In this moment of #metoo and #timesup, perhaps the most challenging accusation many of us have talked about is the one “Grace” made about Aziz Ansari on Babe’s website. Although it may be tempting to give Ansari a pass because he’s likable, or because his behavior in the situation described was “typical,” or because we can believe that his intent was not to assault an unwilling partner, the facts appear to be that she was sending messages as clearly as she knew how to or was able to, and he couldn’t or didn’t know how to receive them.
Around the staff table at the Birds & Bees Connection, this story led to a round of agreement that the conditioning that both boys and girls begin receiving in their earliest years contributes to situations like this, and I had a fresh example to share.
A few days ago I was in the car with a three-year-old girl. She was asking if I knew the little boy she’s in love with, whom she has already decided to marry. I told her that I did. Then she told me that sometimes he hugs her too tight and it hurts. When I suggested that she let him know, she laughed at me as though I was making an outlandish suggestion and said, “That would hurt his feelings!”
Her mother and I were both stunned. Where is she getting the idea already that she shouldn’t express to a boy she likes that his actions, especially the way he is touching her, are making her uncomfortable? That his feelings are more important than her comfort?
I asserted immediately that it was OK to let someone know if they were hurting you, and instead of looking me in the eye intently and acknowledging that she’d deeply accepted this fact, she shifted gears to tell me about the dress she was wearing and how she would wear it to her wedding. Three-year-olds are not much for deep conversation.
She moved on, but I have not. Since then, I’ve been finding opportunities to revive the topic when I see her, offering ideas about how she can both let her little friend know that she likes it when he hugs her and that sometimes he hugs too tight. I believe, and I know that my Birds & Bees Connection colleagues share this belief, that incidents like this are the seeds that grow into young men not registering cues that their partners aren’t enthusiastically on board and young women not having the language or perspective they need to assert themselves.
Of course consent issues aren’t limited to men and women or boys and girls. What if this little girl’s best girlfriend starts hitting her when parents aren’t looking? What if a trusted adult starts making inappropriate advances? What if a loved partner someday begins taking advantage? I trust that if the adults in her life work together to catch as many “seeds” as possible, starting now, letting her know that she is allowed to speak up for herself and that there are ways to honor her own needs that can be kind and safe, she will have the tools she needs to navigate trickier situations down the road.
I want her to tell the little boy she loves that his hugs are sometimes too tight. I want her to do it both so she can enjoy hugging him without hesitation and so he will know how to give welcome hugs. I want her to have the basics of setting and maintaining comfortable boundaries so she’s able to do that more fluently as she grows up. I want her to be able to demand equal pay for equal work, to challenge partners who might want her to suppress her needs in favor of theirs and to thrive through her own strength. What’s more, I want her to model this strength for her little brother and the little boy she loves.
If any of this situation is resonating with you, I hope you’ll chime in by commenting. If you feel like you could use some help navigating what to do when a very young child is experiencing unwanted attention or aggression, I recommend either our Bodies in Motion class for parents or private coaching with our founder, Nurse Leslie.