My daughter is 12 years old, and she has already been groped. It happened at a local water park last summer in the wave pool, the kind of swimming pool where mechanically generated waves simulate the swell of the ocean. As one wave lifted her up, she felt the hand of a teenage boy grabbing her bikinied butt. How strange, she thought. It must have been a mistake; maybe the wave had carried him into her. Yet the same thing happened to her 11-year-old friend who was swimming nearby. Then they heard two more girls remarking loudly that the boy had touched them, too. Apparently, this young man was groping every female buttock in the pool like he was testing for ripe fruit at the farmers' market. Soon, the two lifeguards on duty were frantically blowing their whistles. The waves stopped and the red-handed boy, standing by the lifeguard station with his father, was told to leave the water park immediately.
While the news that my young daughter had been groped horrified me, I couldn't have imagined a better outcome. She was with a friend and her friend's mother, able to share and process the experience and even laughed about it a little. More important, the teenage offender was caught, confronted, and suffered the consequences. He was publically shamed for his stupid and intrusive acts, as he deserved to be. And yet, my girl had been groped. She had been initiated into the world of women everywhere who are plagued by men behaving badly. Or in the words of a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit, "Welcome to Hell."
The recent spate of news stories about women (and some men) being sexually harassed in the entertainment industry and in politics may be painful to witness, but it's also liberating. The #metoo movement has broken the code of silence and unleashed a formidable backlash against many men who have unfairly wielded their power. Women and men are talking; mothers and fathers are talking. And many of us are wondering: How did we get here, and how can we stem the tide of sexual misconduct for the generations to come? How can we do things a little more mindfully so that we can raise girls who are empowered and expressive, and boys who are enlightened and empathetic?
A True Yes and a True NoAlicia Muñoz, a psychotherapist and couples' counselor based in Falls Church, Virginia, sees one solution in the growing trend toward raising sex-positive kids. "Sex positive" is a relatively new buzz-phrase that's gaining traction in the therapy world and beyond. "It's about helping your children grow up with a sense of sexuality as a natural, normal, healthy, pleasurable part of being alive, of being a human being," says Muñoz. "That's easier said than done, especially in a culture that is so weighted toward sex negativity and gender biases and power differentials that are unfair. It's a tall order, but an important thing."
One essential message of sex positivity is that any sexual activity, and any touching of body parts, should be consensual. "Taking the shame out of sexuality is part of what provides a foundation for the awareness of consent," says Muñoz. "It's being able to grow up in an environment where you're not ashamed of your own sexuality, or of sexuality in general. That's part of what empowers you to have a voice, and having a voice means you're connected to your right to give a true yes or a true no in different situations, including sexual ones. And on the other side of it, you're primed to respect another's true yes or true no when you view sex as a positive, integral, normal part of being human."
Raising kids to be sex positive is a lifestyle that begins at the onset of parenthood. Many parents worry about when to have "the talk" with their children, but, in a sense, we're already talking about sex to our kids before they have language. "From the moment they're born, babies and kids are receiving data related to sex and sexuality and gender—through their senses, touch, longings, hunger, their relationship to their body, and their parents' or caregiver's relationships to their bodies," says Muñoz. Yet the time will come when children want to put sex into words they can understand. And the sex-positive way for parents is to start talking about sex as soon as a child starts asking about it. "When a child asks a question, even if that child is just two and a half or three, you answer it in simple, true language," says Muñoz. "You call a vulva a vulva, a penis a penis. You don't call it a wee-wee or a pee-pee or another nickname. You show that, even in the naming of body parts, there's no need to hide it."