An Ugly Reality: How to Talk to Young Women about Sexual Harassment
By Marisa Gooch
I was 16 and leaving the grocery store carrying heavy bags when a man who looked 20 years older asked if he could carry my groceries. I politely declined and kept walking, but he kept following.
He insisted that I needed help, and I continually said that I was fine. When he realized that I was determined to carry my bags on my own, he suggested that we go on a date.
At this point, my car seemed like miles away. I felt so uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do. By the time I got to my vehicle, he was right there, watching me put the groceries in the trunk, pestering me to go out with him. I finally told him I was in high school, got in my car, and drove away, wondering why it took me so long to say no.
Since the #MeToo movement, many women have gathered the courage to speak up against sexual harassment. In fact, when the movement began, I distinctly remember seeing thousands of #MeToo posts on social media from brave women outlining their experiences for the world to see. Their level of deep vulnerability has helped others become more aware of the serious problem that looms over the heads of our daughters, nieces, cousins, and friends.
How do we prepare these young women to stand their ground, to be bold, and to say no? How do we teach them about what to do if they are sexually assaulted and harassed so that they don’t feel shame, guilt, and the need to hide what happened?
Here are four tips to help the girls in your life know how to recognize it and how to combat it.
Teach that Sexual Harassment Isn’t Just Physical
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, sexual harassment is defined as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature.” This means that sexual harassment can range from being raped to being catcalled on the street.
Make sure the girls in your life know that they don’t have to be touched inappropriately to consider themselves a victim. If someone makes any form of a sexual approach that is not wanted, it is considered harassment.
Create an Environment Where “No” Is Acceptable
Every girl has the right to say no to something she does not want to do. While it can be challenging to say this at times, it is important that young women know they aren’t obliged to sleep with someone just because he asks her to or to listen to someone just because he holds some sort of authority.
Children especially have a hard time understanding this. They are taught to obey orders, not to whine, and to never say no. Teach your child that there are situations when saying no is OK. Further, listen to your child when she uses that word. Obviously, if she says, “No, mommy, I don’t want to take a nap,” that is just her being difficult. But if she says no, she doesn’t want to play with Ashley because she doesn’t like her mom or dad, or no, she doesn’t want to hug her cousin John, that could mean something.
Forcing your daughter to do something that makes her uncomfortable could prevent her from saying no to someone else in the future.
Form Safety Precautions
Because many women don’t know what to do when they are approached by a stranger, called a demeaning name, or treated inappropriately, it is helpful to create safety precautions and tips with your daughters in case they experience harassment or assault. This can include listening to their gut feeling, calling a friend or loved one when they feel unsafe, having a code word to use when they want to be picked up, traveling in pairs, and speaking to someone they trust if something does happen.
While some of these ideas mostly apply to teenagers, there are things you can do to help younger girls learn about sexual harassment. According to Children MD, you can teach your daughter about her private parts, show her what areas are safe to be touched, avoid secrets, encourage open communication, and monitor her social media when she gets older.
As you create safety precautions, whether it is for your teen or your five-year-old girl, you will help your daughter understand what is considered appropriate and what is not.
The best thing you can do for your daughter is to never blame women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted. Blaming women could prevent your daughter from feeling comfortable to be open with you if something similar happens to her.
It is important to realize that during sexual harassment, the victim’s brain releases steroid hormones called corticosteroids at very high levels. These steroids reduce the energy of the body and cause tonic immobility, meaning that the victim doesn’t flee or fight back; rather, she freezes and forgets everything about fight or flight.
Teach your daughter that this chemical process is natural—there is nothing women can do to prevent it. When your daughter hears people say that Molly down the street should have run away, or Heidi from school should have screamed for help, she will understand the natural process one’s body goes through when put in a traumatizing situation. This will help her not blame women who are sexually assaulted or blame herself if she ever experiences it.
Sexual harassment is all around us. It floods the media, workplace, school, television shows, and social media. To help young women combat its negative effects, you can teach them what sexual harassment is, create safety precautions for them, allow them to say no, and avoid blaming those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault. As you do these things, you will empower your daughter to be strong, bold, and brave. You will raise her to speak up for herself, for her friends, and for those whose voices aren’t as loud as they could be.
Marisa is a writer and editor who lives in sunny Southern California. Her favorite hobbies include listening to podcasts, hiking in the hills behind her house, and attempting to surf alongside her husband who has years of experience.