Recently my daughter and I both read a book called Keeping Corner, which is a novel about Leela, a 12 year old widow in India in 1918. (It’s a wonderful book—you should read it. You’ll find my full spoilerific review here.) It led to the beginning of a discussion with my daughter (12 years old, like Leela) about sexual assault and victim blaming—a conversation I’m sure we’ll be having for years to come.
This short conversation made me think about how to best discuss this issue with kids. It helped a lot that we had the shared context of a novel—the experience of a girl my daughter felt connected to but still had some distance from because she’s fictional. And because we see the story from Leela’s point of view, the reader knows her thoughts and emotions in a way that’s difficult if not impossible with a situation from the news.
Toward the end of the book, when Leela first goes out in public in her widow’s garb, her mother arms her with a sharp piece of jewelry, warning her that there are those who would take advantage of her. Sure enough, a man attacks her; she uses her weapon to leave long scratches down his arms and he runs off. Soon she hears that the local tailor is unavailable because he somehow got his arms all scratched up—now she knows who attacked her. She tells her family, and they tell her they aren’t surprised. He’s raped before, several times. Leela is horrified—why is he still on the streets if people know that he does this? Her mother points out that the victim is much more likely to pay for the crime than the rapist. It isn’t worth it to come forward. And so he continues to attack women with no consequences. Leela wisely holds her culture responsible for this situation—a culture of silence allows those crimes to happen. A community that knows about his crimes but does nothing to stop him is guilty, too.
My daughter and I had a few minutes alone on the way to her piano lesson, so I asked her what she thought about that scene. She found it frightening and didn’t understand why the tailor would attack Leela. I reminded her of the lack of consequences, and she intuitively understood the concept of victim blaming.
(As Clark pointed out when I talked with him about it later, it’s not surprising that kids grasp victim blaming—it’s par for the course in childhood. A few kids act up, everyone gets punished. You’re being bullied, it’s probably something you did—although thankfully, in many schools this mindset is changing. When you don’t have a lot of control over your life but you’re held responsible for the things that happen around you, victim blaming is a pretty intuitive concept.)
We talked about how the culture Leela lived in made it possible for a rapist to go unpunished and for victims to be blamed and to blame themselves. And I felt it was my responsibility as a mother to tell her that this culture is still in place in many ways and in many places. I told her that blaming the victim, particularly in a rape, is still common, including in our country.
I mentioned the recent case in India as a horrific modern example—as I read about Leela, I had that case in the back of my mind and how nearly 100 years later things haven’t changed as much as we would hope. (Let me be clear that I’m not saying that this is unique to Indian culture. YouTube videos from Steubenville should kill any complacency we in the west have about that kind of bigotry.) But I also said that in this case, because it was so horrible and because it garnered a lot of attention, it looks like maybe things will start to change. She wanted to know that the rapists would be held accountable. I told her that, after the uproar, they did arrest the men involved and hopefully they will be convicted—hopefully these rapists at least will face consequences.
For her sense of justice, she wants the bad guys to pay for what they do. But it was all too easy for her to understand why victims wouldn’t want to come forward and that, even if they do, people may blame them instead.
About to pull up to her piano lesson, I realized I couldn’t leave the discussion on such a negative note. I told her that it feels like things are changing, that people are talking about this, that slowly it’s getting better. I gave her a big fake grin and said, “So, have fun at your lesson!” She smiled for real and told me that she was going to think about all the good things that people do, instead of dwelling on this.
I know she’ll continue to think about it. In the next few weeks, she’ll probably ask me some huge and involved question about it just as I’m tucking her into bed and we’ll stay up way too late talking about rape culture because that’s just not the kind of question you can leave until morning.
But I know, too, that no matter how hopeless it feels sometimes, no matter how many horrible situations we hear about, I can’t make her think it’s hopeless. If we talk about it, but I give her no hope that she or her friends will be believed if they step forward, then I’m perpetuating that culture. If we talk about all the bad things and don’t actively look for the good, then we’re implicitly telling young girls that they might as well give up.
For the sake of the generation coming up behind us, we need to project hope, to see and acknowledge the change that’s happening, to give credit to the small changes that may not be coming as quickly as we’d like. It’s so easy to be cynical, to see hatred and misogyny wherever you look. It’s easy to dwell on the negative—we hear of new incidents every day—and it may feel important to make our daughters know just how bad it is out there.
It’s true that we’re not as far as we should be, not as far as we all thought we would be. But if our girls are going to keep moving ahead, they need to see hope—and that means we need to look for hope. They need to see that change is possible—and we need to at least allow for that possibility. They need to believe that if they speak up, there will be people to make sure they’re heard—and we need to assure them that we’ll be among those people, and we won’t be the only ones.
Sure, in time our girls may get beaten down, too. But our cynicism isn’t a legacy we should pass on to them—it’s one of those things you should earn for yourself.
Note: So far I’ve only begun this conversation with my daughter. Her younger brother isn’t quite ready for this discussion. But in the meantime, we’re raising both our kids to know and protect their own boundaries and to respect other people and their boundaries. That’s part of where the hope for the future comes from. There’s a whole post on that topic that I plan to get to another day.