By: Liberate Zealot
Content Warning: Rape Culture
Part I of Feminism and Children : Feminism and Children MasterPost
I work with children, and the main way I live my feminism is by imparting feminist ideas onto these children. This means I work to combat their ideas of gender roles and stereotypes, and also by stressing the importance of consent in all interactions. This generally is an easy thing to explain to children. Make sure they understand to always ask before touching people (even with friends and nice touches like hugs), that it's alright to say "no" or "not right now", and to respect it when other people say "no" to them.
But sometimes this isn't enough. Society as a whole doesn't teach these things to kids, in fact, for some of them it teaches the exact opposite.
One of my students is a sweet and small 8-year-old girl. She's friendly, soft spoken, has long hair, and is smaller than half of the kindergartners. All of this (plus societal messages) results in a lot of the other children treating her like a doll. They pick her up, carry her around, pull her into their laps, play with her hair, and other gestures that would be innocent, expect by in large the other kids don't ask her before doing these things. I spend more time making sure her body autonomy is respected than for the rest of the students combined.
Half of the group reminders about not touching without permission are because the other kids don't do that with her. And the fact that half the time it doesn't really bother her, or that she's gained the confidence to speak up when it really does bother her doesn't make it better.
Yesterday, I was talking about this with my roommate, who is also a feminist and a teacher, and she mentioned something I hadn't really thought of. "What is this teaching her?" Even in this safe place I try to create, even when the teachers care about her body autonomy being respected, the majority of her peers and friends don't. Her opinions about being touched aren't considered by most of the students. They treat her like a doll, objectify her. They treat her like her body is public property instead of hers. They treat her like as long as she doesn't say no, then she is saying yes. They act like if she says yes to them once then they never have to worry about her consent again.
They treat her body and consent in the way rapists and rape culture treat victims/women.
Now they're kids, all under the age of 10 (and the older kids get the concept of consent better than the younger kids). They're still learning the important of respect, body autonomy, and consent. I'm still teaching them how to respect that in others. But as I'm teaching them, they're teaching her. They're teaching this girl that she's public property, that if she doesn't say no then she must have said yes, that it's her job to make other's respect her body. They're teaching her to internalize rape culture.
This is how it starts, and society is just going to continue these messages as she grows.
Will my involvement and lessons about consent be enough for these kids to learn its importance? Will it be enough to help them combat the other lessons by rape culture? I'm afraid it won't be. With these thoughts in my mind, I can't ignore how many of the children I've worked with will become victims. Who might already be victims without me knowing. I've worked with over 1,000 kids in my time in childcare and education. At least 200 (and that's a very conservative estimate) of them will become (or already are) rape victims. The vast majority will have internalized rape culture and blame themselves for the crime done to them.
I look at her, and think "this is how it starts". And I'm sick with worry that everything I do won't be enough to save her, if not from rape itself, then from her own self-blame.