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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rape, sex and my three-year-old's questions.

My three-year-old Patrick sometimes has questions about things my husband or I watch on the news.  The other night, as I was setting dinner on the table, a story about rape on university campuses came on.

"What's rape?" Patrick asked, after an interview with a campus advocate for sexual harassment and rape prevention. 

I turned off the TV.  Hesitant. Wanting to give him a good answer, but not wanting to open his eyes to the actual horror of such an act.

I said, "It is something that a person does that hurts another person a lot. It is very bad."

Patrick responded, "Like when people hit and take toys."

I replied, "Yes. But it is even worse than that."

Patrick left it at that, his three-year-old mind moving to something else.  It's been a couple of days, and he hasn't asked about it again. But I have given it quite a bit of thought.

As a mom to three sons, I often mull over how to teach them about their sexuality, especially in regards to how they will view and treat women. I know they're only 3, 1.5, and still unborn, but it really does begin the moment they notice that, hey, they have a penis - they are boys. 

I was somewhat surprised to be discussing rape with Patrick the other night, but it made me realize the need to think about what I want to be telling my sons in regards to sex, sexuality and becoming men.

I knew what rape was at 5 years old. Thankfully, it was not because it, or anything remotely similar had happened to me.  It was because I had heard adults talking about it, and asked.  I was told, "It's when a man touches a woman's private parts when she doesn't want him to."

That definition stuck with me for a very long time.  It is inaccurate and incomplete at best, but it also contains the narrative that it is primarily something that men do to women. I have never heard of a rape case where a  man was not the aggressor, but somehow my five-year-old self perceived rape as a common occurrence, which made me deeply afraid to be a woman.

This not what I think about rape now, having had 22 more years to learn about it, but that first encounter with the word and its meaning was impactful on the way I viewed sexuality, men, women, and myself. Though I don't begrudge the person who said that to me in the least, it left me with the impression that men were not to be trusted. That is certainly not what I want my sons to come through life with. 

But, what do I want them to know? This opens up a whole slew of questions I don't yet have the answers to.

Children are being exposed to aspects of sexuality from birth.  Their understanding is limited, but as a parent, I feel like its my job to disseminate the messages so that my sons (and possible future daughters) a. don't hear inaccurate or harmful things from elsewhere, and b. have enough knowledge for their stages of development to have and maintain a healthy outlook on sexuality and what it means for them.

As a practicing Catholic, my own understanding of sexuality, both general and personal, is basically this: that the sexual act is an amazing, holy, covenant between married men and women and God. But with a three-year-old, you can't go tossing around words like "covenant".
These are things I myself am still grasping.

My husband and I grew up in fairly conservative Christian/Catholic homes. We attended youth groups and retreats and both ended up dabbling in youth ministry. And, we both came away with a view that it is a woman's job to guard men from their uncontrollable desires.  If she did not dress modestly or if she flirted and showed any interest in men, she was automatically a first-rate whore. 
Joseph has told me that he was convinced that good Catholic women do not desire sex, and that sexual desire existed in men, but must be stifled until marriage.  Thankfully we became more enlightened to the beauty and mystery of men, women and sexuality before we began dating one another (thanks, in part to John Paul II's Theology of the Body).  However, Joseph has said to me several times that it still surprised him that I like and desire sex.  For my part, it surprises me just how beautiful and dignified a sexual relationship with one's spouse can be.  It's nothing like the reckless, wild, irrational love we see in movies, it's better.  We want our children to know that they, and their sexuality is amazing, beautiful and holy from the get-go.

I want my boys to view themselves in a positive light when it comes to their sexuality.  They need to know that they were made good, and that their sexuality is good.  I want them to practice self-control, and know that they are real men when they do so.  I want them to appreciate feminine beauty, intuition and intelligence. I want them to be aware that though a woman's clothing and behaviour may not indicate that they want respect, that they are to be treated with Christ-like love and that their dignity as human beings is something to be cherished. I want them to be surrounded by men and women who show this kind of love to one another inside and outside of marriage.

I want them to know that they'll be happier if they don't buy in to the narrative that says lust is a hobby that all men take up.  The narrative that says its okay to treat a woman as an object, because she has willingly objectified herself for the pleasure of men.  The narrative that not only paints men as defilers and deflowerers and slaves to their desires, but glorifies it at the same time. 

Boys and men need to know they are good and worthy as much as girls do - and I've seen a lot of finger pointing from men to women and women to men.  It's a challenge to find some balance for myself.  My fervent prayer is that I can help my sons to navigate the world with their innocent eyes and instil in them their own goodness and worth, and the value and beauty of the women around them.



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