I have three little girls. Little, little girls; the oldest is 4. I’m not anticipating having the “sex talk” with them for at least 8 years, although we are pretty big fans of Animal shows, and the rhinos have taught them a lot already. But with my little girl starting Kindergarten in the fall, I am keenly aware of a different kind of sex talk that I think all parents should have. The difference between sex (which is awesome and sacred) and abuse or molestation (which is not the same thing, and not their fault).
Elizabeth Smart spoke at a Sex Trafficking conference at Johns Hopkins a few weeks ago and explained why she didn’t run or shout out for help while surrounded by familiar places and people. Besides being certain that her captors would carry through with their threats to kill her, she also felt used, unclean and outcast. “Who would want me now?” The thing that kept her going was realizing that her parents would love her no matter what happened, and she would do whatever she needed to in order to stay alive. Even if she had to be raped repeatedly, she would endure it and get through to the other side.
The church curriculum (and the scriptures) speak to abstinence before marriage, which I absolutely agree with. But I think, for my girls, in this time of the world where 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men retrospectively report being sexually abused in some way, we are going to have to break down the sex talk into two pieces. And I think that any chastity lesson in Young Men or Young Women ought to also include an element of the “forced sex” issue. This plague affects so many people, often beginning before 8 years of age. (The median age of sexual abuse is 9.) So our talks have to start before that. Probably when they start school or daycare.
Both Elizabeth Smart and Joanna Brooks in Book of Mormon Girl talked about the fallacy of object lessons when discussing chastity. I personally never sat through a lesson where a rose was passed around, handled by every girl and ended up wilted and falling apart at the end of the line. Or a donut, dented and missing chunks of frosting. Or a board repeatedly filled with nail holes. But Elizabeth Smart kept thinking of her school lesson about a stick of chewing gum and how if you are chewed too many times, you end up with old gum that gets thrown away. That idea contributed to her feeling of worthlessness. I think there actually is a place for that object lesson. It is in connection with Repentance. You pass it all around and then say, “Now, what do you think this rose is worth?” And the girls say “not much” and you say, “That’s exactly what Satan wants you to think when you mess up. He wants you to feel like you aren’t worth saving, that no one would want you now. But Jesus Christ would still pay $20 for this rose. He paid for you specifically at these moments, when you were on the wrong side of justice because He knows just how much you are worth. You have great potential and no mistake or sin will erase your value. He died for you because you were going to sin.”
Age Appropriate Talks
We make rules about our kids not showing their private parts to other people, which is a good rule. But we ought to be careful about attaching consequences to it that make them want to hide any infraction. A friend’s daughter was nervous to tell her mom that someone had peeked in on her in the school bathroom because she didn’t want to get in trouble. Maybe the best rule would be: Anytime anyone sees your private parts, I want to know about it. You need to tell me right away. Not, you’ll be grounded if you ever show anyone your private parts.
As they get older, talk about agency and sin. Our uncleanness with immorality stems from willfully disobeying God’s commandment. Just like any other commandment that we disobey on purpose. It shows that we think we know more than God and we don’t care about His guidance. The problem with disregarding chastity is that it is such a loaded mistake. It could potentially alter your entire life and the life of your children if you get pregnant (or get someone pregnant) before you are really ready for marriage and a family. It also means sharing the most sacred, special and personal part of yourself and making it public, mundane and profane. So it’s very serious. But it doesn’t detract from our eternal worth. Being immoral is bad, but it doesn’t take away your divine nature. So, what if you are forced, against your agency, to immorality? What if someone gropes you or rapes you or forces you to see something that you don’t want to see? Are you using your agency to willingly disobey God? NO! This is not the same thing as immorality. The sin is not there. The pain, definitely is, but there is no sin.
This is all just coming together in my mind, and it is probably obvious to everyone else, but being more precise in our “stranger danger” talks with kids is going to be vital in the coming years. We say “don’t talk to strangers, don’t take presents from them, don’t get in their cars” and we’re thinking “because they will kidnap and molest you” but we usually don’t bring that part up. Kids have to know what they are up against, what the biology and mechanics are and what the difference is between intended and unwanted sexual experiences. When they have an older boy ask to see their underwear or what is below it, they have to know what the intention is so that they can protect themselves. It’s sad to have to take away their innocence earlier and earlier, but if we don’t, someone else probably will.