I sat by a pool recently, watching a father frolic in the water with his two children, a boy around five and a girl around seven years old. The father, smiling broadly, would pick up each child in turn, raise him or her high in the air above his head and then let go, letting the child hit the surface, making a big splash.
For a while, both children squealed with glee, until the little girl landed, seemingly painfully, in the water. When her father reached out again, to repeat the activity, she called out, “No, please no!” But her father, still smiling, pulled her out of the water anyway, while her screams got even louder.
“No, no, no! Please, Daddy!” she called.
He whirled her over his head.
As her body hit the water, I heard her mother and several women nearby call out in alarm: “No means no!” He smiled back and said, “Oh, but she really wanted it.”
These are often the words that young women (and men) recount when reporting date rape or other sexual assault. Teen girls who’ve been assaulted often say, “But I said ‘no,’” and the teen or adult men who’ve assaulted them often retort, “But she really wanted it.”
The poolside tableau convinced me that we’d better start educating young people—particularly young men—much earlier about the true meaning of “no.” And by earlier, I mean when they are children.
Since a great deal of sexual assault against teen girls is perpetuated by men—some three to five years older—we, as sex educators, need to role play with students situations that dramatize the power inequalities between teen girls and older men.
These role plays should also extend to situations where females are the aggressors against males and should include gay and lesbian teens as well.
Educators and other professionals who work with young people will be wise to check out our training workshop about Intimate Partner Violence among adolescents, just one of our excellent professional development opportunities.
We need to educate young people about the true meaning of “no” as soon as we can. As Thomas Jefferson once said, when told how long it would take for a tree to grow, “Well, then plant it tomorrow.”