can spike drinks with more alcohol or even with GHB, the so-called “date rape” drug. If they are assaulted or in trouble, they should get help from campus security, the police and/or a designated authority figure. And they should be aware of other students – if they are being assaulted or disrespected or are otherwise in trouble, they should help them out of harm’s way and immediately report any suspicious behavior or assaults to the appropriate authority figure.
  2. Self-Defense. While there is no safety guarantee in any situation, knowing basic self-defense can often help. According to ModelMugging, a company providing self-defense training for girls, “increased awareness and assertiveness skills carry over to stronger boundaries and reduce the risk of sexual assault.” In the unfortunate event of an attack, I’ve advised my daughters to: Push, scratch, or bite part of the attacker’s face, fingers or another part of the body (and bite hard); jab the attacker’s eyes, ears and nose with fingers, a pencil or pen, a fork or spoon; kick, elbow or head-butt the attacker; spit on or yank the hair, nose or ears of the attacker; and use their voices to say “no,” yell and scream for help. This may sound uncomfortable or like something you could not imagine yourself doing, but sometimes physically striking out in some way can help deter an assailant.
  3. Respect. Another discussion to have with your child, especially a son but even a daughter, is about RESPECT. Make it clear to your child that he or she needs to respect the boundaries and personal space of other students, and to listen if they express discomfort of any kind. They must hear clear consent to proceed with any activity; if there is no consent, or unclear consent, they must stop. And they must NEVER: physically or emotionally force another student into an unwanted sexual situation; rape or sodomize or molest or violate another student or students; or record (audio, visual, or even posting text updates about it on social media) other students having intimate relations with each other.
  4. Saying “No.” Saying NO with conviction can take practice, no matter what you’re saying no to: if it’s something you fear or don’t want, such as unwanted touch, sexual advances, drugs or drinks; or if it’s a group of peers asking you to go somewhere that’s uncomfortable for you. Practice by looking in the mirror, imagining realistic scenarios, and imagining how you might react and even retaliate, if your “no” is disregarded and a situation becomes threatening.
  5. Strangers (and Not-Strangers). Kids know about “stranger danger” from an early age, but sadly, more often, assaults are committed by someone the victim knows: an acquaintance, friend, or even a trusted adult.  Even if it is someone they know who is forcing them into unwanted sexual contact, they should still defend themselves. And they should know that if people they know are committing assault, those people are not friends.

I hope my kids and yours will think carefully about these issues as they go off into their adult lives. And I hope that none of them will be the victims of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault. But some of us have lived through the pain, and we want to equip our children with ways to avoid trouble and deal with it wisely, should it occur.

More resources:

Ellen Levitt is a lifelong resident of Brooklyn, NY. A veteran teacher and freelance writer, she is the author of the three books in the series The Lost Synagogues of New York City (Avotaynu), and Walking Manhattan (Wilderness Press). She belongs to the East Midwood Jewish Center and sings in the choir, as well as leading parts of the service at times throughout the year. She and her husband have two teenage daughters. She has perfect pitch and you can test her, go ahead.