Written by: Morgan Lennon
Do you remember those “Stranger Danger” commercials in the 80s? As kids, we were taught to be weary of a creepy guy wearing a trench coat, offering us candy. Decades later, we know this isn’t true. With stories emerging in light of the #MeToo movement and the Larry Nassar scandal rocking USA Gymnastics, we’ve learned that 90% of child sexual abuse victims know their abuser (Darkness to Light). So when the “bad guy” doesn’t look like a bad guy, how do we know who the predator is?
In the coming months, I'll be sharing resources with you on how to educate and
empower our children. I'll also be creating recommendations, program outlines, and
educational tools to send to USA Gymnastics, in hopes that they will adopt some of these necessary changes in our sport.
Why is it important to talk about consent in gymnastics?
1. Power Dynamics:
The coach/gymnast relationship creates an inherent power dynamic that we must approach responsibly. An abuser can easily manipulate that dynamic so that a child feels like saying “no” is not an option. They push the boundaries of safe touch by claiming that it's "part of the training" or necessary to improve their gymnastics skills. It’s important to reinforce that no matter who the adult is, you always have the right to say no. As coaches, we need to communicate that if anything makes them feel uncomfortable, they have the right and power to stop it without fear of retribution.
2. Spotting Requires Physical Contact:
As gymnastics coaches, we have more physical contact with children than most adults. Gymnastics is a hands-on sport. We spot children by touching them in areas that aren’t typically touched in their day to day lives outside of the gym. So how do we safely spot while respecting our athlete's bodies? It's simple. Before spotting, demonstrate where they will be touched on your body and then ask their permission before you spot them.
3. Modeling Correct Behavior:
When children are around adults who model correct behavior, ask for consent, and respect their bodies, it creates a standard in their minds. When they interact with other adults, they will measure that interaction against their previous experiences. The goal is to create enough instances of correct and respectful interactions, so that they can recognize when someone is crossing their boundaries. This will empower them to speak up, say “no”, and then tell a trusted adult if someone is violating their boundaries.
How do you talk about consent at home?
While many people wait until adolescence to discuss consent, studies have shown that discussing it an early age is a powerful tool in preventing child sexual abuse. When speaking to young children about consent, we break it down to something they'll understand - permission. Who is allowed to touch your body and how they are allowed to touch it?
Talking about consent with young children can seem like a huge concept that will go right over their heads, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are some simple ways to talk about consent with your children:
1. For preschool aged children, let them know that it's ok if they don't want to receive physical affection, even it's from a family member. Let them know, "You are in charge of your body. You get to decide who can touch it and how they touch it." If they don't like hugs, let them that high-fives or fist bumps are a great alternative.
2. Let them know, "It's ok to say no". Teach them to say it loud and clear so that they can say it when someone isn't respecting their boundaries. Conversely, teach them that they need to respect others when someone tells them to stop doing something.
3. Start a new rule in your house - "Surprises are great. Secrets are not." This one is particularly useful for children who are a bit older. Oftentimes child abusers start by getting children to keep small secrets. If your child knows that you don't keep secrets in your household, they'll likely feel more comfortable telling you or another trusted adult about an uncomfortable interaction. Teach them the difference between a surprise (a gift, a special dinner) and a secret (someone is getting hurt, someone feels scared).
Here are some great children’s books that cover the topic of consent in an easy and fun to read way:
My Body Belongs to Me: From My Head to My Toes by Pro Familia
My Body: What I say Goes! by Jayneen Sanders
I Said No!: A Kid-To-Kid Guide to Keeping Private Parts Private by Zack and Kimberly King
Sex is a Funny Word: A Book About Bodies, Feelings, and You by Cory Silverberg