Some of you read my title and think, “Duh, of course self confidence is most important.” Some of you read my title and think it’s a little blasphemous. Hear me out.
Most girls are raised to be nice, obedient, kind, and friendly. They are taught from a young age to take into consideration other people’s feelings and to avoid embarrassing anyone else. “Don’t be selfish.” “We must always consider others, dear.” “Shhh, don’t make a scene.” In addition, most kids are taught the idea that so long as they obey, they will be just fine. This happens inadvertently through quiet modeling and it also happens through purposeful teaching.
(I vividly remember this moment, the first time my daughter did NOT want to “just sit there and be quiet.” Look how mad she was.)
Yet there are people in the world who exploit passivity; and there are predators skilled at preying on obedient natures. Our socially appropriate, obedient children aren’t prepared to cross paths with them.
Once in middle school I sat in a dollar movie and the person behind me had his feet through the crack between the upright back and the swiveling seat-part of my seat. Those feet were resting there lightly touching my behind. I found it annoying, but didn’t want to cause a scene. The feet moved further underneath my rear as the movie progressed. As a 12-year-old girl I thought he was annoying and bothersome, I flounced around a few times hoping he’d get the hint and move those feet. I finally grabbed my jacket and wadded it up and sat it underneath me. Never did I consider turning around and saying “cut it out” or going to an adult for help – that would be “telling.” I just took it, not quite understanding the frotteurism going on. (Frotteurism – rubbing up against strangers in an anonymous way.) As an adult, I am understandably horrified. He was gone before the lights came on, and I remember feeling confused about what had just happened. I don’t think I told anyone; it was creepy and uncomfortable and I moved on.
Grooming is behavior that starts small and increases slowly to inappropriate action. It’s a person bumping into you, touching your arm intimately, or saying something mildly off-color to see how you will react. If they get away with it and you don’t protest, later they will move the touch a little more intimate, stand a little closer, or move the conversation a little more off-track. To catch grooming in its earliest stages is difficult – many of us have wondered if something was accidental or purposeful. All of us have been bumped into awkwardly in a crowd. At what point should you say something? When do you set a boundary? Speaking up risks one of those “embarrassing” and potentially “causing a scene” moments we have largely trained our girls to avoid. Calling someone on their pushing-the-line behavior, and naming it grooming, is risky and the very opposite of politely avoiding awkwardness.
Recognizing grooming from an authority figure is tricky for obedient souls, and what’s even more frightening, any confident charmer can appear an authority to kids we’ve trained really well to listen & obey.
Our quiet, kind, friendly, avoiding-embarrassment kids need to practice, through tangible action. They need to learn to recognize, and then rehearse, be rude, say cleverly snarky things, get ‘awkward,’ and even yell. Remember “Stop Drop & Roll” we repeated once a year in elementary school so it was wired into our brains in case catastrophe hit? Or the biannual fire drills where we physically moved our feet and taught our bodies what to do in a flood of confusion? Our girls, our kids, need physical practice doing unfamiliar and awkward defense. They need ongoing conversation about their right to command their own body, their right to feel safe and comfortable even if it means embarrassing somebody else. And their right to protect themselves even if it means feeling “disobedient” to some so-called authority.
One year in college, a boy I was starry-eyed over asked me on a date – the plan was to make dinner at his parent’s cabin in Park City and watch a movie before returning home. This was BYU, I’d been around this guy on a previous group date, so I left excitedly for the date with no worries in mind. We conversed, we cooked and ate, and we settled down to watch a movie – and he cuddled right up to me. Remember grooming? His affection started small and progressed – foot on mine, leg touching mine, hand on my leg, holding my hands, arm around me, head on my shoulder, then face in my neck… I was terribly uncomfortable and was as cold and rigid as could be, hoping he would get the point. What is a 20-year-old girl with no cell phone (it was before those days) to do? There was no way to stop this situation without significantly embarrassing myself and him, plus we had an awkward hour-long drive home ahead of us, so I stayed quiet. I endured him all over me. And I spent the next day in my bed, feeling gross, used, powerless, and icky all over. For months I dreaded seeing him on campus and I walked with my head hung low, avoiding his calls and praying we wouldn’t cross paths.
Again, as an adult, I am horrified. In my lucky case, nothing progressed to sexually abusive levels, but as I look back and ponder the situation, I see how my story mimics countless others that end disastrously. And yes, I should not have gone to a house alone with a boy I basically just met, which could have eliminated much of that awkwardness, but the main point of this story remains – I wasn’t prepared to stand up for myself or to make a fuss if needed. I was more concerned about embarrassment and awkwardness.
After publishing my Chastity Lesson, I agreed with the flood of comments about the need for a sexual safety component. I decided to give it a trial run with my church group of 14-15-year-old girls – talk and practice about owning their bodies and preserving the right to stand up for themselves. I taught them about grooming, I told them my personal stories listed above, and we tried to practice.
They couldn’t do it.
Sixty percent of the girls were quiet and awkward and admitted that they’ve never made waves before and it would be really hard, embarrassing, and awkward to start now. They giggled through role plays (understandable) but said, even knowing what I’d just taught them, still they would probably react passively, much like me in those stories, if it were to happen to them. This terrified me. These girls need to say snarky things like ‘I think this arm belongs to you,” have awkward talks, and if needed be rude, yell, or cause a scene. They need to understand that their dignity is worth some embarrassment on anyone/everyone’s parts. They need to have fire drills standing up for themselves – all the while being reassured that they are not “embarrassing.” We need to show them how much we value their voice by cheering their fragile attempts to showcase their own dignity.
The other 40% of my girls said they’re never going to put themselves in a tempting situation so they don’t need to worry about this. [Insert horrified emoji.] Someday, most of these girls will find themselves kissing a boy and really enjoying it, or will find themselves cuddling alone under the stars in a way that starts innocently… and will then be unprepared to say no even when they want to. Their guilt at having crossed the “I’m just never going to put myself in that situation” line a) risks them getting more intimate than they wanted to because they feel like they’ve invited it and can’t stop now, or b) invites the thought that being taken advantage of is their own fault for placing themselves in that situation in the first place.
They need to hear this from birth: You own your body. It was given to you. You’ve been asked to take care of it. It doesn’t matter where you are, what you’re in the middle of doing, how you’re dressed, or how far you’ve gone already – it is YOURS. Yours alone. Protect it. Put yourself first. You are worth it.
Feeling personal guilt and adopting sole responsibility for abuse isn’t unique to those with religious backgrounds. In my day job as a therapist for teen girls from all walks of life, even my sexually-active-party-life-teenage girls feel like their abuse was deserved because they put themselves in that situation. I die a little inside, remembering a girl who was forcefully raped and she maintained that it was her fault to the last day of our therapy, because even though she was drugged and then abandoned by her friends, she went out when her parents told her not to. This is an example of a girl who has been trained to value obedience over personal worth. She disobeyed, so in her mind she deserved it. On top of her PTSD and lifelong intimate relationship baggage, she carries personal guilt for “causing” her abuse.
Near the end of the experiential lesson with my 14 & 15 year-olds I tried to drive the “You are worth more than your obedience” point home by saying:
“You could be lying naked in a park and still nobody has the right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”
Dead silence. No nods. They thought I was crazy. By this time they understood the point I was trying to make so nobody dared argue out loud, but I could see them thinking it – “If someone lies naked in a park, they deserve what happens to them.”
Don’t go lie naked in a park. Obviously. But please, if you find yourself thinking like those girls, examine under what circumstances you think it IS fair for another person to be taken advantage of. I hope the answer is never. We need to teach our girls their right to freedom from abuse FIRST, and the outward behaviors like obedience second.
Let me sum it up this way: If we spend our energy on training girls to “be good” about their bodies, obey and cover up as their main defense and safety net against sexual abuse, we are failing them because:
1) Being wise about your environment and your manner of dress is not a guarantee against grooming or violation.
2) We are increasing guilt over things that happen, whether they were invited initially or not. “If only I hadn’t gone on that date…” “If only I had worn a longer skirt…” “If only I hadn’t let him kiss me…”
Yes, our girls should make safe choices and stick to healthy environments… but ultimately, they have a right to say NO and stand up for themselves whatever situation they may be in. They need to know that. They need to practice that. Please helps our girls.
Before I finish, let me point out how most of these same points apply to our boys, especially our young defenseless ones. Please teach our boys that their bodies are theirs to own and take care of, not to be interfered with by anybody else. Help them practice. Help them stand up against grooming and have their own fire drills for what to say & do, so they’ll be ready when those confusing moments come.
I invite you to have family meetings, family practice. If you’ve got one of those quiet, easily embarrassed children, start one on one – “Hey babe, what would you do if I put my arm around you and you didn’t like it?” Coach them. Give ideas. Teach them it’s okay to be rude and make a fuss when they are protecting themselves, emotionally or physically. Then take your role plays to the next level by trying other family & friends playing mock groomer, overbearing date, touchy coworker, boyfriend pushing too far. It’s going to feel awkward and weird, silly and strange – but do it anyway. These fire drills help us be ready when confusion happens.
And above all else, help your children know that their bodies are awesome. Amazing, strong, beautiful gifts that are theirs to protects no matter the cost.