Thirteen Reasons Why, a video series based on a best-selling teen novel, is the story of a 17 year old girl, Hannah who commits suicide and leaves 13 tapes for each of the people who contributed to her decision to commit suicide. This is the eleventh in a series of blogs that identify issues raised in each episode with some ideas about how parents can address them with their teenager.
Hannah decides to try to be more positive and attends a party. She inadvertently observes her drunk friend Jessica (who is widely known to be sexually active) being raped by their friend Bryce. In this episode, there are prominent examples of slut shaming and sexual assault. This second part of issues presented in Episode 9 discusses talking to your teen about sexual assault.
The scene in this episode where Jessica is raped by one of her guy friends is very disturbing to watch (as it should be). Rape is “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” (Department of Justice) While there are plenty of insensitive teenage guys, many of who engage in sexually harassing behavior, rape is still rare (RAINN.org). Rape (like that portrayed on this episode) is a legal and psychotherapy issue. If your kid is raped, your task as a parent is to get them (and yourself) the resources you need to deal with this deeply traumatic sexual assault.
Even when someone’s behavior doesn’t meet the legal definition of rape, doing something sexual to or with someone else without their consent is sexual assault. Sexual assault ranges from rape to sexual harassment and even incorporates some aspects of sexism. While rape is rare, various forms of sexual assault and harassment are a common experience for adolescent girls. This column will focus on how to talk with your teenager about sexual harassment and sexual assault.
Sexual harassment. There is a range of sexually harassing behaviors that are unacceptable but not uncommon in teenagers, primarily teenage boys. (This is not a subtle argument for “boys will be boys.” People who characterize sexual harassment as part of being a “boy” are grossly distorting the masculine virtues, all of which are fundamentally opposed to sexual harassment, not to mention rape.) Many boys have to learn the ways in which their strongly sexualized behaviors are not “just playing around.” Part of the confusion teenage boys experience derives from the fact that most sexually harassing and assaultive behaviors are acceptable when they have permission and mutual interest (see the the Episode 6 column on consent). They become sexual harassment, even with a dating partner, if the other person isn’t up for them. You don’t get to just take for granted that someone is OK with these kinds of behaviors because of their past (or a past situation between dating partners).
So what are common forms of (uninvited) sexual harassment among teens?
- Sexually or sensually touching or movements toward someone like:
- patting their butt (when not in an athletic situation)
- caressing their arm or hair or body
- acting as if going to touch them sexually, like reaching toward a girls breasts or a boy’s genitals, even though no actual contact occurs
- Making sexually suggestive motions (e.g., thrusting the hips back and forth) to another person
- Coercive sexual activity like
- Touching someone’s clothes in the area of their genitals
- Forcing someone else to touch your genital area
- Exposing sexual organs to someone (in person or pictures) including “mooning” someone by exposing the naked buttocks
- Pressing genital areas against another person
- Pushing another person’s head toward a sexual part of their body (e.g., the crotch, breasts) to simulate a sexual act
- Pressing the body against someone while they are against a solid surface
- Pressuring another person to do something sexual (e.g., begging, pleading, trying to justify it because “it’ll be fun”, minimizing it because “it’s not a big deal”)
- Making emotional threats when soliciting sexual intimacy like “maybe we should just break up then”
- Emotionally manipulating another person to do something sexual, e.g., “if you really loved me” or “I’ll love you more” or “we’ll go steady if you do” “You already got me all hot and bothered.”
- Sexual harassment. Making sexually suggestive remarks and comments about sexual history, sexual interests, etc. like those mentioned in the Episode 5 column on respecting boundaries and in the Episode 7 column on flirting and street harassment. Sexual harassment also includes graphically recounting sexual exploits to others.
If someone doesn’t have permission to do these things, they can fit the legal definition of sexual assault. You can be prosecuted and go to jail if convicted. Your daughter and your son should both be well informed about what constitutes sexual assault and sexual harassment. They need to understand the importance of finding out whether the other person is OK with what they are doing (i.e., has given consent); even with the sexually toned “playful” and “silly” things they say or do. They should also know that just because someone agrees to do something once doesn’t mean they can take it for granted that the answer is “yes” next time. Being in a relationship doesn’t change the need to get permission. Being in a relationship doesn’t give you automatic access to your partner’s body.
What’s a parent to do?
There are some preemptive strategies your kid can use to reduce the risk of sexual harassment and sexual assault. It starts with your daughter being comfortable saying “no” (and being good at saying no to YOU doesn’t count, unfortunately). It also helps if your kid pays attention to the character of people in their social group and to have some basic risk management strategies in social gatherings.
Saying “No.” It can be really surprising how even strong willed, bright and confident teens (especially girls), struggle with saying “no” directly and firmly. While assertiveness training is always useful in life, the starting place is to just say “no” in a convincing way. Have your kid practice saying “no” while looking like they mean it-the firm vocal tone, the silent eye contact after stating it. And no apologizing “I’m sorry but . . .” “Excuse me!” “Please . . .” Say it and mean it. Set up some practice situations where you present a situation in which someone is pressuring them and require your kid to say “no” and “stop.” Talk with them about the importance of being able to set firm boundaries and to not get into an argument or discussion. (To be clear, rapists will not be likely to take “no” for an answer. But a teenager who is insensitive and has crossed over into sexual harassment and even sexual assault by pushing too hard to get what he wants is still likely to take “no” for an answer, when it is firm and unyielding. Your kid has to be willing and able to say it.)
Be judgmental. Most people who are sexually assaulted know the person who does it. Your kid needs to pay attention to the character of the people she hangs out with and who are around her. The whole point of character is it provides a foundation for trust in another person. Guys who sexually assault often have qualities in their everyday interactions that suggest they are capable of sexual harassment or sexual assault. Some of these qualities are also the characteristics of a jerk. But most jerks don’t sexually assault people. Jerks can be sexist. Jerks may occasionally sexually harass a girl through minor sexual touching (e.g., the butt) or make sexually suggestive remarks. But someone who is potential sexual assault perpetrator will regularly sexually harass girls. A potential sexual assault perpetrator will have a frequent sexually toned element to their interactions with girls.
So what should your kid look for in someone who is a potential perpetrator of sexual assault? There are some “red flags” that are easily observable in normal social situations.
- Boundary violations. It is a bad sign when someone enters the personal space of other people in casual social situations like at school or when hanging out, especially when it’s also subtly sexual. Your kid should be extra careful being alone or vulnerable with a guy who keeps
- Standing too close
- touching other’s butts or their waist
- forcefully pulling people into a hug
- intimately touching girls like caressing their arm or hair
- putting hands on someone’s shoulder in a “friendly” but familiar way
- Intimidating people using their size or “cornering” them
- Doesn’t take “no”
- Ignores people when they set personal limits. This kind of guy keeps going even when people say “Stop!” or “No” including bullying
- Indirectly ignores people when they set personal limits
- “Oh chill out”
- “you make such a big deal out of things”
- Physically restrains people
- Holds people in place if they try to leave before the guy has finished talking
- Gets between someone and the door when they are trying to leave, regardless of how “playful” he is being
- Contradicts people when they set a limit (e.g., “You don’t really mean that.” “Oh come on. Quit being so uptight/stiff/sensitive/mean.”
- Pressures others to sacrifice their needs or preferences
- Tries to make people stay when they need to go
- Dismisses the importance of something someone else is doing when it interferes with what the guy wants to do
- Insensitive to people’s distress or discomfort
- Laughs when people are upset
- Says obviously hurtful and insulting things to people when angry or frustrated
- Mocks weakness in other people
- Only responds to others when they are in extreme distress
- Attempts at comfort usually has a subtle sexual aspect (e.g., wants to give a hug without offering soothing words, uses someone’s distress as a way to touch them, e.g., stroke their hair or body, etc.)
- Considers other people’s distress unreasonable or over the top, e.g., “OMG, I was just kidding!” “Are you on the rag?!” (See Very Chauvinistic below)
- Makes remarks about what people like or want sexually.
- “I’ll bet you’re wild when you want to be.”
- “You probably like it rough.” (said as though joking)
- “It’s like she’s begging for it!”
- Very sexist (previously known as chauvinistic)
- Makes disparaging remarks about girls and women (especially compared to men)
- Talks over and interrupts girls in groups (though guys tend to interrupt EVERYBODY)
- Regularly mocks or puts down the opinions of girls
- Brags about his sexual prowess and conquests
- Puts other guys down for being too emotional, sensitive or loving in relationships
- Comments about and interest in girls primarily focused on their physical qualities or sexual availability
- Makes jokes about the inferiority of girls and women
The more of these characteristics your kid checks off, the more wary they should be of being with that guy, especially when under the influence of recreational substances, unless there are plenty of people around. (Seeing these signs in someone who then sexually assaults you does not mean it is your fault. But, the more your kids knows what to look out for, the better they will be able to avoid risky situations and high risk people.)
- Review what constitutes sexual assault. Your daughter needs to know when she is being harassed or assaulted (because assault is more than being hit by someone). And, your son needs to know what can be considered sexual harassment and sexual assault for the same reason. Here is an exercise you can go through with your kid to get the conversation started.
- Risk Management for sexual assault. While there is no way to insure that your kid is safe from sexual assault, there are things your kid can do to increase their safety and decrease their vulnerability to an unscrupulous sexual opportunist. Here are some safety precautions she should be well versed in.
- Stay in public spaces. Your kid should avoid situations where they are isolated and alone with someone who could have a sexual interest in them (e.g., going with them to their place, being alone in a room with a closed door, being in an isolated outside area, etc.). This is especially true if your kid is with a group of people they don’t know well or who are a “faster” crowd. If your kid wants to get to know someone better, it is best done in a public space. If they are going to make out with someone they don’t already have a physical relationship with, it should be in a quiet corner that is still in a public space. Talk directly to your kid about these considerations.
- Stay sober. Alcohol or drugs are a direct, contributing factor to every kind of adolescent sexual intimacy, both between consenting partners and in sexual assaults. Your kid can’t afford to be under the influence unless they have arranged to have someone keep an eye on them. (And, the designated “relationship” driver must be trustworthy.) Make sure they have an agreement with at least one reliable close friend to watch their back at parties or social gatherings.
- Trust your gut. Intuition is a real thing. It is that nagging feeling telling you something isn’t right. It is a little voice that whispers caution. It is the way in which your automatic mind puts together subtle perceptions and discrepancies your logical, rational mind hasn’t picked up on yet. Encourage your kid to trust it. Not to the point that they scream and run out of the room when they get a bad feeling about someone. But to the point where they don’t just write it off. It’s not “mean” (a Southern term for insensitive, selfish and inconsiderate) to be suspicious of someone or cautious in a sketchy situation. It is smart. Your kid should take extra precautions when they have a bad feeling about someone, especially if they can’t quite figure out why. And make sure they know not to let anyone talk them out of their intuition.
- Protect yourself. Don’t encourage potential perpetrators of sexual assault. Move away from them in social situations. Interact with them minimally when in the same social space. Find ways to cut short any interactions you have with them. Avoid them when you can.
If someone begins to harass or assault your kid. What if your kid finds themselves confronted by someone who is on his way to or in the process of sexual assaulting them? They should include these steps, at the very least.
- Tell the guy to stop. “I said STOP. Back off. This isn’t going to happen.” This includes giving direct instructions “Go stand over there away from me.”
- Say whatever it takes to get away from him. ‘I need something to drink first.” “I’m gonna throw up.” “I have a HUGE case of the runs. Get me to a bathroom right now.” Then leave and don’t go back.
- Find a friend. When they find a way to get away from the guy, your kid should find someone they can trust to be with, even a male ally (because most guys think sexual harassment and, especially sexual assault, is wrong and they will help).
- Call it a night. Your kid should get out of there as soon as possible in part because they can’t know for sure if the guy who was harassing them was just a sexual pile of excrement or someone capable of rape.
What if your kid sees something happening?
Your kid should also be a good friend (or a good citizen) by coming to the aid of someone who is being coerced, taken advantage of or assaulted. It is important that they think through how to notice if someone is potentially in trouble and what they can do that will help. Here are some of the things your kid should be familiar with.
- Know the signs. These are some of the indications that a person is incapacitated and vulnerable or who is already being taken advantage of.
- Under the influence of alcohol or serious drugs. Alcohol, prescription drugs (e.g., Xanax, opiates, muscle relaxers, etc.) and illicit drugs (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamines, etc.) all quickly incapacitate the person who takes them. These substances impair decision making, judgment, general awareness and ability to physically protect yourself. When people take these drugs recreationally it puts them at risk for bad outcomes including the possibility of being sexually assaulted.
- Someone trying to hook up with a person who is clearly under the influence, especially if they don’t have a preexisting dating relationship
- Someone trying to push more alcohol or drugs on a person who has already been seriously partying while simultaneously trying to hook up with them.
- Take action
- Join the person under the influence. Your kid can go sit next to them, walk over and strike up a conversation or call the person over.
- State your concern. Let the person know you are worried about how messed up they are and may do something they would regret.
- Come right out and say you are worried: “Mary! You are seriously f’d up.”
- Indirectly say they’ve had enough. “OK, time to get some coffee in you”
- Let the potential perpetrator know you see what is going on by talking directly to him.
- “What are you doing? Can’t you see she is too messed up to do anything with you?”
- “Hey! She’s really messed up and doing something with her in this state is not cool at all.”
- “Dude! That’s not cool. Y’all need to wait til you both know what you’re doing.”
- “If you keep going like this while she is this messed up, I will be able to testify that you knew what you were doing. Back off.”
- “I read an article the other day about a guy who went to jail for hooking up with a girl who was this drunk. Come on Mary. Mark here has decided he’s not in the mood after all.”
- Get the person out of the situation.
- “Come on Mary. We need to get out of here.” “OK, time to go!”
- The person at risk doesn’t want to stop. This will be a judgement call by your kid about how far to push getting the vulnerable person to safety. If she is being aggressive your kid may need to get some other friends to help.
- The person gets messed up all the time. After the third or fourth time, babysitting a drunk friend gets to be a real pain. There needs to be a serious conversation with the friend when they sober up about not putting themselves in a risky position. Even this may not help. It is really hard when a friend is their own worst enemy.
- The perpetrator is dangerous or has high social status. While it is perfectly legitimate to call someone on their b.s., it can have social consequences. Persistence and worry (“I’m just really worried something could go wrong. This just feels wrong.” There is a crude phrase that refers to someone who blocks a friend from hooking up by being around and distracting the “target.” Be one of those.
This column was very difficult to write and, obviously, very difficult to discuss briefly. There is a heated discussion in our country (and across the globe) of the rape and the sexual harassment of girls and women. Until recently, these behaviors have largely been ignored, minimized or justified. Those days, happily, are gone. But as a country we are still struggling to find the best ways to address how to hold people accountable for their inappropriate not to mention their criminal behavior. I suspect that even when society has eradicated this treatment of women in adulthood, each generation of heterosexual boys and girls will have to be taught all over again as they learn to navigate the complexities of the spontaneity and boundaries of sexual intimacy.
- Sexual Assault & Teenagers: An Exercise for Parents and Teens.
- Your Perfect Right by Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons
- Unmasking Sexual Con Games: A Teen’s Guide to Avoiding Emotional Grooming and Dating Violence by Kathleen M. McGee and Laura J. Buddenberg
- Unmasking Sexual Con Games Parent Guide: Helping Kids Recognize and Protect Themselves from Sexual Harassment and Abuse, Set Healthy Personal Boundaries, and Develop Good Relationships by Ron Herron and Kathleen M. Sorensen
- Holla Back street harassment website
- Stop Street Harassment by Holly Kearl
- A good model for acceptable behavior at school, and recognizing when it crosses the line into harassment, is the definitions of sexual harassment in the work place (which can result in law suits and termination of employment).
- The formal characterization of rape, sexual harassment, sexual coercion and sexual assault can be found on the government’s website.
Note to reader: The teenagers represented in this series are upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed in this blog are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic and cultural communities.
The next column will have some ideas on ways to address the importance of taking responsibility for yourself and how to comfort a grieving friend; two prominent themes in Episode 10.