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How To Talk To Young People About The Kavanaugh Story

Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh during the second day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.
Win McNamee / Getty Images
Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh during the second day of his Supreme Court confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill.

Young people around the country are among those joining the debate over Christine Blasey Ford's accusation of sexual assault against Judge Brett Kavanaugh in 1982, when both were teenagers.

What are teens learning from all this? And how should adults be handling this conversation?

One night during the summer of 2017, a teenager named Francesca in Virginia was assaulted by a classmate: "I was pinned down and he fondled my breasts and sexually assaulted me." We're only using her first name because she's 15 years old.

Francesca says she struggled at first with coming forward, but eventually became an activist and public speaker on consent and survivors' rights.

Jules Spector, meanwhile, is an 18-year-old graduate of a private high school in Brooklyn, now taking a gap year before attending Wellesley College.

Spector is also a survivor of sexual assault, and it took her years to come forward. She says she's willing to use her full name because she is a feminist activist who feels the importance of raising public awareness.

The accusations against Judge Kavanaugh have reminded her of parties she's attended, and boys she knew in high school.

"A lot of boys that I've grown up around have the thought that they can do anything," Spector says. "And these decisions that they make, whether inebriated or not, won't follow them later in life because they can just forget about the horrors that they caused people and move on with their lives and become successful."

She says she admires Christine Blasey Ford for confronting the issue.

"The amount of strength it takes to come forward is unparalleled. And no one does it for attention, because it's the most painful thing you could possibly do, but also the strongest thing you could possibly do."

For too many young people like Spector and Francesca listening to the news right now, they're not learning about sexual violation — because that's already happened, if not to them then to someone they know.

What they are learning, educators say, is whether the adults in power will take these claims seriously, and whether speaking up results in harsher consequences for survivors or for those accused.

So how are we supposed to talk to our children about all this? Here's some guidance from experts:

1. It's your job.

"As parents,you are the primary sexuality educator of your children — whether you're saying anything or not," says Debra Hauser, the president of Advocates for Youth, a national nonprofit that works for honest sexual health education. Francesca works with the organization.

When something like this is in the news, as it has been all too often lately, Hauser adds, it's "a great teachable moment." Talking about a situation that doesn't personally affect your kids or someone they know can be a less threatening way to open up the topic.

2. It's not too soon.

Hauser says conversations about consent and bodily autonomy can — and should — predate any discussion of the mechanics of sex.

"You see two 4- or 5-year-olds, where one wants to borrow the other one's crayon and they just grab it," she explains. "And the response that you have is, 'You have to ask for it. And if that other child says no, you have to respect that and find another way to get a crayon.' That's the very beginning of consent education right there."

3. Give them the information.

Karen Rayne is a sex educator with a nonprofit called UnHushed. She also has a daughter in middle school and one in high school. She says giving kids the facts they need is especially crucial for younger teens. "They're going to hear whispers and not really have access to full information or the skill set to find that information."

4. Be the "askable" parent.

In other words, Hauser explains, be the one that your children can come to with questions. She says that, by bringing up tough topics even when they make you uncomfortable, you increase the likelihood that your child will do the same.

Francesca says she confided first in her friends about her assault. It took her awhile to share the story with her mother.

"My mom was surprised and very upset as any mother would be, but she was very very helpful," Francesca says. Her mother, sadly, had her own experience of sexual violence to draw on. "She knew the process and the importance of reporting the crime to the police."

5. Or designate someone else they can talk with.

Each year, on their birthdays, Hauser would tell each of her children (who are now grown) to name a trusted adult outside of the family to share hard things with. Things they might be tempted to keep secret because of a fear of punishment, a fear of disappointing a parent, or for any other reason.

" 'Let's agree on a couple other adults that you respect that you could go and talk to,' " she told them. " 'And we'll go together and tell them that we have this agreement.' "

6. Talk to potential perpetrators, not just potential survivors.

When talking about sexual assault and consent, we often focus on victims, and primarily on girls.

But, "it'sthe people who are doing the sexual assaulting that need a different kind of education and a different kind of support starting from a very young age," says Rayne. "About things like [what to do] when they're attracted to someone or interested in someone and that person rejects them."

With the right education, says Rayne, a young man might be able to say, " 'Oh, you know what? I've been drinking too much and I feel like my capacity to make wise decisions is failing me.' Or, 'Hey, you know, when someone's trying to push me off of them, that's something that I should take as a cue to get off.' "

Hauser says the landscape of consent is shifting for this generation, and not only with the #MeToo movement. Guidance issued under President Obama has led to a greater emphasis on sexual misconductprevention and enforcement on campuses under Title IX. And, several states are working towards adding consent to their high school sex education standards.

But, Hauser and Rayne say, there's a lot more work to do.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.