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Teaching Our Sons to Prevent Sexual Abuse

Ten guidelines for parents.

Key points

  • By the time they reach 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse. 
  • Girls and women are disproportionately the victims of sexual violence, while boys and men are most often the perpetrators.
  • Parents can teach boys early to help prevent sexual abuse in various ways, including educating them about consent.
Olya Adamovich Pixabay. Pixabay License. No attribution required
Source: Olya Adamovich Pixabay. Pixabay License. No attribution required

Sexual violence is a serious global problem. By the time they reach 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 13 boys will experience sexual abuse. However young adulthood and the college years are also peak times for sexual violence, with 26.4% of females, 23% of LGBTQ individuals, and 6.8% of males reporting sexual assault.

While both males and females can be sexually abused; girls and women are disproportionately the victims of sexual violence and boys, and men are most often the perpetrators. Thus, while sexual violence prevention efforts must target all children, special focus and attention need to be directed to our sons.

Below are 10 guidelines for parents on how to teach their sons to be part of the solution and not the problem:

1. Start Early

Sexual violence prevention should start when your sons are young (5 and younger). Teach them to be kind and helpful to others through action and words. Reinforce appropriate actions and behaviors with verbal praise and gently model and redirect behaviors that could be improved.

2. Teach Egalitarian Gender Norms

We know that teaching a culture of respect and egalitarian gender norms is an important part of our social responsibility to prevent sexual violence. We know there is increased violence against women in cultures where women are not considered to be equal to men.

Try not to impose stereotypical gender roles upon your children. It is fine if your child chooses those roles but let them know that all children can play with dolls and trucks and that there are no “girl” things/roles and “boy” things/roles. Allow your sons to be sensitive and vulnerable and do not give the message that boys should be strong and tough.

3. Address Consent

Between the ages of 5-12, start talking to your children about consent. Explain what it is, how to ask for it, and to expect it from others.

It is important that then you as a parent respect your children when they choose not to be tickled or touched and that you reinforce them for using their words for telling you what they want. Videos are great for starting family conversations on the topic. You can even play games where you allow the child to decide where and how they want to be hugged, snuggled, or tickled, and then they can tell you when to start and stop and you respect that (kind of like red light green light).

4. Talk About Pornography

As boys approach adolescence, they may start to be curious about pornography. More than one-quarter (26%) of boys will have seen pornography by the time they are 12 (and 65% by ages 15-16).

Let them know that sexual curiosity is natural, but research suggests that boys who regularly watched pornography were more likely to:

  • Sexually objectify women
  • Have more stereotyped gender attitudes
  • Display more sexually permissive behaviors
  • Be more likely to engage in sexual harassment

So, it is important to share your family values and the reasons why you do not think this type of behavior is acceptable.

5. Teach Critical Thinking Around Sexual Violence

Parents cannot always be there to monitor their children’s behavior and thus we need them to think about situations critically, especially situations that can involve sex.

Ask critical thinking questions about sexual violence-related topics in the news. For example, if a politician or comedian makes a derogatory or sexist comment/joke (or someone else does) about women ask them why they think this may be inappropriate, how it may make women feel, and what the consequence would be? If they learn to think critically then when they encounter novel or difficult situations, they will be better prepared to respond appropriately.

6. Discuss Intimacy

One-third of sexual abuse of minors is perpetrated by another minor and most perpetrators are teenage males. In some cases, this is in the context of dating relationships. Unlike other skills, how to have a relationship is not something that is not generally taught at school. As teens start dating, have discussions about intimacy and healthy sexual relationships and the role of communication in healthy relationships.

7. Teach Affirmative Consent

As your sons become teenagers, this is also the time to address affirmative consent — what it is and how to obtain it. Several states and many college campuses now legally require not only consent but affirmative consent for sexual activity. Consent Is Like a Cup of Tea (also available in Spanish) is an excellent video to start the conversation with your teens.

8. Address the Risks of Alcohol, Drugs, and Their Relationship to Sexual Violence

Alcohol and drug use are related to sexual violence. Studies have found that at least 50% of all campus sexual assault involves alcohol. Teach your sons that if someone is drunk or high, they are legally unable to give consent. Further, discussions of drinking and how that may impact decision-making and sexual violence are also pivotal.

9. Encourage Them to Be Upstanders and Bystanders

You also want to teach your sons to be upstanders and bystanders — how to step up if they hear their friends making sexist comments/jokes or if they see someone in a risky situation. Many college campuses teach bystander intervention and there is some evidence that these types of interventions can decrease the incidence of sexual violence.

10. Most Importantly, Practice What You Preach

Our children learn from us and look for us to cues as to how they should behave. Thus, our own attitudes and behaviors significantly impact them. Parents should always remember to model egalitarian gender norms, be respectful and kind in their interactions, and model, require and respect consent for all physical interactions.

References

For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

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