Tips on Protecting Children from Sexual Assault and Harassment

Written by

October 21, 2017

As published in Human Rights Bulletin, by co-authors Karen Lewis, MD, FAUSA and Brooke Galloway, FAUSA

As Board President and the Assistant Director of SASHAA , Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad, we are frequently asked about sexual assault prevention, often from parents who desperately want to protect their children as they grow into mature adults. Parents often hope for a foolproof solution to completely prevent sexual harassment and assault, which unfortunately does not exist. However, conscious parenting strategies can reduce the likelihood of victimization.

Parents must first understand how sexually aggressive and inappropriate behaviors tend to be excused–e.g. “boys will be boys” and “it was just locker room banter.” In her book, Transforming a Rape Culture, Emilie Buchwald describes rape culture as “a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women.” She says that, as a society, we excuse and tolerate this behavior, while blaming and shaming the victim for drinking too much or wearing too sexy clothes; not believing the victim; normalizing attitudes regarding the objectification of women; normalizing the fact that women live under the threat of sexual violence every day; etc. These attitudes are present in TV, music, advertising, laws, language, and imagery. Rape culture is present not only in US culture, but also throughout the world.

In recent years the media has been particularly focused on sexual assault on university campuses, but according to SSAIS (Stop Sexual Assaults in Schools), thousands of cases of sexual assault and harassment occur in US elementary and middle schools every year. Girls of color and LGBTQ students are most vulnerable. Appallingly, 93% of minor victims know their perpetrator.

Prevention Measures

While we can’t prevent all sexual harassment and assault, we can equip kids with knowledge and awareness, empowering them to identify inappropriate behavior and red flags and feel comfortable talking with their parents about these issues. Prevention should start early with parents of young children using correct language for all body parts; talking with their young children about body boundaries, what is and isn’t appropriate and parts of the body that are private; and discussing safety issues. According to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) , these early conversations help kids identify when something is wrong and empower them to speak up.

The Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence observes that building foundations that allow children to feel confident and comfortable in their own bodies and talking regularly and naturally about age-appropriate sexuality are early prevention steps. As children grow and start exploring their bodies, parents should avoid embarrassment and instead normalize these behaviors, teaching limits to when and where they are acceptable. “Show me a child who knows nothing about sexuality, and you’ve just introduced me to my next victim,” states a perpetrator interviewed by the Vermont Network.

It is also important to teach youngsters that it is okay to say no to anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. RAINN notes that this message isn’t always clear to children, as they are often taught to be obedient and follow the rules. RAINN advocates supporting your child if they say “no”, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make you feel, for example, if your child does not want to hug someone at a family gathering. Furthermore, talk to your kids about when secrets are appropriate and when they are not, as many times perpetrators will use secret-keeping to manipulate children, even threatening that the parents will be mad at them. It is important for your child to understand that they won’t get in trouble for telling you what they heard, saw, or experienced.

As kids transition into their pre-teen and teenage years, continue to engage them in conversations regarding sexual assault. RAINN suggests using media to make it relevant, telling a story from your own experience, talking about caring for their friends, as well as their own behavior and identifying harmful cultural norms. In this digital age, the conversation should include online harassment through pervasive social media, texting, emails, advertising, etc. Talk with your boys as well as your girls. Remember that victimization doesn’t just happen to girls and that such conversations can be important in your child recognizing inappropriate behavior in themselves as well as others. Engage your kids and teens in active bystander scenarios. For example, what would they do if they saw inappropriate behavior happening to a friend or peer? Talking to them in this way shows that you trust them to make good decisions and helps them feel comfortable when talking to you about these issues.

Part of conscious parenting also involves understanding school stances on sexual harassment and sexual assault. In the US, Title 9 provides protection and response regarding these matters for federally funded schools, but schools not federally funded or located outside of the US have different codes of conduct or ethics. Parents need to know how their child’s school offers protection and response and to share that information with their kids. If your school doesn’t have a clear policy and you want to offer suggestions, the CDC has compiled effective strategies and programs for assault prevention HERE.

Understanding the perceptions of sexual harassment and assault in the country where you live assists with prevention. Policies and laws vary in every country, as do stigmas and attitudes, which can be dangerous. Find country-specific information on sexual assault prevention, response and laws, including LGBTQ information, through the SASHAA app or website or by emailing . Find more resources HERE.

Breaking news: Sudden loss of federal funding for SASHAA

For the past three years, SASHAA has supported thousands of Americans in foreign countries with quick and confidential services after trauma, but may be unable to continue after the loss of substantial federal funding which had been expected to continue for the next two years. Significant additional individual and corporate financial support will be necessary to continue these lifesaving services. Board President Karen Lewis is seeking 1-2 experienced fundraisers to join the nonprofit board; if you are interested or have any recommendations, please contact her at .