By now, most of us are all-too-familiar with Donald Trump’s hot mic incident, in which he boasted about being able to walk up to beautiful women and just kiss them or even grab them between their legs. In the video recorded before a 2005 Access Hollywood interview, Trump joked to talk-show host Billy Bush that he tried to “fuck” a married woman, admitted he “moved on her like a bitch,” and referred to grabbing women “by the pussy.” Trump dismissed his comments as locker-room banter, but many in the media were quick to point out that what he was describing was actually sexual assault.
Since the release of the video, a number of women have come forward to allege that Trump treated them in a manner much like he described to Billy Bush: kissing or touching them without permission. As the story has grown, many parents have worried about what they should say if their kids hear about it.
I think all parents should use this as a moment to teach children of all ages about sexual assault, respect, and consent.
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Parents who need some words to get that conversation started could turn to the most unlikely of sources: conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh. On his October 12 show, Limbaugh said:
You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything—the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything—as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it’s perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.
I wouldn’t use this quote exactly. You probably want to take out the derision of the left, the mention of the “rape police,” and possibly the reference to multiple sex partners at once. Also, because Limbaugh evidently doesn’t come close to holding this point of view himself, his delivery was dripping with sarcasm, which parents should try to avoid. Nonetheless, his summary is spot on: “Consent is the magic key.”
As I’ve written about in the past, I have been working to teach my children about consent for a number of years even though they are just 6 and 10. Most of our discussions have nothing to do with sexual behavior. They’re about respecting the boundaries others set for themselves and, in particular, for their bodies. If you say stop tickling, we will. If we say stop hitting me, you must. If a friend doesn’t want a hug, you can’t give her a hug right now.
I’m happy to report that at least some of these messages are getting through. My 6-year-old, for example, has taken to using the phrase “It’s my body, so I decide” frequently. Often it’s in reference to being allowed to skip a shower or wear a weather-inappropriate outfit, but sometimes it is a matter of self-empowerment. Whenever possible, I agree that it’s her body and she can do with it and dress it as she pleases, even if it means going to school in a dress far more suited for a fancy party (like she did this morning). Sometimes, I provide back-up (like a pair of sneakers in her backpack) when I know her choice will leave her cold or covered in blisters. Other times, I have to play the “mommy card,” but even then I try to provide the illusion of choice—showers are not optional, though you can choose whether you take it in my shower or the tub in the hall.
I was very proud, however, when I decided to discuss the Donald Trump situation with her at dinner the other night. I started by asking her if she’d heard what Trump had said about women. She said no, so I explained that he said that he could walk up to any woman and kiss her and she wouldn’t mind because he’s famous. She didn’t respond. I continued, “What do you have to do before kissing someone?” Without looking up from her bowl of pasta, she answered: “Ask.”
That was pretty much the end of the conversation. I told her that she was absolutely right: that you have to ask permission before you kiss or touch someone, and that this was one way that Donald Trump was apparently not being nice to women. Then we moved on to a discussion of her classroom job as morning meeting manager, which seems to come with a lot of responsibility.
I want to point out that for this conversation, I only talked about kissing, because that is something that I knew she could understand and it got us easily to the overall point of consent. I didn’t think anything would be added by telling her that the presidential candidate also said he could grab a woman’s vulva or by teaching her the word “pussy.”
I came to a different conclusion when talking to her older sister—mostly because she has access to the internet. In fact, the conversation with my fifth-grader started because she was looking at YouTube and said she was going to watch a video about the worst things Donald Trump has said about women. I didn’t want her to hear the most recent comments without my help deciphering them.
So after making a mental note to monitor her YouTube viewing more carefully, I began to describe what Trump had said on the hot mic video. We talked about the kissing and the grabbing, and I did explain what the word “pussy” meant in this context.
She looked perplexed and said with disgust, “But that’s like if we just walked up to a man and grabbed his penis?” (As a child of sex educator, my daughter isn’t one to use cutesy names or euphemisms when talking about male or female genitalia.)
“Exactly,” I replied. “And no one can do that to anyone, no matter how famous you are.” Then I reminded her of the concept of consent and reiterated that no one can touch you, and you can’t touch anyone else, without permission.
As more women come forward with accusations that Trump groped them on an airplane or pinned them against walls and kissed them, my daughters and I may have more conversations. My hope is to leave the specifics out of it until they get older. We have yet to get into the details of sexual assault, mostly because I don’t want them thinking the world is a dangerous place or that sex is scary. I also don’t think it’s necessary to discuss rape in order for them to understand the underlying concept of consent as a matter of bodily autonomy. At least not yet.
Of course it’s clear that too many adults—Rush Limbaugh included—seem to have never had these conversations and never learned these lessons. Limbaugh seems to have taken Donald Trump at his word that women supposedly allowed him to do these things, saying on a later show: “How can there can be assault if somebody’s granting permission? How can it be assault if they let you do anything?”
There’s a difference between granting permission and not being able to stop someone before he sticks his hand up your dress or tongue down your throat. But Rush may never understand this. In 2014, after all, he argued against Ohio State University’s definition of consent and advice to students by asking listeners: “How many of you guys in your own experience with women have learned that ‘no’ means ‘yes’ if you know how to spot it?”
While I don’t expect to teach old blowhards new tricks, I do have hope for others. Since the video and allegations have come to light, many in the media have been talking a lot about consent. Some news anchors, including Anderson Cooper during the second presidential debate, have made it clear that the kissing and grabbing Donald Trump brags about in the tape actually constitutes sexual assault. I have confidence that there are people across the country who listened to the tape and the commentators and thought about consent, possibly for the first time. And I am optimistic that at least some of them turned around and told their children what I told mine: When it comes to kissing, groping, or sex, consent is, in fact, the magic key.