“What’s that all about mama?”
My seven-year-old daughter Beatrice is reading over my arm. I have the weekend paper open to its cover story—all about the Ghomeshi trial. Within seconds I go from: Shit, do I get into this? To: Hell yes, yes I do. My husband is paying attention, genuinely interested in my next step.
“He’s a guy who was arrested by the police for doing some pretty bad things,” I say. “And so now a judge has to decide if he actually did those things.”
“What were the bad things?”
“Well. Some ladies are saying that he touched them in ways they didn’t want to be touched. That they asked him to stop and he didn’t. He thought he was stronger than them and didn’t listen.”
She’s wanting more.
“Like, the women say he grabbed them kind of roughly. And pushed them. That he hurt them.”
“Ah,” she says.
“So that’s why I always say to you and your brother: If someone is doing things to you that you don’t want them to do, touching you in a way you don’t like, then you have to speak up. You need to say stop.”
“Like I do when Orson’s (her four-year-old brother) trying to grab Lego out of my hands?” she asks
That was pretty much the end of the discussion. And I was left wondering if I’d done a good job.
The conversation stayed with me for a few days, so I called up Marnie Goldenberg, aka the Sexplainer, a Vancouver-based writer and sex educator. She reassured me that I’d done well, but gave me more to think about.
“Ideas about violence in society are so important to cover—and you want to be the first and primary educator for your own kid,” she said. I was right to answer Bea directly, she added, because it’s always better to introduce it before they start to read it in the paper themselves, or hear or see it on radio or TV. “It’s always good to take opportunities to offer lessons about sex and sexuality.”
Erm. I hadn’t actually connected the idea of touching without consent to sexual touching. Beatrice is only seven, and while her dad and I are often very affectionate with each other in front of her and her brother, she doesn’t know much beyond kissing and hugging and the obscure idea that babies come from a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm. There’s a bit of open space between those two ideas.
Again, Goldenberg was encouraging. Our talk about consent was important, she said: Touching, no matter what kind, is wrong if you don’t have permission. But when I do this again, she suggested, it would be valuable to incorporate some sex talk. Something like this:
“Sex—like hugging, kissing and touching someone else that you care about or love—is a wonderful thing. It means that you and the other person trust each other, that you want to enjoy each other and feel close, and above all, you agree to do those things together.”
Once that’s in place, Goldenberg continued, introduce the idea that sometimes people don’t get permission or consent, or maybe they’re not sure the other person wants to kiss or hug but they go ahead anyway—and that’s when it becomes sexual assault, which is illegal. “Young kids, like your daughter right now, are very black and white,” she said. “They will respond to something being wrong. You can explain that forcing someone to do something that person doesn’t want to do is a crime that they could go to jail for.”
“Use yourself and your husband as an example,” she suggested. “Say: ‘Dad and I hug and kiss and show affection. But what if I’m busy or I’m not in the mood to be touched? I can say no and he will respect that. Most people do this in a loving way, but some people do not. That’s what this news story is about.’”
That didn’t sound so tough. But I still wondered: Does the way we talk about this change for my four-year-old son—because he’s younger? Because he’s a boy? No, said Goldenberg, don’t change it because he’s a boy, but tailor it to his age. Try this:
“This news story is about a person”—there's no need to specify gender, it’s not important here—“who touched and kissed other peoples’ bodies without their permission. And that’s not ok, right?” Ask for feedback, she said. “So when you touch a person’s body, you want to make sure it’s ok. But how do you make sure it’s ok?”
I might lead them to possible answers, Goldenberg suggested: “Do you listen for a yes or a no? Maybe they grab your hand when you offer yours—and that’s how you know it’s ok?”
I could bring in legality and consequence here as well, but Goldenberg said that as kids get older, around 12 years old, I'd have to start acknowledging the grey area. “There’s a lot of nuance and you don’t want to create the illusion that signs of consent are always easy to read.”
The other day Beatrice heard Ghomeshi mentioned on the radio and immediately recalled the issues at play, which I thought was pretty great. I let her know the trial was still going on and this time I pulled a few of Goldenberg’s conversation starters out of my pocket. It was a little anticlimactic—here I was, prepared to impart Big Wisdom—and she moved on quickly to the next thing. But that’s ok. That I’ve managed to make these tough topics part of our daily conversation helps me to feel a little more in control as I fumble my way along.