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How do you talk to your daughter about sexual assault?
When Shannon Bradley-Colleary was 20-years-old, she seemed to have everything. It was 1986. She was a “privileged” college student studying journalism in London with several other students from the University of Southern California. Despite her young age, she saw herself “as a Woman-of-the-World, an intrepid explorer,” ready to be reinvented.
But she got more than she bargained for.
While in Italy for what was supposed to be an adventurous spring break getaway, she was almost date raped. Like many women before and since, Bradley-Colleary never reported what happened to her. Today, Bradley-Colleary has two daughters, 8 and 9 years old, and she wants to protect them. When they are old enough, she plans to tell them what happened to her in hopes that “they’ll see the warning signs” she missed. In retrospect, she says “innocence is overrated.”
"There's always that concern between not telling them enough to be prepared for something, and telling them too much," she said. "I know they're too young now for me to tell them this story, so I wanted to write it down, and have it for them when they're old enough."
According to Bradley-Colleary, children are born with the right instincts until they forgo them to adapt with society and culture. "I think we teach our children to be very accommodating to strangers, you know ... and what I realized is, children's reactions, before we socialize them, are often right on. They follow their instincts; they don’t' cover things up," she said.
Marybeth Roden, assistant director at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, said parents should not only discuss the subject with their daughters, but also with their sons.
"I also think it's vitally important for mothers and fathers to speak to young men, because they're the ones that are committing these crimes, and there are things they need to know as well," Roden said. "Rape is never the fault of the victim, it always lies squarely, 100 percent, with the person who uses force or takes advantage of someone who is unable to give consent because they're drunk."
Roden added that educating children at a young age will shift societal norms.
"We have to change the culture. Men need to be empowered to speak up if they see other things that their friends are doing that don't feel right, or speaking about women in a denigrating or predatory way. ... 99 percent of men obviously wouldn't behave like this, but they can have an enormous influence on men in their circle," she continued.
According to Roden, much progress can still be made, but receptiveness to tackling the issue has grown in the past three decades.
"When we started our national campus rape campaign in the '80s, there was some resistance on the part of some colleges to even bringing this subject up. Now there is much more awareness and much more information out there," she said.
Roden suggests that every parent has their own way to relay information to their kids, and that's okay. "I think that there are ways to educate your child. I think you need to decide what the appropriate way to do it is. ... I think the important thing is to make a commitment to informing your children about risks."
From the phones:
Robin in studio city said the key to teaching young children once they're able to handle this type of information is honesty.
"Not negative, not pessimistic, not critical – 'Oh, men are bad' – but be very honest about what can happen," she said. "But also, we need to really encourage our daughters to listen to their instincts, to know what that means. And I think that starts at a really young age."
Lisa in West Hollywood started talking to her daughter about similar issues at the age of five. "I'm trying to teach her just to have a sense of trust about her body, so that, from a very young age, she knows that if something doesn't feel right, she can trust herself," she explained.
Lydia in Studio City said she was raped as a freshman at an Ivy League University. She said that actually being raped makes it more difficult to speak to her daughter about her experience.
"I've written about it, but I will not share the details of that experience with my daughter, who's now 13," she said. "I've certainly talked about the issue with her, had her read about experiences with other young women, but I think to have her see her experience through the prism of the specific event that happened to me would be too frightening for her, and while it might be cathartic to me, would not be helpful to her."
But when is the right time to talk about rape with one’s daughter? Where’s the line between protecting our children and scaring them unnecessarily? What should all mothers tell their daughters about the risks of being a woman? What do you wish your mother had told you?
Shannon Bradley-Colleary, screenwriter and blogger, author of “The Date Rape Story I'll Some Day Share with My Daughters,” posted on her blog TheWomanFormerlyKnownAsBeautiful.com
Marybeth Roden, Assistant Director, Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center