MPs have warned that sexual harassment is widespread in the UK. I wish I could shield my daughter from it—but in reality, I know I have to prepare herby Hannah Storm / October 23, 2018 / Leave a comment
A report published this month revealed that one in three girls have experienced harassment while in their school uniform. Sadly, the figures came as no surprise to me.
It’s something I am trying my best to shield my daughter from. But the truth is I won’t always be able to protect her, so I need to help her understand how to avoid, respond to and deal with the gendered abuse she’s likely to face.
Plan International UK, which authored the report, found that one in eight girls first experienced unwanted sexual attention when they were 12 years old or younger. This month, my daughter turned 12. To some she’s another statistic, to me she’s my world.
In 2016, a TUC study in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism Project, found that more than half of women had experienced sexual harassment at work and almost four-fifths of them did not tell their employers about it.
I suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. I know from my own experience that many women and girls who suffer sexual harassment and abuse never report it. Others only do so after many years. The resultant shame and silence can have a devastating effect.
One of the hardest things about being sexually abused is the power that the perpetrator wields over you, sometimes even years later. Sexual abuse is about power and therefore those who are young, vulnerable and marginalised are often most at risk.
I was sexually assaulted as a freelance journalist. It took me many years to gain the courage to write about my experiences, which I finally did in a piece published earlier this month. I knew I needed to explain what I had been through to my daughter in an age-appropriate way before others read it.
The week my story came out, the #metoo movement saw its anniversary and in the United States, the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanuagh was confirmed despite being accused of sexual assault by Dr Christine Blasey Ford, whose brave testimony recounted the abuse she says she suffered when she was still a teenager.
The conversations related to #metoo and recent events in the States have created a breeding ground for confusion and mistrust. It’s one that has led to survivors being publicly vilified as well as claims of false accusations.
Against this backdrop, talking about #metoo to children is complicated and can be confusing, but I believe it is necessary once they reach a certain level of understanding. As adults, we need to try to resolve any pressures that might make them feel unable to speak out if they need to.
I didn’t tell my own parents about the sexual abuse I suffered in my twenties and regret that now. When I shared my experiences with them before my piece was published, their reactions ranged from anger towards my abusers to upset that they’d not been able to protect me.
None of what I went through resulted from any failing on the part of my parents. They have loved me unconditionally, supported me through other traumatic experiences and it saddens me that they feel they somehow let me down.
As much as I know that none of what I experienced had anything to do with their failings, as a parent myself, I know I would be heartbroken if one of my children was ever abused. Every fibre of my being wants to keep them safe, perhaps even more so than some others might accept because of what I have been through.
But equally, I know that I need to equip them with the skills they need to navigate the pitfalls of the paths they are going to tread.
Even though some of the nuances need to wait, it’s important to offer children an understanding of healthy relationships and consent from a young age.
Since my daughter was small, I have spoken with her in an age-appropriate way, so she knows that she should be able to talk to me or another trusted adult openly without fear of being judged.
When my little boy is old enough to hear this from me, his father (my daughter’s step-father) and I will tell him the same. Today we strive to model healthy relationships to the two children, where we respect each other and ourselves.
This hasn’t always been easy, especially as her father and I are divorced, but I’ve tried hard to show her what constitutes a healthy relationship and how to spot the signs of an unhealthy one.
Since she was little, I’ve also made it clear to her that her body is her own and that if anyone asks her to do something that makes her feel uncomfortable she needs to tell me or a trusted adult.
Those requests might include someone asking her to touch them, asking to touch her, or asking her to touch another person. I’ve also told her that sometimes speaking out if this happens is easier said than done.
In a world where we pride ourselves on teaching our children manners, on getting them to say please and thank you and respecting their elders, it’s often hard for children to feel confident to say no.
Both my children are quite affectionate, but they know it’s okay to say no when they don’t want to be, wherever they are. The same goes with ensuring they know not everyone wants to be greeted with a hug and a kiss.
It’s something my three-year-old boy is starting to realise and I hope will help him establish healthy boundaries as he grows.
I appreciate I’m in danger of being called a hypocrite here for staying silent myself for so long, and I have spoken to my daughter about this. I’ve told her that abuse is about a person wielding power over another, which can be scary and cause feelings of shame.
I’ve also explained to her the importance of never using the word rape in the wrong context. She knows that she always needs to be honest with me and that she should never use this word falsely, because wrong accusations can shatter people’s lives as well.
I hope she knows that if anything ever happens to her she can come to me, that I will believe her, not judge her—and that together we will find a path forward.