Fear: we all feel it when it comes to sexual violence. As a dad, you experience this fear in a unique way. No one wants to imagine their children experiencing violence of any form, but add in the shame and stigma that surrounds sexual violence and sexuality in general, and that fear can become overwhelming.
Not only do you undoubtedly have some fears around the issue of sexual abuse, but you’ve also been taught through socialization, and media messages around masculinity, that it is up to you to protect your children from harm. That is a weighty responsibility to have perched upon your shoulders.
For fathers who have daughters, some of this pressure is a direct result of patriarchal notions that men are in charge of women. These ideas can be insidious and hard to spot; think of the classic joke of a father holding up a shot gun when his teenage daughter’s date picks her up at home. While my own father never went so far as to fulfill this trope, I remember the fear in his eyes when my high school boyfriend took me to dinner for the first time.
While on the surface, these tense moments speak to the feelings of protection that fathers feel toward their children, they also reinforce the idea that girls need to be protected by men, and are not to be trusted with their own decisions around dating and sex.
Fortunately, regardless of the gender identity of your children, there are ways to resist patriarchal forms of parenting, and to help decrease the chance that your children will experience sexual violence. These strategies take the fear you feel as a father, and turn it into a strength.
You can begin prevention strategies as soon as your children can talk. From a young age, teach your children about their bodies; when you give your child a bath or change their diaper, explain what you are doing and use the proper anatomical names for their private parts. In doing so, you cut down on some of the body shame that is rampant in our society, and help normalize discussions about bodies and body safety. While you may be nervous to discuss bodies openly with your child, remember that this vulnerability will set the tone for your relationship with your child as they grow and experience the world. Besides, as a teacher, I can assure you that saying the word penis or vagina with a 6-year-old is a lot of fun for both parties.
Another simple and effective thing you can do to prevent sexual abuse is teach your child that they are the boss of their own body. If your child doesn’t want to give auntie a kiss, for example, stick up for their right to say “no.” Let them know that it is completely acceptable to instead choose an alternate form of showing affection, such as giving their loved one a high five, or a wave. Allowing your child to say “no” to touches will reinforce their body autonomy.
As your child gets older, continue to use open communication with them, and embrace your vulnerability as a father. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has found that narrow definitions of masculinity are a risk factor for increased rates of sexual violence. By opening up and having emotionally honest conversations with your children, you are providing an alternative form of masculinity to the stereotypical emotionless, protective father figure, in turn decreasing your child’s risk of encountering sexual violence.
It may seem like a stretch, but this technique really does help. I spoke with a father of three, who recently engaged his adolescent son in a discussion about family norms and ethics that was vulnerable, open, and helped prevent violence. His son was upset about something and had just slammed his bedroom door. This father could have easily responded with a simple, “Don’t do that, because I said so.” Instead, he sat his son down to talk about anger, and how a slammed door can come across as threatening or aggressive to others.
In having this conversation, this dad taught their child a few things: that he shares a mutual respect for his children, and that there are certain safe and healthy ways to express frustration. He also created a more egalitarian father-child relationship, letting his child learn that they have the right to express disagreement or discomfort, but that they must do it in a way that doesn’t hurt others.
Expressing emotions, and encouraging your children to do the same, will build empathy and prepare your child for conversations they will encounter as they grow older. Asking for consent, dealing with rejection, and negotiating sexual boundaries will be much easier for the adult who was raised with more than just “because I said so”. Understanding that everyone, including their dad, has feelings, decreases the risk that your child will engage in violent behavior, or experience violence. Empathy and communication are skills that must be practiced. Allow your children to practice with you.
If you’ve set the precedent of open communication with your child, they will be more likely to come to you with concerns about relationships, sex, or violence, if they have them. You don’t have to wait for them to come to you, however. Start age-appropriate conversations with your children, and address sexual violence, consent, and healthy relationships head on. Reach out to your local rape crisis center if you aren’t sure how to start these conversations.
Finally, make time to heal from any of your own trauma. As the adage goes, you cannot pour from an empty cup. Parenting can occasionally dredge up old wounds. You are worth the time, attention, and care it takes to heal those wounds, both for yourself and for your children.
At the end of the day, no matter how many conversations you have with your children about feelings, their bodies, and sexual violence, you may always feel fear. I want to assure you that fear is normal. Instead of pushing it down, try your best to embrace the fear and vulnerability that come with parenting, because by having open, healthy relationships with your children, you, as a father, can help make our world a safer place for everybody.
Your Local Rape Crisis Worker
This letter is part of a series by Kat Stuehrk, Northside Prevention Educator at Rape Victim Advocates, developed for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s 2017 Sexual Assault Awareness Month Theme, “Engaging New Voices”.