As I write this I’m currently in Saudi Arabia, a country not known for its good track record with regards to women’s rights. Ironically, when I go out with my children (and yes, I go out unaccompanied and am completely safe), I encounter friendly, modern, confident women, browsing social media on their iphones and sipping coffee or shopping, in the company of their female friends. Under the hijabs, burkas and abayas, the women are not unlike me: educated, opinionated and kind, some are also mothers, raising daughters to be confident, professional women.
Meanwhile in N Ireland, a social media storm is erupting over “that” rape case. I’m not going to comment on the case or verdict itself, but what sickens me is the level of misogyny that has accompanied the case. One woman commented saying that she’d not report a rape now, and a man replied saying she need not worry, no one would rape her with eyebrows like that. Seriously? As if a put down about her appearance is somehow “reassurance” that she wouldn’t get raped. Another man gloating that men had come out on top and it was time for women to get back in the kitchen where they belonged. Just two of the many, many hideous comments I read. We want to think that somehow we are more evolved, with less discrimination against women than countries like Saudi, but actually I think what happens in N Ireland is worse, it’s more hidden, more insidious and the real attitude to women comes out at times like this, bolstered by a verdict that some men (and some women) take as justification to perpetuate misogyny.
The #metoo campaign made me think seriously about the world I was bringing my daughter up in. The rape trial has made me think long and hard about how I will bring my son up. This lovely, innocent little boy will grow up to be a man who will have to navigate locker-room banter that objectifies and denigrates women. He’ll have to learn to treat his future partners with respect, he’ll have to learn about consent. He will hopefully grow up to be a kind, respectful man like his father.
I started off thinking that I’d write about how I’d talk to my daughter about self-confidence, trusting her instincts, being able to say “no”, and then I realized that actually, that buys into the blame culture surrounding sexual assault, it is never someone’s fault if they are the victim of sexual assault. Yes, of course those things are important, but as a much bigger aspect of what needs to change in society. Both my children need to learn about that, so actually, what I do with her is no different from what I’ll do with him. And this is what I do:
As a family, we are open and honest about body parts and sexuality. That means calling a vulva a vulva, a vagina a vagina, a penis a penis… you get my drift. My daughter asked me about how babies are made just before she turned four and vague answers weren’t cutting it. I bought some appropriate children’s books and we talked about it, I answered her questions honestly. We talk regularly about “the underpants rule”. We lie in bed at night and she asks me a million questions about everything, because open lines of communication are important for finding out what is going on in a child’s life, what’s worrying her, what’s troubling her. If I can’t find time for her small, five year old concerns, I can’t expect her to come to me with her bigger, pre-teen worries, her teenage fears. As far as I’m concerned, these actions help protect her against potential abuse as a child, but hopefully as she gets older (and her brother starts asking questions too), we can reframe those school yard conversations and shared illicit images within the context of respectful, consensual relationships because they know they can talk to me about anything. I know I need to be one step ahead of them when it comes to social media, the internet and technology, balancing trust in their judgement with vigilance. I’m aware that there is a good chance that they will both be exposed to explicit imagery, in spite of my vigilance and control. Both of my children will need to understand that pornography on the internet is not “real” sex and neither of them should feel compelled to conform to anything they see there. I find it deeply disturbing that too many children view pornography long before they are old enough for their own sexual relationships and therefore it influences what they see as normal. Of course I don’t WANT them to view porn, but I’m not going to pretend that it might not happen, and I want to be able to talk to them about it if it does.
We deal with consent on a daily basis. Cuddles and tickles are stopped immediately when the person says “no”, but we also look at body language: being pushed away, frowns, faces averted. I show a five year old that her baby brother is no longer into her rough-housing by pointing out his body language. Consent works both ways and it’s ok for me to say “no”, “stop doing that to me please”. I observe a baby’s hunger cues and offer breastfeeding freely, but also teach “breastfeeding manners”, that it’s not ok to pinch or nip mummy at the same time, little hands get redirected and otherwise engaged.
We respect and validate each other’s feelings: pain, sadness, frustration, discomfort at the attention from others. It’s ok to move away from that adult who makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable, to refuse a hug or a kiss. It takes a lot of reinforcement to continually trust those instincts, to refuse a person, to know it’s ok not to be polite or have to please people all of the time. We look out for others too, and defend those around us. I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder than when I found out that my daughter defended her little friend in the playground from some older girls who were taunting her. It’s vitally important that they both grow up being confident in protecting their bodily autonomy, but also looking out for those around them, to do the right thing in spite of pressure from others.
My daughter loves dressing up and being “pretty”, but we reinforce that the outside is not as important as what’s inside, her appearance does not define her; my son will learn that a girl’s appearance does not in anyway speak to the sort of person she is, or how he treats her. My daughter wants to be a dancer and the president when she grows up, so she goes to dance class and we also read books about women who have achieved great things, changed the world, who are scientists, activists, pioneers. My children also learn that motherhood has intrinsic value, the time I spend at home with them is as important as my career. They learn that a woman’s body is more than just how it looks, it has the power to grow life, it nurtures growing babies at the breast. Through breastfeeding, they both learn that close physical contact with a woman’s body can be completely asexual. They learn that Daddy works hard, but that when he is home he is involved with family life, bathtime, bedtime, stories, cooking and cleaning. Relationships are about partnership, respect, and sharing of roles and responsibilities.
Do I think we have the perfect family life? Not by a long shot. But I’m trying, mindfully, to bring my children up to be decent empathetic human beings, who understand that the value of a person is not defined by their gender, and what constitutes healthy relationships. I just hope what they learn at home is stronger than the culture they encounter out there.