My last blog post was a few weeks ago, and in it I addressed how our sexual scripts – those things we think should or will happen in sexual/romantic/dating situations – have contributed to the prevalence rape culture and sexual harassment. Sometimes these thoughts are conscious and sometimes they are so deeply embedded that we don’t even know we have them until something happens that makes us question ourselves. Examples of this: assuming a woman needs to wear a certain style of clothing in order to receive attention or avoid rape; assuming who will pay for the dinner/movie tickets/concert tickets/drink when out on a date; imagining that the first blush of interest will lead to romance to commitment to a wedding day that ends with “they lived happily ever after”, and what it means when these things don’t happen in the way you assumed. Here’s the post, if you’d like to read more or read it again. https://diannaritola.com/relationships/sexual-scripts-and-the-damage-of-rape-culture/
After I posted it, I received a comment from a reader who asked about how we can use this knowledge of sexual scripts to help our children, and children we know, to expand their awareness of sexual scripts and learn how to discuss them in their own dating situations. Ever one to rise to a challenge, I bring you my
Top 10 Things You Can Do To Teach Kids and Teens About Sexual Scripts
1. Learn about sexual scripts – especially your own. Since most of these scripts are unconscious, it helps to think about what you expect (or expected) when you go out on a date. What are the stories you tell yourself about how the date will unfold? Is someone always or usually in charge of making the plans, asking for the date, paying, deciding on timing? What role does gender or status (class or economic) play in this? How is the other person expected to behave? This is a gold mine of information that you can learn from. Talk about this with your friends to see if their sexual scripts match. Figure out where this information came from and if you actually believe it is true or necessary.
2. Talk with kids and teens about what they think happens/should happen on a date or a sexual situation. You can’t know what another person thinks until you ask them. As much as parents like to think we know our kids like the back of our hands, we don’t. Children have their own internal lives, and that only increases as they move through late childhood and into adolescence. Open up conversations when they’re young about body parts, body safety, what kinds of touch feel good, how to tell someone that you like them. Keep talking, keep inviting their input, ask them what their friends think…whatever you can do to bring these assumptions into the light of day is one more step.
3. Examine what scripts (assumptions) mean. Ask your kids: Do you believe that is right? Is this how everyone acts/should act on a date? What if the other person feels differently? How would you know if someone didn’t agree?
4. Talk about non-verbal and verbal cues. Sometimes you don’t say exactly what you are thinking, especially when you aren’t feeling confident. Dates are one of those kinds of situations. You want to impress the other person. You want to be liked. You want to have a good time. You want things to go the way they do in the movies/TV/books. Yet, you also know that there are differences of expectations and when someone is feeling uncomfortable there are non-verbal cues (body language) and verbal-but-not-direct cues that can alert us that our dates are not on the same page we are. Start talking about these cues when your kids are small and playing with others. Get them to notice how turning away, having a “mad face”, or crying are telling them that their behavior is upsetting someone else. Talk about paying attention to someone’s words: “Stop. Don’t. Leave me alone.” are direct. Don’t allow yourself to minimize these reactions.
5. Model and practice asking direct questions and consent. Sex and dating are often areas of discomfort for parents and teens. Parents don’t want to think of their kids as sexual beings, and kids sure don’t want to think of parents that way, either. However, if you start when they are young and model asking questions directly, both to other adults and to your children, about what behaviors mean (1), what assumptions you had that weren’t met (2), and what your scripts say (3), then it is much easier to continue this style of direct communication when they are older. If they’re already teens, it’s not too late. See examples below.
Kid Examples: (1) I saw you push your friend away. Did she/he do something to hurt you? (2) I thought you’d kiss me goodbye before school. Why didn’t you? (3) Here’s what I think will happen when the doctor examines you. What do you think will happen?
Teen Examples: (1) Does kissing someone mean they are your girlfriend/boyfriend? (2) Did you ask your date who would be paying for the school dance and dinner before? (3) What do you think will happen if you go on a weekend camping trip with your boyfriend/girlfriend and 5 other friends?
6. Treat them as the intelligent beings they are. Don’t baby talk your kids. They’ll hate it, and they’ll clam up and refuse to talk. Even kids as young as 3 can tell when adults are treating them in a patronizing way. Talk to them about their bodies with adult terms (vulva, penis, nipples) instead of euphemisms (wee-wee, junk, titties). Let them know that it’s ok to feel good when you touch these areas, and that it’s most acceptable to do that touching in private. Talk about the biology of sex and puberty (there are some great books for kids!) as well as things like desire (i.e. You’ll really want to kiss and touch some people and not others.) The more you allow your kids to tell you how they feel, what they think, and what their actions mean, the more they will have the language to understand assumptions and sexual scripts. Having the language about sex and dating and understanding how to face sexual situations will help them to dismantle assumptions and talk openly with their peers and dating partners.
7. Don’t assume you know everything. Even though you’re an adult, you are always learning. Asking your kids for input, for opinions, for information will help them to know that they have agency to make decisions and speak their truth when they are on a date, or in another situation without you near.
8. Bring up sexual scripts in reference to media situations. Note when characters in movies/TV/books/other are behaving with assumptions, and talk about ways they could get clarification or address concerns — not just in dating situations but in other ways, too. Note when characters are not listening to each other and acting in ways that follow their internal script (i.e. when someone doesn’t listen to the other person’s request to stop).
9.Trust yourself. Even though you may not feel like you have all the answers, you can still start the conversation. You’ve had dating disasters. You’ve made false assumptions about others. You’ve been on the receiving end of false assumptions. You may have been a victim of dating violence or sexual harassment. You’ll never be perfect, but that doesn’t have to stop you from being better. You want the best for your kids and the kids you know. They won’t be perfect, either. You can offer them a listening ear, a chance to learn together, and a model for consciousness that will help them to look at sexual scripts and make healthy choices.
10. Keep communicating. Just because your kid is 18 or has moved out doesn’t mean you stop being their parent or a trusted adult in their lives. Things only get more complicated in the dating world once you’re an adult, so the lines of communication need to stay open and honest and affirming so that you can continue to help your children become the adults they are meant to be.
Best wishes in this amazing journey with your kids!