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CONTENT WARNING—this article contains discussions about child sexual abuse and violence against women by men. It may be distressing to some readers.
One morning one of my primary school aged sons politely requested to be excused a goodbye kiss. He said I still smelt of soggy Weetbix. This stung. It hurts to have affection refused and the allegation I was odorous was a lemon squeezed into this burn. What to do? He’s a sweet soul and children do love to please, so had I pouted and expressed my hurt he would have undoubtedly ‘consented’ to endure my pongy kiss in a near instant. But what does this teach? It would teach him that placating the emotions of others is more important that his body boundaries.
So rather than manipulate his good nature why not cheekily flout his request? Why not tickle him to the ground and grinningly plant a smelly kiss on his cheek against his wishes? Harmless teasing and rumble is part of our family life. My son would likely laugh off my unwanted kiss as a cost of play. But what does this teach him? My ‘harmless’ rumble undermines his confidence to express his body boundaries and his expectation that the trusted adults in his life will respect them.
“That’s okay, darling,” I said to my son.
I kept my hurt and kisses contained.
Gaslighting & Alarms
Our children navigate a world where 30% of Australians experience sexual abuse within their childhoods. They are most likely to be abused by a man, a man they know, a man they trust, a man they want to please, a man who can ‘playfully’ cross over their boundaries without triggering red-flags or alarm. While some perpetrators abuse with threats and violence, others slowly build and manipulate a close relationship with a child, grooming the child to be unable to identify, refuse, resist, or report abuse. Perpetrators also groom caregivers to gain access to children.
‘Gaslighting’ has become a buzzword in understanding domestic violence, used to describe a “form of emotional abuse that causes a victim to question their own feelings, instincts, and sanity, which gives the abusive partner a lot of power...Once the abusive partner has broken down the victim’s ability to trust their own perceptions, the victim is more likely to stay in the relationship.”  Many children who are abused are in effect gaslighted, taught by perpetrators to doubt their perceptions of safety, boundaries, comfort, and consent. Other perpetrators are not so fixated in their predatory, they may not even have a greater sexual attraction to children over adults yet will opportunistically abuse children for sexual gratification if a situation allows.
How do we raise children in a world of such men? Risk factors for abuse decrease when a child has an adequate understanding of appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour, personal safety, and can verbally or physically reject the abuse.  We must teach our children to know their bodies and body boundaries and fully expect them to be respected. We need to help set alarm bells in our children’s heads set to go off when their boundaries are crossed, alarm bells loud enough to change a trusted person into an unsafe person and affirm the child’s right and ability to seek safety.
“STOP, I DON’T LIKE IT!”
Deanne Carson, sexuality expert and co-founder of Body Safety Australia writes, “I teach consent education to children as young as three. A quick round of ‘heads, shoulders, knees and toes’ moves into a lesson on private body parts. Bottoms are hilarious and the word “bagina!” is readily offered with adorable three year old lisps. Kindergarten children know that their body belongs to them and they don’t have to kiss or hug if they don’t want to. They know who they can talk to if they are hurt, and when we practice saying, “STOP, I DON’T LIKE IT!” they raise the roof.”
It is a horrible reality of parenting that we must build walls around our children to protect them from dangerous men and teach them to combat those who get past these walls. This terrifying truth resurfaced for me as Australia confronted the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon and digested the message of the police, “Make sure you have situational awareness” “Be aware of your own personal security.” Australian women received one message loud and clear—they own the responsibility not to get raped and murdered. Women are sexually assaulted because they fail to make good decisions about travel, company, drink, dress, body safety and “situational awareness.”
A responding shout echoed across the nation—No. Women are raped and murdered because of the men who choose to rape and murder them.
How do we stop society breeding dangerous men?
Please let this be the dominant conversation.
I don’t ever want my children to think they own the responsibility not to get abused, but I will continue to teach them how to identify, guard against, and escape abuse in all ways possible. Yet I also call for more public attention, research, and action into stopping sexual abuse of children at the level of the perpetrator rather than rely on a little child to guard against a powerful adult’s physical force and gaslighting.
As a woman I reject any responsibility for being on the receiving end of male violence, but given the world I live in my “situational awareness” will remain on high alert. But again we must confront the deeper question—how do we stop men becoming abusers? Eurydice Dixon’s murder is a horrific tip of an iceberg of male violence against women worldwide, violence which can’t be resolved by putting curfews on men as satire suggests, for while stranger rape gets our attention, women (like children) are most at risk of abuse behind closed doors by men they know and trust.
Monsters & Men
While Eurydice’s rape and murder took grip of our collective fear and grief, the recent news of the alleged murder of Qi Yu by her male flatmate went largely unnoticed. Why were we numb to Qi Yu’s fate? This terrible crime is the more common occurrence. In Australia police respond to a matter of domestic violence every two minutes and one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner.
After the rape and murder of Jill Meagher shocked Australia in 2012, her husband Tom penned a biting cultural critique, ‘The danger of the monster myth’. Here he confronts how violence against women is perpetuated by "normal guys"— “By insulating myself with the intellectually evasive dismissal of violent men as psychotic or sociopathic aberrations, I self-comforted by avoiding the more terrifying concept that violent men are socialised by the ingrained sexism and entrenched masculinity that permeates everything from our daily interactions all the way up to our highest institutions.”
A Tipping Point?
Propelled by the #MeToo movement and bolstered by mounting research into what causes many men to perpetrate abuse and violence, I pray for a national conversation that will actuate real change. Can this be a tipping point? We need to talk about male privilege and the embedded unconscious bias which leads women to be seen as having less worth than men and men to believe they have an inherent claim to women’s bodies.* As Carolyn Curtis James writes, “patriarchy turns man’s focus on himself—on his abilities and authority over others. His manhood is sustained by the submission and obedience of others.” We need to correct the gender inequality in our society that enables this worldview. We need to ensure women have equal power, voice, resources, and opportunities. We need to confront the impact of prolific violent pornography on our spongy brains, young and old. We need to examine our current frameworks of masculinity. We need to love and guide our boys into good men.
We need to remove weeds and rot from our culture.
We need to replant, water, and nurture good seeds.
Tenderness & Empathy
Emma Pitman writes, “We urgently need to discuss the construction of masculinity in our society—in particular, the power that it promises and delivers to young boys and men who are desperate to feel powerful. Hegemonic masculinity, as it stands, encourages the need for dominance, and toxic masculinity satisfies this need by providing a series of cheap, destructive avenues by which to achieve it.” Tim Winton speaks into this conversation, “Can we wean boys off machismo and misogyny? Will they ever relinquish the race, the game, the fight, and join the dance? I hope so. Because liberation – a process of disarmament, reflection and renewal – isn’t just desirable, it’s desperately necessary. In our homes, in business, and clearly, and most clearly of all, in our politics. Children are born wild. And that’s beautiful, it’s wondrous, regardless of gender. Even when they’re feral creatures, kids are reservoirs of tenderness and empathy. But some do turn into savages. And sadly most of those are boys. They’re trained into it. Because of neglect or indulgence.” 
Respect & Value
Violence against women by men, the sexual abuse of children by men, both crimes are nurtured by the entrenched patriarchy and its ingrained devaluing of bodies who sit below men on the social power pyramid. Both these forms of male violence abuse power, both assume the right to dominate, both are endemic globally and in Australia
Returning to Weetbix breath, it occurred to me that when we teach our children about boundaries, comfort, and body safety, we also teach and model consent. Lessons which guard them against abuse dovetail into lessons which can prevent them becoming abusers. If we model to our children that placating our emotions is more important than their boundaries, then we also teach them that it is okay to use and manipulate others for their own gratification, and they may take this lesson into future relationships. But if we model the need to in all things respect and value the bodies of others, then they carry this expectation into our shared world.
Earlier this year Saxon Mullins spoke to 4Corners about a violent sexual act perpetrated against her by a man in a dark dirty alley behind a King’s Cross night club in 2013. She called it rape. He claimed he thought it consensual. A high profile court case followed. In 2017 the court sided with his perception. Mullins broke her silence on the case to promote a debate about NSW sexual consent laws, the need to legalise the requirement of active consent, an enthusiastic yes, not just the absence of no. 
Her testimony of that night is stomach turning. My inner scream questioned in what universe that young man could believe what he did to teenage Mullins was consensual sex not a horrific abuse of power and a violent crime. In what universe does this man live? He lives in our universe. Something is very wrong if we struggle to tell the difference between sex and rape. Time to do some national soul searching.
Deanne Carson advocates that as caregivers we can model consent from birth. “Creating a culture of consent from birth doesn’t mean talking to babies about sex. It means laying foundations and familiarising children with reciprocal communication. It means modelling empathy and teaching our children how to recognise other’s boundaries and respect them.” Carson hopes we can build adults whose bar of sexual ethics is not how much they can get away with but the intent to enter all intimate moments with “empathy, care and a desire to bring joy to the other person.”
"He shouldn’t need to say no"
In our house no means no—if one of my three sons wants a tickle, a rumble, a hug or kiss to stop, I stop, even if I’m sure they will soon ask for more as they were actually enjoying them. I hope to embed in them the expectation that safe people will respect their body boundaries so that when they meet someone who does not respect these boundaries it red-flags this person as unsafe. But in teaching our children to expect body respect, we are teaching them to give this respect to others. “But I like my feet tickled!” one of my sons shouted when rebuked for continuing to tickle his brother against his expressed wishes. “Yes. But he said no,” I replied. “Not everyone likes the same type of touch. Even if you like that touch, if the other person doesn’t, you stop. It’s their body. They choose how they like it touched.” Once, a rumble ended with one boy grinding his chin into his brother’s eye socket. “But he didn’t say no!” the perpetrator howled when the victim roared for justice. “He shouldn’t need to say no,” I replied. “If you can tell from someone’s body language that they don’t like what you are doing, you stop. People can’t always manage to say no.”
Yes, reinforcing these body boundary are a small step and by no means guaranteed to protect our children from abuse or ensure they grow up to respect others, but they are vital truths, and are one seed in cultivating for all a safe and healthy future.
Valuing our bodies, valuing others bodies, expecting to receive respect, expecting to give respect, trusting our comfort levels, knowing others should stop, knowing how to stop, knowing not everyone likes the same touch, listening to body language—this is also situational awareness. And in teaching this to our children, in teaching it to ourselves, we may well change our world.
*I wrote this article while on the American border women of colour were having their children ripped from their arms and put in cages by white men with guns. There is also great need to examine how this racist horror fits into the equation of patriarchy, power, violence, and the objectification of people who the power brokers have classed as lesser. In Australia the aggressive arrest and imprisonment of an asylum seeker family in Biloela, and all the refugees and refugee children currently incarcerated by our government stems from this toxicity. Do not forget that both sides of parliament voted to criminalise the reporting of child sexual abuse on Nauru. Also, the Turnbull government’s paternalistic refusal of the Uluru Statement from the Heart has a place in this ugly paradigm. Part of the Statement asserts, “Proportionally, we are the most incarcerated people on the planet. We are not an innately criminal people. Our children are aliened from their families at unprecedented rates. This cannot be because we have no love for them. And our youth languish in detention in obscene numbers. They should be our hope for the future. These dimensions of our crisis tell plainly the structural nature of our problem. This is the torment of our powerlessness. We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.” (Uluru Statement From The Heart) This gift was refused. This extended hand of peace was rejected. This historically entrenched abuse of power remains unhealed. In the West patriarchy and white supremacy intersect in ways we don’t want to acknowledge. Dehumanised, any person can be used, abused, discarded without consequence.
 https://www.kidspot.com.au "We Need to Teach Consent to our Kids from as Young as Three"
 https://www.ourwatch.org.au "The danger of the Monster Myth"
 Carolyn Curtis James, The Malestrom (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 48.
 https://meanjin.com.au "Misogyny Is A Human Pyramid"
 "How Toxic Masculinity Is Shackling Men To Misogyny"
 While researching this essay I discovered that Deanne Carson from Body Safety Australia was well ahead of me in linking body safety to consent culture. Many health and sexuality educators talk about this link. In response to the Saxon Mullins story Carson became the centre of a troll storm when she suggested we can create a culture of consent from birth by asking a child’s permission to change their nappy. What could have sparked a conversation into how to foster dynamics of consent and body respect within the home was shouted down with ridicule, verbal abuse, and death threats. Tone deaf and narrow minded commentators distorted Carson’s comment into the false assertion she had said babies who say no to nappy change (and yes, babies do tend to always say no-no-no to nappy change) be left neglected in poo all day. Carson’s savvy response to this madness is found here— https://newmatilda.com/2018/05/15/brave-new-world-nappyconsent-woman-deanne-carson-meant-passionately-believes/ she advocates that we build consent culture from birth by intentionally “modelling active communication between two people in intimate or vulnerable moments from a young age. Showing a child what care in those spaces looks like, creating a family culture where the skills needed to negotiate consent as adults are embedded into every day interactions.”
If you require assistance or would like to talk to a trained professional about issues described in this article, please call:
1800 Respect National Helpline: 1800 737 732
Women's Crisis Line: 1800 811 811
Men's Referral Service: 1300 766 491
Lifeline: 131 114
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800
Common Grace Australia has recently compiled SAFER a wonderful online resource intended to help Christian leaders and congregations understand how domestic and family violence starts, recognise different kinds of abuse, get help for victims, appropriately support people affected by abuse, encourage perpetrators to change their behaviour, and call our nation to growth and action.
Some great articles about teaching body safety and consent culture to children:
"#nappyconsent Woman Deanne Carson On What She Meant
Creating A Consent Culture By Talking To Our Children
5 Ways You Can Teach Your Pre-schooler About Consent
10 Ways To Talk To Your Kids About Body Safety