Three Generations of Silence: How Do We Turn This Around?
By Marina Spears
1957: A 17-year-old girl gets pulled into an empty stairwell at school. A boy puts his hands all over her breasts, sticks his tongue in her mouth, and runs away. At the time, she tells no one and never returns to school.
1980: A 12-year-old girl is playing hide-and-go-seek with friends; one of them is the most popular boy in her class. She finds him hiding in a backyard. He grabs her, puts his hand down her pants and up her shirt, and runs away. At the time, she tells no one.
2011: A 15-year-old girl is in her high school cafeteria surrounded by other students. A boy comes up behind her and puts his hands all over her breasts. At the time, she tells no one.
The first girl is my mother, the second is me, and the third is my daughter. Three generations, three accounts of sexual harassment, three silent girls. Why?
For my mother, she said she was so ashamed by the experience she simply could not share what happened. For me, I was so embarrassed and afraid of what could happen if I shared that I made the decision to not say a word. My daughter did eventually share with me what occurred, but she would not reveal who did it and insisted that she had handled it.
These three examples from my own family are not uncommon. A recent report from NPR quoted a study that stated 81% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 77% reported verbal harassment, 51% reported unwanted touching, and 41% reported being sexually harassed online. The report explained the majority of girls handled the situation by adjusting their own behavior rather than confronting the harasser or making it known to someone else (Chatterjee, 2018).
Some studies have indicated that as young girls transition through adolescence, they separate themselves from what they know about the world around them, their identity, and repress it. It is during this time of adolescence that “girls are in danger of losing their voice” (Gilligan et al.,1990). It is believed that since girls tend to have a much greater sensitivity to relationship nuances and place a higher importance on intimacy, they are willing to suppress their “voice” to make others happy. Young girls also have lower self esteem, so the desire to conform is pressing. It is at the same ages of 14 to 17 years old that most girls first experience some form of sexual harassment (Chatterjee, 2018). This is a dangerous combination that feeds the silence.
What do we do?
Sexual harassment is unlikely to happen in front of us, so we cannot be the protectors. We must instill in our daughters, nieces, and granddaughters the strength to stand up and speak out. Here are some ideas to help you get started.
- Teach your daughters that their voices and opinions matter! Ask them what they think, ask for their suggestions when making family decisions, give them opportunities to share their ideas, and build upon their strengths.
- Teach your sons to respect women in their language, behavior, and treatment. Set a good example for them; don’t laugh at humor that belittles women and don’t listen to music or watch media that sexualizes and objectifies females. Praise them when they are respectful.
- Have open and ongoing conversations about sex, boundaries, consent etc., not just a one-time talk or a once-a-year lesson. These should be open-ended, family conversations. Don’t be afraid of “hard topics,” such as masturbation, birth control, rape, etc.
- Avoid using shame, such as using words like “dirty, sinful, or perverse” or analogies like “chewed up gum” as deterrents for sexual behavior. This can cause children to feel responsible if they have been harassed and to keep it quiet. You always want them to feel that speaking to you about intimacy or harrassment is the safest place for them.
- Focus on the beauty of relationships and intimacy when teaching your children about sex. Let them know they can come to you with any questions or concerns, and you will always do your best to answer them honestly.
- Stay emotionally connected. If your child feels off center, dig a bit deeper. Watch your child’s body language. Look for signs of withdrawal from normal activities with family and friends and a lack of interest in usual interests. Trust your instincts; if your child doesn’t’ seem like their usual self, ask them about it
- Teach your kids that sexual harassment IS bullying.
- Follow your gut. If you feel something’s “not quite right,” trust it and inquire.
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Educate and Empower Kids is passionate about helping parents deal with issues such as sexual harassment, in all its forms. For great ideas and support to help you start talking about this and tons of other subjects, check out our lessons, latest news, videos, and other resources that can assist you in helping your daughter keep her voice strong.
Marina Spears received her Bachelor of Science in Marriage and Family Studies from BYU Idaho. She runs the student guidance program at the Summit School of the Poconos, and facilitates a support group for families of addicts. She is also a contributing writer and editor at Educate and Empower Kids. She is the mother of five children and loves to spend time with her family.
Chatterjee, R. (2018, February 21). A New Survey Finds 81 Percent Of Women Have Experienced Sexual Harassment. Retrieved from NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/02/21/587671849/a-new-survey-finds-eighty-percent-of-women-have-experienced-sexual-harassment
Gilligan, C., Lyons, N., & Hanmer, T. (1990). Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.