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Code Orange: Raising Girls to be Safe, Smart, and Protected in a Sexually Hostile World

(Trigger warning - this post deals with the subject of sexual assault, so if that's a topic you struggle with then you may want to skip this one, just FYI.)

I was sexually assaulted as a child, along with my sister, by a man who worked for my father. We were abused together as a pair, repeatedly, over a period of many months, and for reasons I don't fully understand to this day, we never told my parents. In fact I barely even remembered it, having only strange, isolated memories of the way sunlight filtered through his window - full of dust motes, golden like turmeric in the darkness of his room. Or the scratchy texture of the iron-grey blanket on his bed, and the smell of certain foods that lingered in the air long after he'd finished eating a meal. I would recall these things, triggered by invisible tripwires in my mind, and my gorge would rise. But it wasn't until adulthood that I understood what I was remembering.

These experiences had a profound impact on my sister and me in very different ways as we grew up. We were both very promiscuous in our teens, engaging in risky sexual behaviors (a fact that she did a far better job of hiding from the world than I did). But where she developed sticky fingers and an addiction to the thrill of shoplifting, I fell into a world of substance abuse and self-harm. We were a hot mess for the full duration of our teens, and didn't get our poop in a group until our early twenties. (She got hers together before I did, which seems to be the story of our lives - she figures it out before I do and then I labor along behind her trying to play catch up.)

Childhood sexual assault affects the way you parent your kids

I didn't realize it, but those childhood experiences would have a profound impact on my parenting. As soon as I brought my first daughter home from the hospital the metamorphosis began inside my brain. Not just the transition from non-parent to parent, but the process of traveling from a place of forgetting to a place of remembrance, and everything that came with that transition.

I discovered that changing my daughter's diaper was an uncomfortable experience for me because wiping her clean meant I had to touch her on and around her genitals, and that made me profoundly uneasy. Despite the fact that what I was doing was perfectly normal and totally required if I was going to keep her clean and healthy, and despite the fact that there was always a baby wipe or a soft cloth or a finger full of diaper cream involved, it made me feel sad and scared and a little sick in my stomach. Something that should have been a routine part of motherhood was ruined in some inexplicable way that I struggled to put words to at the time.

I also discovered that my entertainment changed drastically. where before her birth I had been able to entertain myself with many-hours long marathons of Law and Order: SUV, suddenly any movie or TV show or book that featured an abducted or abused child set of triggers in my brain and made me simultaneously terrified and very, very angry. I would abandon books mid-read because something happened to a kid in the story and I couldn't handle it. Movies featuring kidnappings or abductions that I could've watched with complete impunity before becoming a mother suddenly left me weepy and furious. I ranted at God a lot and worried endlessly about something happening to my daughter.

I became a frequent visitor to the Michigan State Police website, where I could scroll through the Sex Offender Registry and fret over the list of convicted sexual predators living within five miles of my house, memorizing their faces and names so I could pick them out of a crowd if need be. I lived in a state of constant, low-grade anxiety, and it sucked.

Where do you go from here, when your parenting baseline is fear?

It was years before I could get a handle on my fears, and some of that had to do with my girls reaching an age where they can communicate. Somehow knowing that they're able to tell me if something happened to them made it slightly less scary. (Although I haven't forgotten the fact that my sister and I never told my parents, and that the majority of kids don't report sexual assault when it happens still scares the shit out of me). But another factor was open dialogue.

I talk about stuff with my girls. We talk about what's appropriate and what's inappropriate, and the importance of not keeping secrets that make you feel yucky inside. We talk about how sneaky some people can be, and how good they are at making others feel guilty or ashamed of things that aren't their fault. We talk about internet safety, and predators online, and the tactics they use to reel in vulnerable kids and take advantage of their trust. We talk about body positivity and trusting your instincts, and speaking up. (And I put them in martial arts classes, which might be doing more for my peace of mind than their actual protection, but there you have it.)

And it's not just one conversation. You can't address the issue of personal safety, or safe internet practices, just once and think you've got it covered. These are subjects you need to revisit often, from different angles, reinforcing the idea in their heads. And it doesn't need to be a "heavy" convo, where you sit down and have a lengthy talk about all the things they need to be aware of. It's probably more effective if you touch on it regularly, raising different points as you find ways to work them into regular conversation. Encourage them to ask questions, and find ways to use daily events as teachable moments to reinforce their awareness of personal safety.

And finally, address these subjects in a way that empowers your kids, instead of filling them with fear. Having a healthy dose of caution about what's out there in the world is good, but they don't need to be terrified of setting foot outside the front door. Teach them that they're smart, and encourage them to talk to you about people or encounters that make them uncomfortable. Keep an eagle eye on their online activities, and engage them in conversation about their dialogues with others in games and on social media. You can't police everything they do and say, and realistically you can't follow them around with a baseball bat for the rest of their lives. But you can do your best to prepare them for reality, and teach them to be smart and aware of the world.

Talking to your kids about sexual assault is important

I haven't told my younger, biological daughters about what happened to me when I was a kid. Not because I don't want to, but simply because I think they're too young to know. One day, when they're a little older and the time is right, I'll share those stories with them. But for now, I don't think they need those details.

However, I did share the story with my foster daughter. Partly because I wanted to create a safe space with her where we could talk about hard things, and one of the ways I could do that was to share something awful with her from my past. That way, when she was ready to talk about her past (if she was ever ready) we would've already made some progress towards establishing a dialogue about hard subjects.

But I also told her because I wanted her to see that you could endure hard things and come out stronger on the other side. (She told me she thought nothing bad had ever happened to me because I seemed so content in life. She assumed I'd never known any kind of hardship or challenge in life, which I guess just goes to show that you can never really tell someone's backstory by looking at whatever chapter of life they're currently in.) And finally, I told her because I wanted her to know that sexual assault is a very real issue in today's world, and that it can happen to anyone, and that I will do everything in my power to keep it from happening to her. And that's where code orange comes in.

Code Orange: A safe word for an unsafe world

Last summer my foster daughter was invited to a party. The girl whose birthday it was, was also a refugee kid she went to school with. They played soccer together and hung out at school. She liked this girl and wanted to go to a birthday party. So I dropped her off at the girl's home in the middle of the afternoon, complete with her phone and a wrapped gift. I told her I would be back to pick her up about 9 pm. And then I drove away.

My husband was out of town that weekend, and the evening was already full of commitments. I had to drop my middle daughter at a friend's house on the other side of town for a sleepover and attend a play that my youngest daughter was featured in. The play didn't end until 8 pm, and then I knew it would be a little while before my youngest was ready to leave, because of costume changes and other backstage drama, so I didn't expect to get out of there before 8:30 and then I'd need to drive across town to pick up my oldest, which meant I wouldn't arrive until around 9 pm.

So when she texted me at 7:45 pm and asked if I'd come and get her because the party was over and she wanted to go home, I told her she would have to wait. I was sitting in the audience of her sister's play, and I couldn't leave until my youngest got done because she wouldn't have any other way to get home. I explained this via text and got 'No problem, see you later' as the response. At worst I figured she'd be bored while she waited.

Later that night she told me what had happened at the party. The girl who had invited her had promised that a lot of other girls would be there, but in the end, only about three girls came. And how many boys showed up? About 20. And then the mother left and went to the grocery store, leaving a house full of teens alone. Apparently they cranked the music and started dancing. Or, more accurately, grinding. My daughter said the boys were grabbing the girls from behind, grinding on them and touching them in very intimate ways. She wasn't comfortable with any of it, and refused to dance, which means she spent over an hour fending off boys who simply wouldn't take no for an answer.

She tried going outside to hang out in the yard and get away from the dancing, but a number of boys followed her out and kept trying to hug her and touch her out there. They took pictures of her and kept trying to touch her. She tried going upstairs to her friend's bedroom, hoping to lock herself in, but four or five boys followed her upstairs and she was terrified that she would be cornered up there with them, so she went back down and sat on the couch. At one point she walked away from the house down the road but didn't go far because she was afraid of getting lost, and several of the boys followed her anyway, calling her to come back and hang out with them. She said she was afraid the entire time and didn't know what to do. As you can imagine, I felt terrible!

I asked her why she hadn't told me sooner. Why didn't she call or text when the situation first started getting scary? Her answer: she felt bad about leaving her friend's party when she'd said she'd stay. And when she did finally tell her friend she felt uncomfortable with the way the boys were acting, her friend begged her to stay. "It won't be fun if you leave!" And so she did. Dear Lord.

We had a long conversation about the importance of reaching out for help and not just suffering in silence. I told her that if she was ever in a situation like that again she needed to call me immediately or text me and that no one else's feelings trumped her personal safety. And we agreed that we needed a code word so that I would know, without the need for an explanation, that she felt threatened and needed help. Send me that code word, I told her, and someone would come for her immediately. If not myself, then her dad, or one of my sisters, or a trusted friend. Someone would come, no matter what. She would NEVER be left alone if we knew she was in danger. But the only way we would know was if she told us.

I asked her what code word she wanted to use and she said, "Well, it wasn't 'code red' yet, but it was pretty scary. Like code orange." So that's the word we agreed on - 'orange'. And thankfully we haven't had to use it so far, but I remind her every time I drop her off at a party or a social get together - remember code orange. Don't stay silent, and never put someone else's feelings before your own safety. And last but not least, someone will always come for you. Always.

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