SEATTLE -- Have you talked to your teen about sexual assault? Two specialists from Seattle Children's Hospital say parents who have this conversation with their child have a chance to influence their actions and keep them safe.
The conviction of two 16-year-old football players who raped an unconscious girl in Steubenville, Ohio, has flooded the media. And, teens are talking to each other about the case, according to Dr. Yolanda Evans, an adolescent physician at Children's, and Jen Brown, a nurse with the adolescent medicine team.
“If parents have an open conversation then teens are less likely to turn to a peer for advice,” Brown says.
Evans says parents should begin discussing sexual assault as soon as their child starts dating. She says parents should not only talk about how teens can protect themselves, but also what they should do to make sure they don't hurt someone else.
No parent wants to believe their child could hurt someone, but Evans says it is important to talk to your child about what it means to get consent.
“Often adults think about protecting kids from becoming victims, we tend to forget to tell teens, ‘If they say no or seem reluctant, ask them if it’s okay,’” she says.
Brown says parents should tell their teens sexual assault includes having sex with anyone who is intoxicated, developmentally delayed or under a certain age.
“Teens tend to wait for a ‘no’ instead of seeking a ‘yes,’” Brown says. “It’s not just important to be on guard if someone says no but make sure they’re okay with what’s going on. Get spoken consent.”
Brown says parents should explain to their kids that sexual assault does not only happen at parties like it did in Steubenville; it can happen in relationships, too.
“It can happen no matter how long you’ve been dating somebody,” Brown says. “You still need to seek that consent.”
She adds that parents can serve as the best relationship models for their teens.
“Teach your teenager that women are not objects; they are human beings," Brown says. "It’s not OK to take advantage of someone just because it makes you feel good.”
Protecting your child
No one is completely safe from becoming a victim of sexual assault, Evans says.
“It doesn’t matter how you’re dressed or where you are, nobody asks for sexual assault or deserves it,” she says.
While Evans and Brown both agree the victim in the Steubenville incident is not to blame for her attack, they say there are things teens can do to reduce their risk of becoming a sexual-assault victim.
One of the greatest steps teens can take to steer clear of dangerous situations is avoiding drugs and alcohol.
“[Drinking] makes you an easy target if someone is looking to hurt somebody,” Brown says. “Even just having one drink, that gut instinct that tells you something is wrong gets silenced."
Brown adds parents can protect their teens by making sure there is an adult present at any party their child attends.
“The majority of teens don’t want to hurt anybody, but there are predators out there – even teenage ones,” Brown says.
Brown has also seen parents offer their teens "one free phone call." This allows them to call home anytime they are in an unsafe situation with the promise they will not be punished.
“It gives teens an out,” Brown says.
Evans says some parents might be surprised to learn their child has been a victim of sexual assault themselves - whether it be unwanted touching or pressure to have sex.
“I would not assume that this has never happened to them,” Evans says.
When teens do talk about being a victim, Evans says it is important to offer them support and never blame them.
“If a teen says something happened, take it seriously," Evans says. "Get them to a counselor and a physician."
Both Evans and Brown agree parents should talk to both boys and girls about how to protect themselves and how to keep from hurting others.
“Both genders need to get both messages,” Brown says. “It’s really important, whether you have a male or female, gay or straight teen that they know what consensual sex is and that it’s very important to seek consent,” Brown says.
Jen Brown wrote about this topic on the Seattle Children's Hospital Blog "On The Pulse."