How Do I Talk to My Son About Sexual Harassment and Assault?

Updated on April 23, 2020
Teeuwynn Woodruff profile image

Teeuwynn has summa cum laude degrees in both Psychology and Sociology. She has worked at rape crisis lines and domestic violence shelters.

The Sexual Assault Landscape: Why Boys Need to be Aware too

Sexual harassment, abuse, assault, and rape are a huge problem in our society. According to the National Sexual Violence Research Center, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men will be raped during the course of their lives. In 8 out of 10 cases of assault, the victim knows the perpetrator. If you include sexual harassment, the numbers climb even higher.

Parents of daughters often take a lot of time warning their girls about protecting themselves as best they can from sexual assault. This is a wise thing to do, however, the girls are not generally the perpetrators of sexual assault, they are far more often the victims. So, while preparing girls for defensive maneuvers and strategies is prudent, it begs the question of why more parents do not talk to their sons about sexual harassment, abuse, and rape and what these concepts mean. After all, if we can teach our sons what is appropriate behavior and what is not it can lower the rates of sexual assault and it can also protect our sons from potentially becoming sexual offenders, a thought that should horrify any parent.

The effects of sexual assault often last for decades, including PTSD, anxiety disorders, and suicide.
The effects of sexual assault often last for decades, including PTSD, anxiety disorders, and suicide.

About Myself

I am a mother of one daughter and two sons. I have degrees in psychology and sociology and worked at a shelter for domestic violence victims. I am also the survivor of a rape that happened just after I turned 15 when two slightly older students planned a trap that involved holding me overnight. As when Dr. Ford testified against Judge Kavanaugh, I can clearly hear their laughter echoing through my mind to this day. I also suffer from anxiety and PTSD and have nearly daily flashbacks.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford Testifies About Listening to Kavanaugh and Judge Laugh

Talking to Your Younger Sons

It’s good to start talking to your sons early about certain concepts that relate to respecting each other as humans and then build to discussing sexual harassment, abuse, and rape issues. First, it’s best to start with the basics when they are young.

  • Teach your son to say no. It is important children learn that if they are uncomfortable in a situation where another child or adult, whether a stranger or someone close to them like a family member or friend, wants to touch them in a way they do not like they have the right to say no. You should also encourage them to come talk to you.

  • Teach your sons the names of their body parts. If your sons do not know what their body parts are called, they cannot name them if someone is touching them inappropriately.

  • Explain what parts of the body are private. Teach your son the names of these body parts, both his and the female private parts, and why they should be kept private. Emphasize that doctors can examine these parts, but you should be in the room when they do so.

  • Secrets are bad. Talk about the difference between surprises like we’re going to have a birthday party for your brother on Friday and we’re going to wait to tell him until then and secrets where someone is trying to keep your child from telling information to you.

  • Tell your son he won’t get in trouble for coming to you: This is important. Kids can feel very ashamed and confused if something does happen to them. They need to feel that they will be supported at home.

A younger boy ready to learn the first key steps in a path towards being a good kid who realizes assault and harassment are wrong and that he is worthy of respect.
A younger boy ready to learn the first key steps in a path towards being a good kid who realizes assault and harassment are wrong and that he is worthy of respect.

Talking to Your Older Sons

  • Sexuality in teens and tweens: Just when you feel your son is old enough to start talking about sexuality is a personal decision, howeve,r kids begin sexual activity at in middle school and in a 2015 survey, 41% of high school students report having sexual intercourse.
  • Talk about caring for a friend: Helping your son learn to care for others can give them a grounding in treating others with fairness, kindness, and respect.
  • Personal Boundaries part 1: When your sons are old enough to understand that each person has their own body and their own space, start talking about not touching people unless they say it’s okay. You can also try talking about simpler boundaries like not taking the food off another person’s plate unless they say it’s okay. The idea is to get your sons to begin to understand that if something belongs to another person, whether it is a toy or their arm, they get to say what happens to it.
  • Use your own experience as a safety story. This can be hard, especially if you had a particularly hard experience and have lasting scars such as dealing with PTSD. But those experiences affect your family and it can be important for boys to know the extent the damage can be for ignoring a girl (or boy) on this subject. Talk clearly about how the boys’ decisions led to the sexual assault and the various moments when they could have stopped or avoided the assault. Make sure to get your sons to question this from the perpetrator’s point of view, not going back to the old trope of blaming it on the victim.

  • Personal Boundaries Part II:This is where you need to talk to your son about “No means No.” However, the message needs to go far past this quick trope. Here are some of the many things that mean no:
    • She said yes, but now she says no = NO!
    • She’s been drinking alcohol or doing drugs and says yes = NO!
    • She seems to be incoherent or otherwise acting strange = NO!
    • She is passed out or asleep = No!
    • Your son has been dared to sleep with her=NO!
    • Your son is inebriated = NO!
    • Your son said yes but now feels no = NO!
    • She is completely coherent and so is your son. This is a reasonable time to make a decision on whether to have sex.
  • Listen. The number one thing you can do for your son is to listen to him. This will both allow you to hear what is going on in his life and what problems or questions he might be having about sexual interactions with girls (or boys) or to pick up on some possibly inappropriate actions and guide him in the right direction.

A Teenage boy needs to learn about sexual harassment, abuse, and rape and what these terms really mean.
A Teenage boy needs to learn about sexual harassment, abuse, and rape and what these terms really mean.


Warning: Tough For Some To Watch—Boys Reading Friends' Letters of Sexual Assault as Male Victim

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Teeuwynn Woodruff


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    • Teeuwynn Woodruff profile imageAUTHOR

      Teeuwynn Woodruff 

      20 months ago from Washington State

      Thank you for your response. I agree it's always best to treat people with kindness and respect. False sexual assault accusations are very rare, although they do occur.

      I think you make a point that when it comes to drugs and alcohol there are nuances, but I believe it is best to draw clear lines for young boys when it comes to sexual advances. It's very easy for even adults to become confused over what is truly consensual when the person they want to engage with sexually is under the influence. It's much harder for adolescents.

      Having to evaluate whether their potential sexual partner is actually impaired by the drugs or alcohol they have taken is just an additional, difficult, step for someone who is already in a hormonal state. It's safer for everyone involved, especially at that age, to just take that evaluation out of the equation.

    • dashingscorpio profile image


      20 months ago from Chicago

      Excellent advice.

      "She’s been drinking alcohol or doing drugs and says yes = NO!"

      This one is a grey area depending on the amount of alcohol or drugs consumed. Naturally if someone is intoxicated or stoned it's a NO!

      However in the adult world most first time sex experiences occur after a date where food and alcohol has been consumed on a date. In some instances two people have been drinking and dancing in nightclub/bar and decide to go home together.

      Another example may involve someone hosting a "romantic dinner" date whereby a meal was prepared, wine was served the lights were low, music was playing, the couple slow danced, and began making out and spend the night together. Very few folks would call that rape.

      Last but not least sometimes (regret) can change a yes into no. Immature boys have been known to brag about having sex with a girl or dump them. There are instances where the mistreatment or hurt you cause someone can lead them into making accusations.

      Innocent until proven guilty rarely applies in he said she said these days. It's best to treat all lovers with respect and kindness afterwards.

    • Ellison Hartley profile image

      Ellison Hartley 

      21 months ago from Maryland, USA

      This is a really great article and brings up great points. It seems this is often overlooked with boys, whereas girls are taught from a young age...I think the best point you made out of all of them was when you said to make sure they know it is okay to come to you and confide in you about anything that may have happened to them.


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