We were in the family change room at the local public pool. I was struggling to get my toddler and my six-year-old showered, and my just-turned-12-year-old daughter was standing by the shower in her bathing suit waiting for us. I glanced up just as a childless adult man—probably in his mid-twenties—openly checked my daughter out, his eyes scanning her body, before he disappeared through the door to the pool. I was too shocked to say anything.
After hustling my kids into a changing booth, I asked my daughter if she’d noticed. She hadn’t, and her first response was, “Oh my God, I won’t wear this bikini again.”
Her immediate reaction was that somehow she had caused this. Trying not to choke up, I quickly told her,“This is in no way about what you are wearing, or anything you did. He is just gross.”
Because he was in the family changing room, I assume he had kids already in the pool, and was a young dad staring at my daughter. Or, worse, he didn’t have children there to swim at all, and he had no business being in the family change room whatsoever.
Before continuing, I want to point out—even though I shouldn’t have to—that my daughter’s bikini is very demure: it’s a kids’ bikini with a halter top and full briefs. It’s a suit that she felt happy and confident in prior to this incident.
And I’m going to assume that any woman reading this knows that you could be wearing a garbage bag and some men will always think they have a right to check out and comment on our bodies.
This is a subject I’ve discussed at length with my daughter. She knows she has the right to wear whatever she wants, with a few rules: I’m not OK with booty shorts, and we have some limits on what we consider appropriate clothing for her age.
After the shock had worn off, when we were driving home, it dawned on me that this is just the beginning. My little girl has now reached the point where some older boys and men will think it’s OK to make suggestive comments about her body, or make borderline pervy comments to her, despite the fact that she’s very much still a child.
As her body develops, there’s no hiding her curves, especially as the weather gets warmer. I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable or self-conscious running around the beach in her swimsuit or cannonballing off the dock at the lake. I want her to grow up proud of her strong body, not concerned that by wearing certain clothes, she’s giving men license to observe her.
I doubt that any of us moms made it through girlhood without a barrage of sexist comments, while we blushed—and maybe even said “thank you” in response—because we’d been taught that somehow this was flattering, and that we should be grateful for the compliment. I don’t want this to be something she has to deal with.
Maybe in this post-#MeToo age, things will be better for her than they were for me growing up. But my first instinct as a mom is to arm her with bear spray and to personally tell every guy who comments on her body exactly where he can go.
On the flip-side, I do remember being excited by some male attention at that age. I realize that my daughter will probably feel this way, too (I mean, she’s already read all the Judy Blume novels). There’s that strange feeling of power that comes as we move towards our teenage years and realize that people aren’t seeing us solely as kids anymore. We talk about this when we watch Riverdale and other teen shows together—addressing appropriate and inappropriate relationships, crushes and the like. But hypotheticals on TV shows don’t make me as fanatical and protective as seeing it happen in real life.
We all know I can’t take my preferred course of action (arming her with bear spray). I need to arm her, instead, with practical ways to deal with this.
Maybe she needs to simply say, “That’s gross, I’m a kid” to the guy staring at her. Would that deter these men from letching at her and other little girls? Or could it just infuriate them and even incite violence in some way? Is she supposed to just put her head down, look away, and get out of there as soon as possible.
I honestly didn’t know. So I asked Lisa Clarke, the executive director of the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre in Peterborough, Ont., what I should have done. She told me there are a number of ways that we can teach our daughters to respond in these situations, and they don’t involve bear spray. How I reacted—to freeze—is apparently the most common response. In its most extreme form, freezing is referred to as “tonic immobility,” a natural neurobiological response, like a state of paralysis that animals are thought to enter to deter predators.
“We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response,” says Clarke. “But in situations that are threatening, such as a leering man at a swimming pool, that kicks in an emotional threat response of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn.” Freezing is when you feel like a deer in headlights, and fawning is when the victim instinctively or strategically tries to care for their abuser to keep themselves safe. (If the abuser is cared for and happier, it’s less likely they will lash out at the victim—this scenario is more common in intimate partner violence dynamics, or with child abuse situations.)
Because young brains are malleable, and our daughters are growing up in an era (and a society) in which they’re being encouraged to be more assertive, Clarke reassured me that we can help teach them to react differently than we would have, without compromising their safety. She doesn’t advise telling my daughter to challenge the perpetrator directly if she is alone, however, because there’s always the possibility of an unpleasant response, or something worse. If there are people nearby, verbalizing it—saying, “You’re a stranger. Don’t touch me!”—can help bring attention to the perpetrator. What’s important is that she removes herself from the situation and doesn’t freeze.
Talking about these situations and using role play with our daughters is also a great start, says Clarke. Tap into resources in your community. For example, YWCAs across Canada can bring a program called GirlSpace (or BoySpace) into schools. These are a series of facilitated workshops where youth can ask questions, develop critical thinking around these issues, and learn about healthy relationships. (If this isn’t available at your child’s school, ask administrators if it can happen, as there may well be funding available for a program like this.) Sexual assault centres often also offer public education programs.
Clarke also suggested taking a women’s self-defense class with my daughter, such as Wen-do classes, which are suitable for ages 10 and up. Self-defense classes will increase her confidence and help her react differently under pressure, even if there is no immediate physical danger.
We can also help our kids learn how to support their peers in these harrowing situations. When Clarke is educating girls on how to deal with harassment, she focuses on bystander intervention. There are four main components. First, check in with whomever this has happened to. “By telling that person that you witnessed this and she wasn’t alone, it lets them know that you are there for them,” says Clarke.
The second course of action Clarke teaches is intervening and standing up for the person being targeted. If a girl is harassed while she’s with a group of girlfriends, or she’s catcalled in the street, then the harasser should be outnumbered by those who don’t accept this kind of behaviour. “The best way to deal with this is as a community, not as individuals.”
In a situation where direct intervention doesn’t feel safe, Clarke instructs girls to cause a distraction allowing the person being harmed to get out of the way. In the hallways at school, for example, this could be by dumping your books on the floor, or spilling a drink in a public place. Then, of course, they should talk to a teacher or someone in a position of power about what happened. For me, however, Clarke says that by training my brain to get out of freeze or fawn mode, I will learn to react swiftly, and to actually do something if it feels safe to do so.
Lastly, Clarke advises going to a person of authority. I obviously should have gone to the pool lifeguard, or somebody at the front desk. But I just didn’t think—likely because I’m so used to ignoring unpleasant interactions with male strangers in public that I moved past it, wanting the incident to be over with.
Depending on what an adult says to a kid, where they said it, and the age of the child, they may actually be breaking the law. Rob Hearn, an inspector at my local police station in Truro, Nova Scotia, helped me figure out what the criminal code means, because there are, of course, laws that deal with adults approaching children for a sexual purpose. “Section 152 deals with an adult counselling a child under the age of 16 to engage in sexual activity,” says Hearn. The term “counselling” refers to the adult communicating with youth for a sexual purpose, he explains, and this counts as child luring. If your child has been approached by an adult and asked to do anything sexual, Hearn assured me that your local police station will want to know about it.
If an adult is leering at a child, but doesn’t say anything (or says something inappropriate, but isn’t directly asking a child to commit a sex act), you can still call the police.
“Ask to speak with an officer and discuss it with him or her,” suggests Hearn. “We might make contact with the adult. He could already be on the sex registry, and this could be a breach.”
When I discussed our swimming pool incident with friends who have daughters, they all had similarly disturbing—but not surprising—stories. One of them confessed that she twice had to pry a 50-something Canadian man away from her 14-year-old daughter at a hotel pool in Costa Rica last month.
The next time something like this happens (sadly, we all know there will be a next time) I’ve decided I’m going to say, very loudly, “Why are you checking out my 12-year-old child?” And if it happens in a public place, like our local pool, I’ll definitely be reporting it to the staff.
I know I’ll have to fight my own instincts to freeze up with shock and anger. But I’m tired of keeping my head down because I don’t want to make a fuss, or make others feel uncomfortable. We’ve quietly ignored, tolerated and minimized the seriousness of this crap for far too long, and I don’t want to teach my daughter to do the same.
This article was originally published online in May 2019.