Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Billboards about sex and rape: unfit for children's eyes?



by Jillian Hewitt

A local Fox news station in Florida ran a segment last week about a very scandalous new move by the Florida Department of Health; they put up billboards in 16 Florida cities that read “Sex Without Consent is Rape.” The sign also encourages readers to “Talk About It, Prevent It!” As you might’ve guessed, there are lots of parents who are outraged about the billboards. Most of the arguments put forth by the people interviewed in this Fox segment center around the fact that the billboard “forces” them to explain what rape is to their children and that they as parents have the right to decide when and how they want to talk about rape to children. Apparently a billboard—unlike media outlets such as radio, tv, newspaper, and computer—prevents the parent from making this decision. Please allow me to run through a couple of the ridiculous fallacies and hypocrisies found in this three minute video…

One of the main complaints about the billboard is that children of a certain age are not prepared to deal with the “rape” conversation. I’m not going to get into what the “right” age to have such a conversation is, but I think we can all agree that this is a valid claim: children under a certain age obviously can’t understand the concepts of sex, rape, harassment, etc. However, to jump to the conclusion that the billboards are upsetting, unnecessary, or inappropriate because kids of a certain age aren’t “ready” for the conversation is ridiculous. How often do children ask their parents questions whose answers are too complicated or inappropriate for the child’s age? (Mommy, Daddy, where do babies come from?) And how often do parents come up with an answer that they think is appropriately tailored to the child’s maturity level? If a parent is really that uncomfortable discussing a topic with their child, they’ll find a way to avoid the discussion someway or another. And obviously, I’m not saying that they should—I’m just trying to discredit this assertion that “we can’t have these billboards! My kids are too young!” At what age are children too young to be told “if somebody does anything to you that you don't like then it is simply wrong and most of all, not your fault.” I can remember being extremely young and having my dad tell me that if I was ever in an uncomfortable situation with a boy—with anyone—that if anyone ever touched me in a way that I didn’t like, that I should scream and get away as fast as possible. Maybe I didn’t know the definition of the word “rape,” but it didn’t go over my head.

And while we’re on the topic, if their minds aren’t ready for the topic of rape, shouldn’t we be raising hell about all manner of other billboards too? How do these moms feel about anti-drug billboards? Ones that warn against drunk driving? I mean, these topics are just so far over their heads. And how about billboards like these? Would these women have the same concerns about a billboard that encourages parents to talk about virginity?

I want to bring up (and shut down, of course) one more argument about the billboards, which is that—unlike other forms of media—a billboard cannot be escaped. It cannot be changed to another channel; the volume can’t be turned down. This is true. I get it. But the thing is, other media outlets can’t be escaped either. One of the women in this video—Pat Neagle Close, Tampa mom—claims that the billboard is especially offensive because she is able to regulate all other forms of media that her child is exposed to. I have a hard time believing this. In your own home? Maybe, though even there it would be difficult. But unless we’re keeping our kids in solitary confinement at home, they’re going to be exposed to things we might not be comfortable with. No matter what we do, they’ll see things we wish they hadn’t. They’ll ask questions we wish they hadn’t. So let’s ask ourselves, does a billboard that encourages us to speak openly about the problem of rape really fall into one of those categories? If so—and I think many would say that it does—we need to seriously consider what makes rape a more offensive, more inappropriate topic than drugs or violence.

2 Comments:

At September 30, 2009 at 1:45 PM , Blogger LSG said...

Great post, Jillian, I think you address this really well. And well done Florida Department of Health! Oh goodness, these parents distress me. Of course you don't want to launch into an hour-long lecture on the meaning of unimpaired consent with a four-year-old, but I think there's always an age-appropriate response (especially since hopefully you know your child well and know how much they are capable of processing). If they ask about a billboard and you don't think they're ready for an intense discussion of rape, may I suggest: "No one should ever touch another person in the private parts of their body when they don't want to be touched. Rape is a certain kind of that bad touching, and we'll talk about it more in a couple of years. If anyone hugs, kisses or touches you in a way that you don't like, that makes you feel scared or sad, I want you to yell 'No, don't touch me!' and come find me right away. I promise I will not be mad at you at all." This will not destroy your children's innocence, it will help begin to teach them they have a right to be safe and control who has access to their bodies. Jillian, it sounds like your dad was awesome about this.

And as far as controlling the media children are exposed to...these deeply concerned parents better keep those innocent tykes away from the Bible. As soon as I could read I developed a deep (and in retrospect, slightly perverse) interest in the Old Testament, and by the time I was in second grade I had asked for explanations of "adultery", "virgin", "concubine," "eunuch", "circumcision", "prostitution", "temple prostitution" and "semen." I figured out "rape" on my own from Deuteronomy context clues, though I thought for years that it only happened to virgins (thanks, Deuteronomy!). I didn't ask but spent a lot of time pondering why a father would offer his virgin daughters to a mob, why a man would force his half-sister to "have sex" with him when she didn't want to, why the Levite cut up his concubine after she'd been raped to death, how Jael got the general to sleep in her tent so she could drive a tent peg through his head, and why Queen Vashti was reluctant to "show her beauty" to the king's drunk friends.

So basically -- no matter how pure and wholesome you think everything entering your child's life is, they're going to hear words and stories and if you don't give them explanations they're going to come up with them on their own -- or believe what's being fed to them by other sources. Better see a billboard together and have a discussion than have your seven-year-old girl convinced that if she's raped in a town or city it's her fault*, right?

*Also in the Bible. She could have screamed and someone would have heard her and saved her, the Bible says. She must be lying about the rape to cover up her own sexual immorality. Stone her!

 
At September 30, 2009 at 11:14 PM , Anonymous Brenda said...

Super post. Love the proactive advertisement, this is the exactly the type of discourse that needs to be happening everywhere.

 

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